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Lula enlists neighbours in battle to save the Amazon

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Picture: Ueslei Marcelino/REUTERS/Taken on August 9, 2023 – Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva delivers a press statement after the Amazon Summit at the Hangar Convention Centre in Belem, Para State, Brazil.

By Andrew Rosati and Simone Iglesias

The leaders of South America’s Amazon nations gathered in Brazil this week as President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva pushes for a united strategy to save the world’s largest rainforest – and pressures the planet’s richest countries to help.

The Amazon Summit, a series of conferences and closed-door meetings, is taking place in Belem, the rainforest city that is slated to host the UN’s COP30 climate meetings in 2025. The presidents from Bolivia, Colombia and Peru, the prime minister of Guyana, and top officials from Ecuador, Suriname and Venezuela joined Lula for the first meeting of the eight-member Amazon Co-operation Treaty Organisation since 2009.

Leaders from other tropical forest countries, including Indonesia, Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo, also planned to take part in the two-day event. For Lula, the summit is part of a push to reclaim a leadership role for Brazil in global climate negotiations, a seat it largely abandoned under former president Jair Bolsonaro, who rolled back environmental protections and drew international scorn as rates of deforestation rose.

Brazil has “managed to turn the sad page of its history”, Lula declared on Tuesday morning, while also stressing that the need for regional and global co-operation on climate change has “never been so urgent”. His goal is to draft a joint agreement between the nations before November’s COP28 meetings in Dubai, where he plans to push wealthy countries to follow through on a stalled pledge to increase climate aid for the developing world. He has specifically demanded the $100 billion (R1.9 trillion) a year promised more than a decade ago that could be used to maintain forests and preserve biodiversity. “Rich countries that have already destroyed their forests need to take responsibility for financing our efforts to protect our peoples,” Lula said.

On the eve of the summit, a coalition of major financial institutions, including Brazil’s national development bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, pledged funding to support sustainable development in the Amazon. The exact amount hasn’t been defined, but initial estimates suggest it could be as high as $25bn, local newspapers reported.

Earlier this year, Lula secured promises from the US, UK and other nations for hundreds of millions of dollars in commitments to the Amazon Fund, a Brazil-led initiative that finances forest protection. Since taking office in January, the leftist leader has sought to reduce deforestation rates that, under Bolsonaro, led financial institutions to threaten to divest holdings in Brazil. European supermarkets also restricted purchases of Brazilian beef, one of the country’s most important exports.

Preliminary government data released last week showed that deforestation in the Amazon fell 66% in July from a year ago. But Lula is still trying to win over sceptics, including French legislators who want to add tougher environmental restrictions to a pending trade deal between the EU and Mercosur, a bloc of South American nations that includes Brazil.

The importance he is now placing on regional co-operation reflects Brazil’s belief that a united front can help attract additional funding and avoid future sanctions, said Matias Spektor, an international relations professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo. “Coalition politics are back,” he said. “The rationale in Brasília is that Brazil should not act alone.” Consensus may be difficult to achieve in a commodity-dependent region where about a third of the population lives in poverty and economic development remains the primary concern.

In his opening remarks, Colombia President Gustavo Petro highlighted “disagreements” between countries’ policies, while reiterating his call for bans on new oil exploration. Lula’s government has taken a more measured approach, seeking to balance future development with its environmental aims. It is mired in a dispute over state-controlled oil company Petrobras’s drilling plans near the mouth of the Amazon River.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, meanwhile, oversees an oil-dependent economy and has shown little interest in curbing deforestation in the Amazon. He has also faced condemnation from the United Nations (UN) over human rights abuses related to the participation of state forces in gold mining.

Outside the event, dozens of indigenous activists protested against resource extraction in the region. Inside, Peru President Dina Boluarte urged her counterparts to remember the “human face” of the Amazon and called on the international community to make the well-being of the forest’s estimated 30 million inhabitants, especially its indigenous populations, its priority.

Domestic concerns pose another challenge. Ecuador is focused on looming special elections to replace President Guillermo Lasso, who is not attending the gathering. Boluarte is in Belem but is facing record-low approval ratings at home. And the recent arrest of Petro’s son has exacerbated the political woes of Lula’s closest environmental ally in the region. The combination has made it unlikely that this week’s summit will result in major binding commitments.

An attempt to coalesce the region behind Brazil’s pledge to end illegal deforestation by 2030, which Peruvian Environment Minister Albina Ruiz indicated was a done-deal last month, appears to be a long shot. Brazil is nevertheless confident the event will serve as a launchpad for future agreements, with a joint declaration expected to be inked by the end of Tuesday. “I believe we start the conversation about defining goals at the summit,” Andre Lima, the secretary of deforestation control at Brazil’s Environmental Ministry, said in an interview. “A perspective can emerge for the adoption of common goals.”

One area of potential progress is a strategy to combat increasing violence and criminal activity in the Amazon. A UN report released in June indicated that significant parts of the forest are “wracked by a complex ecosystem of drug crime”, with proceeds from sophisticated trafficking operations funnelling into illegal logging, ranching and gold mining. Lula has unveiled series of new environmental safeguards and deployed the military to target networks of wildcat miners on indigenous lands. Populations that face similar challenges throughout the region could benefit from a co-ordinated approach, said Beto Verissimo, the co-founder of Imazon, an environmental think tank in Belem.

Even if concrete commitments don’t materialise, Lula is likely to continue his efforts to convince Brazil’s neighbours that they are stronger as a bloc, especially amid debates over how much donor countries and major development banks should help fund green transitions in low- and middle-income nations. The urgency of climate change means that “all the rules are being contested”, said Ilona Szabo, the president of the Igarape Institute, a think tank in Rio de Janeiro. “Brazil is keen to negotiate the importance of the region.”

This article was first published on Bloomberg