Earlier this month, the presidents of Peru, Bolivia, Colombia and Ecuador, along with representatives from Brazil and Guyana (but not Venezuela) met in Leticia to discuss ways of reining in deforestation in the Amazon. Whether their words translate into action remains to be seen.

The world has watched in horror in recent weeks as fires raged through the Brazilian Amazon and parts of Bolivia. Indignation had only been enhanced by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s ‘inflammatory’ rhetoric in favour of agricultural and livestock expansion at the expense of the forest and its indigenous inhabitants.

This situation provoked an acrid exchange between the presidents of France and Brazil during the G7 meeting in Biarritz and prompted the presidents of Colombia and Peru who, during a bilateral meeting in Pucallpa on August 27, called for a meeting of the Amazonian countries to address the issues raised by the international controversy.

The Amazon basin has a population of 34 million people, contains more than half the planet’s tropical rainforests and accounts for over 20% of the earth’s fresh water. In addition to its global role in mitigating or accelerating climate change, the rain-bearing winds from the Amazon represent Peru’s main source of water.

During the 1970s, when Bolsonaro was a captain in the Brazilian army, the country’s military governments promoted the ‘conquest’ of the Amazon and its colonisation in order to achieve economic development and defend the country’s sovereignty against those concerned about the rapid rate of deforestation. During subsequent civilian governments deforestation continued but at reduced rates, and in some years the rate of deforestation actually declined.

August is traditionally the month when farmers and settlers in the Amazon take advantage of the dry conditions to clear the forest by fire prior to the planting season. However, according to Brazil’s National Space Research Institute (INPE), this year between August 1 and 27 there were 42,719 forest fires, which represented an increase of 128 percent over the same period the previous year. Meanwhile in Bolivia fire consumed an estimated 2.1 million hectares of forest. In response to the emergency, Bolsonaro fired the head of INPE. Smoke from the fires turned day into night in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city.

Although international attention was not focused on Peru, the annual fire season in the Amazon, especially in the Madre de Dios region, has continued as usual. According to Global Forest Watch, Peru loses between 150,000 and 200,000 hectares of forest annually. Between 2001 and 2018, Peru lost 2.88 million hectares of forest (a loss of 3.7%), equivalent to 1.37 giga tons of CO2 emissions. Some 60% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions result from burning to clear the land, twelve times the carbon footprint generated by motor vehicles.

In the Paris Agreement on global climate change, the Peruvian government committed to reduce the rate of deforestation by 50% by 2020 and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30% by 2030. Far from falling, the rate of deforestation has increased.

In 2014, the government also signed a Joint Declaration of Intent with the Norwegian and German governments through which funding would be received to reduce deforestation and forest degradation by 2020. However, to date, the Peruvian government has not been able to meet the conditions agreed upon for funding and the Norwegian government has US$230 million awaiting disbursement.

In 1978 eight of the nine Amazonian countries (excluding French Guyana) signed an Amazonian Cooperation Treaty as a mechanism for the collective protection of the Amazon, but it was not until 1995 that the intergovernmental Amazonian Cooperation Treaty Organization (OTCA), with a rotating secretariat (currently based in Bolivia), was created to implement the treaty. Most observers agree that this has been far from an effective organisation with signatory governments giving little priority to their Amazonian ‘backyards’ and being more concerned about defending national sovereignty and prerogatives than promoting the conservation or even the sustainable development of the Amazon region.

Thus it came as no surprise that, when the Peruvian and Colombian presidents met in Pucallpa, they felt pressured to respond to international criticism over the management of the Amazon basin. But they did not turn to OTCA for ideas and support. As the organisation responsible for responding to the forest emergency, OTCA had demonstrated a complete incapacity to do so.

When the Venezuelan government called for an emergency meeting of the Amazonian treaty organizations, Colombia’s President Duque claimed that OTCA lacked sufficient leadership at the presidential level to ensure protection. A special meeting of the Amazonian countries – excluding both France and Venezuela – was thus organised on September 6 in the Colombian town of Leticia, close to the Peruvian, Colombian and Brazilian borders.

The so-called Leticia Pact is aimed at generating joint responses to disasters in any of the member countries; strengthening regional capacities in the face of pressures from deforestation, selective logging and illegal mining; and promoting the generation of scientific knowledge to underpin decisions to protect the Amazon.

Amongst the priorities agreed upon were coordinated action to control deforestation, increase capacities to share timely information for the protection of the Amazonian biomass, develop methodologies for reforestation and rehabilitation of degraded areas, promote joint research projects involving all the research institutes of the Amazonian countries, and design multilateral financial instruments to support these activities.

With regard to indigenous peoples, the Pact aims to “strengthen the capacities and participation of the indigenous and tribal peoples and local communities for the sustainable development of the Amazon, recognising their fundamental role in the conservation of the region”.

Although the Amazonian countries responded to the emergency swiftly, rather just than assuming obligations and commitments, the Pact limits its signatories to endorsing international obligations already agreed upon but weakly implemented. Given governments’ scant support to implementing OTCA over recent decades and the lack of clear and concrete commitments made by regional governments at Leticia, there is room for scepticism about whether the Pact really represents a new beginning.

The organisation Derecho International Público poignantly concludes that “rather than constituting an effective tool of the Amazonian states in the face of the crisis provoked by the fires since the end of July 2019, it seems that this ‘Pact’ represents an attempt to respond to international pressure. The Amazon and indeed the planet deserve and require a much more convincing level of commitment”.