Countries must unite around a new economy to save the Amazon

Brazil's indigenous chief Raoni Metuktire speaks with Governor of Brazil's Para state Helder Barbalho during a Dialogos da Amazonia (Amazon Dialogues) event before a summit of Amazon rainforest nations at the Igarape Park, in Belem, Para state, Brazil August 4, 2023

Brazil's indigenous chief Raoni Metuktire speaks with Governor of Brazil's Para state Helder Barbalho during a Dialogos da Amazonia (Amazon Dialogues) event before a summit of Amazon rainforest nations at the Igarape Park, in Belem, Para state, Brazil August 4, 2023. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

Leaders at the Amazon summit in Brazil must agree on new model to protect the rainforest - for environmental and economic reasons

Ani Dasgupta is the president and CEO of World Resources Institute, and M. Sanjayan is CEO of Conservation International.

It’s no secret that the Amazon rainforest is hurtling toward an alarming tipping point. Already, nearly 20 percent of the forest has been destroyed. Without changing course, the world’s biggest tropical forest could turn into a savanna.

But it’s more than just trees at stake. Amazonian people’s livelihoods will suffer. Indigenous cultures will be lost. Farmers across the continent who depend on rain from the forest, from Colombia to Argentina, will struggle to grow crops. The region’s economic growth will stagnate. And the world will face the climate consequences.

Just as it’s the Amazon's local people who will suffer most, it’s those same people who offer our best hope for saving the forest. But they need support. The eight countries of the Amazon Basin — Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela — urgently need to build a new economy that serves people’s needs and creates jobs that incentivize them to protect the forest.

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These two goals have long been pitted against each other: It was either the forest or the economy. But that has always been a false dichotomy, and now new evidence shows a better pathway is possible. New research finds that by keeping the rainforest standing, Brazil can create 312,000 additional jobs and grow its annual GDP by $8.3 billion compared to business-as-usual. This model can apply to all the Amazonian countries.

Meanwhile new presidents in Brazil and Colombia have stepped up with serious plans to curb deforestation. In Brazil, deforestation fell by 34% in President Lula’s first six months in office, after he ramped up enforcement against illegal mining and appointed environmental champions to key posts. With the right policies and political will, deforestation can be reversed.

The moment is now ripe for change. Tomorrow, leaders will gather at a major summit in Brazil. They must emerge with a new regional pact for the Amazon, agreeing to move away from the old destructive model toward one that understands the Amazon rainforest is not just an environmental concern, but an economic necessity.

No one country can do it alone. Collaboration across all eight countries that make up the massive Amazon rainforest will be crucial to building a new economy that can save it.

The core of this new, sustainable “bioeconomy” lies in the wealth of products the Amazon naturally contains, which can be sustainably produced without tearing down trees — unlike beef and soy. These range from acai fruit, nuts and honey to rubber, medicines, cosmetics and many more. Indigenous communities have been living off this model for millennia, and the global market has just scratched the surface of the 270 items they use for daily cooking and medicine.

Take the group of 200 smallholder farmers in Guaviare, Colombia, who created an association to stop illegal agriculture activities and support more sustainable livelihoods. Now, with their joined-up power, the farmers are producing honey and fruits like acai, growing their income without destroying the forest.

But most people in the Amazon countries are not seeing the money from these sustainable products. They’re receiving just 0.17% of the $177 billion global market for them. The real value of the Amazon’s forest and rivers — from the irrigation, pollination and carbon storage they provide the world — is exponentially larger. For people to protect the Amazon, the economic incentives need to change —for instance, carbon credits, done right, can also provide communities vital income.

The critical first step is for countries to unite in ending illegal deforestation, land grabbing and the associated violence, while enforcing existing laws — and the Amazon countries’ expected pledge to end illegal deforestation at next month’s summit is welcome news. This is an essential precondition for this new economy to flourish, since profits from illegal activities unfairly compete with sustainable products. And no businesses or other governments will want to invest in a region rife with illegal activity.

These efforts must include securing the land rights of Indigenous people — who manage some of the Amazon’s most biodiverse areas and last carbon sinks, which we can’t afford to lose — and protecting their territories against threats and illegal activities.

Next, the Amazonian countries must show they are willing to put their own resources toward this transition. This can be done by shifting subsidies away from fossil fuels and harmful agricultural activities and toward the bioeconomy and low-carbon farming practices.

It’s been done before: countries like Costa Rica have stopped illegal deforestation, in part by paying farmers to protect the forest. A farmer who may have clear-cut forests for cattle ranching before was now being paid to reforest the land, helping them earn a sustainable income.

Momentum is gaining for this more sustainable path, with a widespread movement uniting behind it. Last month, hundreds of people from Amazonian communities, Indigenous Peoples, scientists, civil society groups, businesses and governments met in Belem, Brazil to develop a set of recommendations for the Amazonian governments for the upcoming summit.

The international community and philanthropies are also poised to support. Germany, Britain, France and the U.S. recently pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to protect the Amazon, joining Norway, a longstanding supporter. And Brazil is taking over next year’s G20 Presidency and will host the major UN climate summit in 2025 in the Amazon — a sign that governments increasingly view protecting the rainforest as a global priority. Now, the private sector should step up investment in the bioeconomy too.

We can’t be naïve about the challenge ahead. Large agriculture, livestock and mining businesses—often the largest drivers of deforestation—hold immense political sway; they must also be part of the solution. And in multiple Amazonian countries, some legislators are wary or outright opposed to a more sustainable agenda. A unified plan for all the Amazonian countries can help overcome these barriers.

Saving the Amazon is not just about the trees. It will only be possible if the 47 million people who call the rainforest home are better off. They need Amazonian governments to play their part. Their future, and the world’s, depends on it.

Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


  • Adaptation
  • Loss and damage
  • Forests
  • Indigenous communities

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