Protecting the Amazon: The Need for Real Regional Cooperation

By Isabel Morales

During the last fifty years, the Amazon, which is the world’s largest rainforest, has lost around 20% of its forest cover (WWF, n.d.). Deforestation and degradation have been rampant in the last few years happening in each of the eight countries that share the rainforest: Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname, and Venezuela. Because the Amazon is not just part of one country, regional cooperation is essential to act upon the many threats it is continuously enduring. Regional treaties and summits have taken place over the years to achieve sustainable development in the region, but considering the Amazon’s current state, it seems as if Amazonian countries are mostly envisioning instead of enacting.

The most common threats leading to deforestation and forest degradation in the Amazon region are agriculture, unsustainable forest management, illegal mining, infrastructure projects and increased fire incidence (WWF, n.d.). All these activities get in the way of forests supplying and distributing rain in South America, which is essential for the formation of Amazon rivers that carry water throughout the region (Costa, 2020). This not only results in serious consequences for the 30 million people who live in the Amazon, but for food production and water availability for the 300 million people living in cities across the eight countries sharing the Amazon (Carvalho et al., 2020). More than 90% of all deforestation is illicit, but the efforts made by regional cooperation in terms of eradicating these activities are minimal (Carvalho et al., 2020).

The Amazon Cooperation Treaty (ACT), signed in 1978, was ratified by the eight Amazonian countries. Its main objective is to promote sustainable development in the forest and incorporate the use of territories into each country's national economy while maintaining the balance between economic growth and the preservation of the environment (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Colombia, 2020). However, the rise of nationalism and populism in certain Amazonian countries has undermined the potential of initiatives like the ACT (Carvalho et al., 2020). Current tensions with leaders like Nicolas Maduro and statements made by President Jair Bolsonaro expressing that the Amazon belongs to Brazil and that it is not the international community’s business, makes it difficult to carry out real cooperation (Phillips, 2019).

Forest fires in Bolivia last year destroyed almost two million hectares of forest. To put it into perspective, one hectare is approximately the size of a soccer field (Costa, 2020). At the time, the government of Evo Morales signed a decree authorizing logging and burning for agricultural activities in the Amazon. The expansion of the agricultural frontier is mainly to encourage soya planting and cattle raising to export to the Chinese market (Costa, 2020).

Brazil’s amazon also experienced devastating forest fires in 2019, caused by human activities. Beef exports in Brazil make up 7% of the country’s GDP and 4.6% of its exports, making it the largest beef exporter in the world. According to The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 80% of tree loss in Brazil is directly or indirectly related to cattle farming. There is land that is specifically declared as an area to raise cattle, and land that is considered a public area with no legal purpose defined by the government. These public lands are illegally cleared of trees by individuals and are used to raise cattle, which they then sell for a higher price. This problem of land speculation also happens in Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador (Costa, 2020).

Between 2005 and 2012, Brazil reduced deforestation by roughly 80 percent. This happened because there was public investment in law enforcement, protected areas that acknowledged the rights of indigenous people, and limitations on soya production (Barreto & Muggah, 2019). During those years, Brazil showed that deforestation can be rapidly reduced through a combination of public and private policies. Since President Bolsonaro’s election, these actions to reduce deforestation have been ignored. His government continues to weaken the agencies that enforce environmental regulations, in addition to reducing efforts to fight against illegal logging, mining and ranching (Londoño & Casado, 2019).

Similar to how Brazil is the largest beef exporter, Peru is the biggest gold exporter in Latin America. However, 25% of its annual gold production comes from illegal mining. According to Costa (2020), “the miners strip the vegetation from the Amazon soil to look for gold. “They use mercury to separate precious metals from others, which poisons the water and animals in the process”. Mining is also responsible for 73% of the deforestation in Suriname and 85% of the forest loss in Guyana (Costa, 2020).

There is no doubt that Amazonian countries depend on exporting natural resources to meet high international demand, and that many of those resources are found in the rainforest (Sevares, 2007). Hence, there is always a challenge relating to the trade-off between economic growth and sustainable environmental conservation. But the problem also lies in that the exploitation of these resources is carried out illicitly and uncontrollably without the necessary action to slow it down (WWF, 2016).

When wildfires swept with the rainforest in 2019, seven-member countries of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization (OTCA) signed the Leticia Pact. Presidents and other high-ranking officials gathered for the Amazon Rainforest Summit in the southern Colombian city of Leticia, intending to protect the rainforest by expanding regional cooperation. While the pact is a good attempt at building stronger cooperation, critics have mentioned that it lacks scientific detail and enforcement methods (Espinosa, 2019).

First of all, the pact states that the Amazonian countries intend to "strengthen coordinated action for forest and biodiversity assessment, as well as to fight against deforestation and forest degradation”, yet, in the pact, there is no mention of the degradation activities taking place and how they plan to approach it (Ramirez, 2019). Second, the leaders promised to fight illegal mining of natural resources, but the Venezuelan president, Nicolas Maduro, was not invited to the summit because most of the summit’s participants do not recognize him as Venezuela’s legitimate ruler. This is an issue because around 85% of illegal mining happens in Venezuela, so they would not be tackling the problem in its entirety. Finally, forest fires in Brazil was one of the main reasons for summoning the meeting, yet, President Jair Bolsonaro did not attend the meeting in person (Ramirez, 2019). Bolsonaro’s government continues to reject concerns that forest fires are out of control. Though his administration has taken steps such as banning the use of fire and having armed forces in the region, deforestation is still increasing, which shows that these measures are not sufficient (Pedroso & Reverdosa, 2020).

Recently, in the II Presidential Summit for the Amazon, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) offered the creation of an investment fund to finance some goals stated in the Leticia Pact. The former president of the IDB, Luis Alberto Moreno, stated that the fund is specifically intended for the bioeconomy of the region and that they are looking to work with other organizations. The expectation is that the financing of projects will help protect the biosphere, the bioeconomy, Indigenous communities, and help reduce deforestation (Rivadeneira, 2020).

Regional cooperation in protecting the Amazon is critical for the millions of species and individuals living in the region, and for reducing the environmental effects such as CO₂ emissions that bring severe repercussions for the world. International concerns and organizations such as the UN have put pressure on regional treaties to be enforced, but the success of these depend on the commitment of all regional leaders (Stuenkel, 2020). Without strong government policies and cooperative actions, the Amazon could experience an irreversible environmental crisis. Thus, the efficiency and results of regional efforts to protect the Amazon, will hopefully be seen in years to come.

Isabel Morales is an international student from Colombia at the University of Pittsburgh. She is currently a sophomore majoring in Economics with a minor in French and a Certificate in Latin American Studies. Through her experiences living in Colombia, the United States and Israel, along with the opportunities offered by the university, she has become greatly interested in Latin American affairs and its role in the study of development economics.


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