Environmental policies in Latin America under scrutiny

Published : 22 Aug 2023 09:13 PM

Latin American Amazon nations sharing the Amazon paradigm recently met in the Brazilian city of Belem to review existing environmental policies and also identify common factors that need to be addressed carefully pertaining to deforestation. The participants sought to agree on a list of unified environmental policies and measures that would bolster regional cooperation and stop the destruction of the rainforest.

It may be noted that Members of ACTO convened only for the fourth time in the group’s existence – the first meeting of the 45-year-old organization in 14 years- but failed to demonstrate full alignment on key issues. This eight-nation Group was set up in 1995 by the South American countries that share the Amazon basin. The summit is also being seen as a dress rehearsal for the 2025 United Nations climate talks, which Belem will host.

The two-day summit opened on the same day the European Union’s climate observatory confirmed that July was the hottest month ever recorded on Earth. Brazilian President Lula emphasized the “severe worsening of the climate crisis” in his opening speech. “The challenges of our era and the opportunities arising from them demand we act in unison,” he said. “It has never been so urgent,” he added. “The planet is melting; we are breaking temperature records every day. It is not possible that, in a scenario like this, eight Amazonian countries are unable to put in a statement – in large letters – that deforestation needs to be zero,” said Marcio Astrini of the environmental lobby group.

Home to an estimated 10 percent of Earth’s biodiversity, 50 million people and tens of billions of trees, the vast Amazon is a vital carbon sink, reducing global warming. Scientists warn the destruction of the rainforest is pushing it dangerously close to a “tipping point” beyond which trees would die off and release carbon rather than absorb it, with catastrophic consequences for the climate. Seeking to pressure the gathered heads of state, hundreds of environmentalists, activists and Indigenous demonstrators marched to the conference venue, urging bold action.

The summit of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization (ACTO) consisting of Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela has adopted what host country Brazil has called a “new and ambitious shared agenda” to save the rainforest, a crucial buffer against climate change that experts are warning is being pushed to the brink of collapse. Some scientists have already pointed out that when 20 to 25 percent of the forest is destroyed, rainfall will dramatically decline, transforming more than half of the rainforest to tropical savannah, with immense biodiversity loss. The Amazon – a massive rainforest twice the size of India that sprawls across eight countries and one territory – is an important carbon sink, absorbing carbon dioxide emissions. Atmospheric chemist Luciana Gatti, a researcher for Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research, has pointed out that deforestation is driving the climate crisis because of more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and this is generally reducing rainfall and creating higher temperatures. “By deforesting the Amazon, we are accelerating climate change,” Gatti told the media. She has also co-authored a study published in the journal Nature that has found that the heavily deforested eastern Amazon has ceased to function as a carbon absorber and is now a carbon source. In this regard she has underlined that deforestation of the eastern Amazon needs to be reversed to maintain the rainforest as a buffer against climate change. The Belem Declaration that was eventually adopted has created an alliance for combatting forest destruction, with countries left to pursue their individual deforestation goals. The nearly 10,000-word road map has asserted not only indigenous rights and protections but also agreed to cooperate on water management, health, common negotiating positions at climate summits, and sustainable development. This Declaration has also additionally established a science body to meet annually and produce authoritative reports on science pertaining to the Amazon region similar to what is done by the United Nations’ International Panel on Climate Change. 

However, the summit stopped short of environmentalists’ and Indigenous groups’ boldest demands, including for all member countries to adopt Brazil’s pledge to end illegal deforestation by 2030 and Colombia’s pledge to halt new oil exploration. It also did not fix a deadline on ending illegal gold mining, although leaders agreed to cooperate on the issue.

Unfortunately, fellow Amazon countries appear to have refused to agree with Colombia’s left-wing President Petro ‘s continuing campaign to end new oil development in the Amazon. In this context Petro observed that- “A jungle that extracts oil – is it possible to maintain a political line at that level? Bet on death and destroying life?” Petro also said that the idea of making a gradual “energy transition” away from fossil fuels was a way to delay the work needed to stop climate change and likened the left’s desire to keep drilling for oil to the right-wing denial of climate science. He also spoke about finding ways to reforest pastures and plantations, which cover much of Brazil’s heartland for cattle ranching and growing soy.

Brazil’s President Lula, who presented himself as an environmental leader on the international stage, however refrained from taking a definitive stance on oil, citing the decision as a technical matter. Such a stance possibly resulted in Brazil weighing whether to develop a potentially huge offshore oil find near the mouth of the Amazon River and the country’s northern coast, which is dominated by rainforest.

Critics have pointed out that the failure of the eight Amazon countries to agree on a more comprehensive pact to protect their own forests points to the larger, global difficulties of forging an agreement to combat climate change. Many scientists have also observed that policymakers are acting too slowly to head off catastrophic global warming. It has also been suggested that cross-border cooperation has historically been scant within this region because it has suffered from the osmotic after-effects of low trust, ideological differences and the lack of government presence.

Nevertheless, it would be important to note that all the countries at the summit have ratified the Paris Climate Accord, which requires signatories to set targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

This has persuaded President Lula to express the hope that the Belem Declaration will be a shared call to arms at the COP 28 Climate Conference in November. “The Amazon is our passport to a new relationship with the world, a more symmetric relationship, in which our resources are not exploited to benefit few, but rather valued and put in the service of everyone,” Lula said. Many agreed with him that sharing a united voice could help Amazon countries assert their position on the global stage ahead of the COP conference.

Some interesting financial dimensions have also emerged during this meeting. The leaders have called wealthy nations to support them through necessary funding to protect the Amazon, given that the forest is a vital carbon sink, home to an estimated 10 percent of Earth’s biodiversity.

Colombian President Gustavo Petro urged the need for a radical rethink of the global economy, calling for a “Marshall Plan”-style strategy in which developing countries’ debt is cancelled in exchange for action to protect the climate. “If we’re on the verge of extinction and this is the decade when the big decisions have to be made… then what are we doing, besides giving speeches?” he said. Petro contended that affluent nations should swap foreign debt owed by Amazon countries for climate action, saying that this might create enough investment to power the Amazon region’s economy.

Bolivian President Luis Arce said the Amazon has been the victim of capitalism, reflected by the runaway expansion of agricultural borders and natural resource exploitation. He also noted that industrialized nations are responsible for most historic greenhouse gas emissions. In this context Arce reiterated that- “the fact that the Amazon is such an important territory doesn’t imply that all of the responsibilities, consequences and effects of the climate crisis should fall to us, to our towns and to our economies.”

Leaders from South American nations also challenged developed countries to do more to stop the enormous destruction of the world’s largest rainforest, a task they said cannot fall to just a few countries when the crisis has been caused by so many. What has emerged from the meeting is important not only for those living in the Amazon region. It has highlighted the fact that the rest of the world needs to carefully monitor what is taking place there. That should help the rest of the world- particularly parts of Africa and Asia to take required preemptive steps. It is also underlining the fact that the developed countries need to assist the containment process through adequate funding. 

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance