Two years on, forest pact's 'good intentions' do little to protect Amazon

A man stands on a fallen tree in the middle of a deforested plot

A Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) fire brigade member stands in a deforested plot of Brazilian Amazon rainforest, in Apui, Amazonas state, Brazil, September 4, 2021. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

What’s the context?

The Leticia Pact, signed by South American leaders in 2019, has so far failed to live up to its aims to curb Amazon deforestation, critics say.

By Anastasia Moloney and Fabio Teixeira

BOGOTA/RIO DE JANEIRO - When the presidents of South America's Amazonian nations met in Colombia's jungle town of Leticia two years ago, to discuss how to better protect the world's largest rainforest, they signed a landmark deal that raised hopes deforestation would decline.

The Leticia Pact aimed to drive sustainable forest use and reforestation, restore degraded land, improve information sharing and the use of satellite data to monitor deforestation and wildfires, and empower women and indigenous groups.

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But since seven heads of state inked the plan, as indigenous leaders looked on, its pledges have remained largely unfulfilled, with scant evidence of up-and-running forest protection and restoration efforts as a direct result of the pact, critics said.

As deforestation continues to surge in the Amazon, the plan has also failed to attract significant new funding, they said.

Julia Jacobin, a researcher at Institutor Sociambiental, a Brazilian non-profit working in the Amazon region, said what has happened since the deal was signed amounts to "nothing", with non-profits and other organizations still the key drivers of forest protection and coordination efforts in the region.

Sandra Vilardy, an assistant professor at Colombia's Los Andes University and head of an observatory on national parks, said agreement backers had "good intentions and Colombia has shown leadership".

"But the pact doesn't attack the root problems of deforestation", she said, with illegal mining, expansion of cattle ranching and farms, and drug trafficking still widespread.

Political differences among governments, changes in national leaders, conflicting economic motivations and COVID-19-related distractions all have contributed to the pact's failure to advance significantly, analysts said.

But the lack of action may have significant consequences both for last-ditch efforts to protect fast-vanishing nature and to stem runaway climate change, which is powering increasingly damaging wildfires, floods, droughts and storms globally.

'Advance decisively'

Three months after the Leticia Pact was agreed by seven countries that are home to the Amazon basin - Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Guyana and Suriname - leaders created an "action plan" to implement its 52 points.

Then, nearly a year after the deal was signed, environment and foreign ministry officials of the Amazonian nations again met online.

They signed another declaration to "advance decisively" and "reaffirm" their previous commitments to Amazon protection, describing the pact as a "milestone in regional cooperation."

Under the pact, a protocol on forest fires management in the Amazon, to improve disaster response coordination and satellite monitoring, was launched in May 2021, largely in response to wildfires across Brazil and Bolivia in 2019.

But there are few other signs of tangible progress despite the fanfare and renewed commitments, environmentalists said.

The original five-page pact has aims that cannot be clearly measured, they said, and lacks a clear timeline as well as details on how funding would be secured and how countries would work together.

The Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization (ACTO) - an intergovernmental body of eight Amazon nations created in 1995 - is listed in the pact as a group designated to help coordinate work.

ACTO did not reply to requests for information about progress made on implementing the pact and the funding allocated.

Brazil's environment ministry also did not reply to a request for comment.

Colombia's environment ministry said there were no spokespeople available to comment on progress made in implementing the pact.

Officials sit at a table to sign a pact for the Amazon

Bolivia’s President Evo Morales, Peru’s President Martin Vizcarra, Colombia’s President Ivan Duque, Ecuador’s President Lenin Moreno and Suriname's Vice President Michael Ashwin Adhin sign a pact for the Amazon during the Presidential Summit for the Amazon, in Leticia, Colombia September 6, 2019. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez

Bolivia’s President Evo Morales, Peru’s President Martin Vizcarra, Colombia’s President Ivan Duque, Ecuador’s President Lenin Moreno and Suriname's Vice President Michael Ashwin Adhin sign a pact for the Amazon during the Presidential Summit for the Amazon, in Leticia, Colombia September 6, 2019. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez

Carbon storage

The Amazon rainforest plays a vital role in regulating the Earth's climate by absorbing and storing planet-heating carbon dioxide released as people and industries burn fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas.

Combatting rising deforestation in the Amazon is crucial to protecting natural life support systems on the planet, scientists say.

The rainforest, home to more than 30 million people, including about 1.5 million indigenous peoples, provides about 40% of Latin America's fresh water, for instance.

But according to the non-profit Amazon Conservation organization, in most of the Amazon Basin's nine countries, including Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil - home to the biggest share of rainforest - deforestation is rising.

