Eight countries of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization (ACTO) will meet on Tuesday and Wednesday in Belem, Brazil, to seek cross-border cooperation to combat deforestation, protect Indigenous peoples and encourage sustainable development in the face of the climate crisis. Senior officials from the United States and France will also attend.
One focus of the summit will be “narco-deforestation,” as it was referred to in a United Nations report last month. With booming profits, many of the drug gangs in the Amazon are now laundering the money through illegal land speculation, logging, mining, and other means, according to the UN’s annual World Drug Report.
Boosted by bumper Andean coca harvests and record-breaking cocaine demand in Europe, the Amazon has in recent years become a drug-trafficking thoroughfare. Illicit cargo easily pass through the vast and sparsely populated region on boats, planes, or even submarines on their way to the Atlantic Ocean.
Charles Nascimento, a Brazilian Federal Police officer and veteran of the Amazon drugs beat, said criminal groups often use existing drug routes to get illegally harvested gold and wood to market.
“Many people who work in wildcat mines also work as traffickers and vice versa,” he said. “It’s like they feed off of each other.”
This increasing criminal cross-pollination has prompted police to expand a recurring Amazon anti-narcotics operation between Peru and Brazil, scheduled for later this year, to also target environmental crimes, Nascimento said.
Past international meetings and agreements have largely failed to generate much cooperation between wary national police forces in the Amazon, said Robert Muggah, lead author of the U.N. report’s chapter on organized crime in the Amazon.
“Crime is among the top, if not the top issue confronting the protection of a standing forest in the Amazon,” he said. “It should be concerning to our decision-makers.”
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said on Wednesday that ACTO leaders would seek to draw up a common policy for the first time to protect the rainforest, which would include a multilateral scientific body like the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
“The idea is to have a scientific panel for the Amazon with scientists from different countries, along the lines of the IPCC,” Brazil’s Environment Minister Marina Silva said in an interview on Thursday.
The panel would help produce sustainable development policies for the countries of the region while remaining independent of governments, and monitor the impact of climate change on the Amazon rainforest and ecosystem, she said.
It would also seek to determine the limits of what scientists call the “point of no return” when the rainforest is damaged beyond repair.
Silva said the meeting in Belem, at the mouth of the Amazon River, was long overdue.
“The summit took 14 years to assemble. This is unacceptable, given everything that is happening in the world, the speed of changes occurring to the detriment of the Amazon and its inhabitants, and the dynamics of global geopolitics on the climate issue,” she said.
Lula has overhauled Brazil’s environmental policies since taking office in January, succeeding far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who relaxed protection of the environment and encouraged the development of the Amazon, where deforestation soared.
Preliminary government figures showed on Thursday that deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon fell in July to its lowest level since 2017, boosting Lula’s credibility on environmental policy ahead of the summit.
However, Indigenous Chief Raoni Metuktire says that it is not enough. Despite the improvements, the danger for Indigenous people is now the Brazilian Congress, where the farm lobby is pushing legislation to end further recognition of their ancestral lands.
“I will ask the presidents to commit to guaranteeing the preservation of the forest,” the Kayapo leader told Reuters. “There are many Indigenous communities that do not have demarcation [and] what I hear most are threats, speeches, and statements against demarcation in Congress.”
Raoni, who became globally known for his environmental campaigning in the 1980s with musician Sting at his side, said his people are feeling the impact of climate change.
“Many rivers are drying up. We are feeling very hot and the temperature in the villages is very high, and there is little rain,” he said.
The Kayapo people live along the Xingu River where savannah plains meet the Amazon rainforest. Their reservation, the Xingu National Park, has become encircled by expanding soy plantations and cattle ranches that dry up rivers that are being polluted by illegal gold miners.
“The deforestation of the Amazon’s forests is not good for us Indigenous peoples, and white man needs to rethink and preserve what remains of the Amazon,” he said.