World in View: Amazon Summit–Much talk, little action

August 19, 2023

by Eugene Walker

The big question is will governments really put Indigenous people’s survival and well-being ahead of profit? That’s the big question. And so far, all the countries where there’s Amazon rainforests have shown that that’s not the case.
Sarah Shenker, campaigner with Survival International

2019 Day of the Amazon in Belem, Brazil. Photo: Amazônia Real, CC BY-NC 2.0

Early in August, eight South American countries—Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela—met in Belem, Brazil, for a two-day summit to combat deforestation in the Amazon basin. These countries are members of the revived Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization (ACTO). It was the first time in nearly 15 years that there had been such a meeting.

At the same time, thousands of Indigenous peoples from Amazonian countries, accompanied by environmental activists, traveled to Belem to hold their own conference and to march in a demonstration putting forward their demands. Earlier this summer Amazonian peoples had met and issued a letter for the August summit with their views. Among them:

“We consider that addressing the Amazon agenda without the effective participation of the Indigenous Peoples who inhabit it, demonstrates the ignorance about our lives and the roles we play in the positive maintenance and defense of forests. Once again we are faced with debates and the preparation of proposals regarding our territories without guaranteeing our participation. This reveals the recurring colonialist practice that seeks to silence our leading roles, while supplanting our voices and autonomy in decision-making spaces. . . . Discussing the future of the Amazon without indigenous peoples is a violation of our indigenous rights and all the work we do for human life on the planet.”

The challenge to keep the Amazon viable is enormous. Scientists warn that a “tipping point” in the destruction of the Amazon is fast approaching. Since 1985 some 20% of the Amazon rainforest has suffered “irreversible land use change” and another 6% has been “highly degraded.” This has been driven by a combination of cattle farming, illegal mining, oil drilling, building of hydroelectric plants and new infrastructure, and other activity.


Indigenous protests in Belem against violence, land-grabbing, and flawed energy transition faced violence, with several protesters injured in a shooting.

Unfortunately, the summit agreement arrived at—the Belem Declaration—while calling for a complete end of deforestation, did not set any specific deadline. That leaves it up to each individual country to pursue and be accountable for their own goals. Environmentalists called the agreement “weak” and criticized its lack of “concrete goals.” The failure of the eight Amazon countries to agree on a pact to protect their own forests points to the global failure of forging concrete agreements to combat climate change.

The reasons for that failure are the same reasons governments evade the rights and the centrality of Indigenous peoples in the Amazon. As environmental activist Senker noted: “The best way to protect the Amazon rainforest is to uphold the land rights of Indigenous peoples because Indigenous peoples are living in the most biodiverse places on Earth, and they are the best guardians of those forests. They’ve looked after those areas for generations better than anybody else possibly could.”

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