The losses are driven largely by tree clearing for expanding cattle ranching and soy farming in Brazil and Bolivia, to feed rising global demand for beef and soybean products.

Deforestation also is fueled by illegal logging, gold mining and, in Colombia and Peru, the clearing of trees to plant illegal coca crops.

Efforts to stem losses have struggled, with forest continuing to disappear even in protected areas of Colombia, which spearheaded the pact.

"In Colombia's national parks, where there's Amazon rainforest, there's a rise in deforestation in some areas. The figures don't lie," said Vilardy, of Los Andes University.

"There's a gap between political intentions and what's really happening on the ground," she said, urging nations with Amazon forest to work together to improve intelligence systems to combat illegal logging.

Maria Espinosa, a lawyer for campaign group Amazon Frontlines, said the Leticia Pact had not produced any "significant achievements", with rising deforestation and wildfires still evident in the region.

"The pact is a type of declaration of intentions," she said.

"But in effect it neither creates the conditions nor the concrete actions (to curb forest loss) and doesn't take into account or consider the approach or way indigenous people think or govern."

Jacomini, of Brazil's Instituto Sociambiental, said ideological differences among Amazon nations - particularly since the election of right-wing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro - also had made cooperation difficult.

A herd of cows is silhouetted against an orange sky

Cows graze in a deforested pasture in Brazil's Amazon rainforest next to the Transamazonica national highway, in Labrea, Amazonas state, Brazil, September 1, 2021. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

Cows graze in a deforested pasture in Brazil's Amazon rainforest next to the Transamazonica national highway, in Labrea, Amazonas state, Brazil, September 1, 2021. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

Limited funds

When it was signed, the Leticia Pact noted that financial resources must be "increased" to ensure its implementation but did not provide an overall estimate of needs.

So far, international funding has been limited.

In March, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) launched the Amazon Sustainable Development and Bioeconomy Fund, backed by $20 million in "seed capital", to help countries promote sustainable development, agriculture and tourism in the Amazon.

IDB President Mauricio Claver-Carone predicted the fund could receive up to $1 billion in donations, including from the private sector.

He told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the bank is "setting up an implementation unit to achieve the pact's objectives," and expects to provide more details at the upcoming COP26 U.N. climate negotiations in Scotland in November.

"The Amazon's future is incredibly important both to the region's many diverse local communities and to the global population, so delivering rapid results has been a top priority for my new administration," said Claver-Carone, who became IDB head nearly a year ago.

For its part, the multi-billion-dollar international Green Climate Fund (GCF), established to help developing nations tackle global warming, has described the pact as "groundbreaking".

So far, however, the GCF has not approved any projects or disbursed funds directly related to the agreement since it was signed.

The GCF said it was involved in the IDB's bioeconomy fund, and was also considering a $133 million proposal aimed at protecting about 35 million hectares of rainforest in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru over six years.

But "we don't have any approved projects at present which include the regional coordination that is a hallmark of the pact," said Simon Wilson, GCF's head of communications.

Rachel Biderman, senior vice president for the Americas at Conservation International, a global nature protection organization, said she believed the pact had drawn, "much-needed political attention to the issues of Amazonia and deforestation."

The agreement "has generated more donor interest and funding in support of work in the Amazon," she said.

Last July, Conservation International received nearly $19 million from the French government to conserve 73 million hectares of forest by 2025, with the money going to indigenous people and other communities across seven Amazon countries, she added.

'Incompatible' interests

Colombian President Ivan Duque, who spearheaded the pact, has taken pains to emphasize his government's focus on environmental and forest protection - even as Colombia remains the world's fifth-largest coal exporter and signs new oil and gas contracts to boost its energy and foreign currency reserves.

Other Amazon-region nations, including Ecuador and Peru, also rely heavily on oil and mining to prop up their economies.

That means there is an inherent tension between economic priorities and preserving the Amazon, analysts say.

"All the countries in the region are betting, in a very significant way, on oil and mining exploration in the Amazon," said Espinosa.

But "extractive activities are completely incompatible with actions aimed at preventing climate change."

In Brazil, Bolsonaro's environmental policy has led to the expansion of soy cultivation and cattle-ranching, pushing the agricultural frontier deeper into the rainforest, environmentalists say.

Indigenous leader Francisco Hernandez, who lives in Peru's Amazon region, said he first heard about the Leticia Pact on social media but has seen no evidence of progress.

He said it was "worrying" that he and other leaders have not been informed or involved in the pact's meetings and planning.

"We have seen nothing. We are the ones living here and know best the needs and problems facing our territories," he said.

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