By Flávio Montiel, International Rivers – Brazil

The Amazon Summit, one of the most important environmental meetings of the year, is taking place this week in Brazil. Representatives from the eight Amazonian nations will come together to discuss strategies and policies for the protection and sustainable development of the Amazon. 

The Amazon is the largest river basin and continuous tropical forest on the planet, sustaining the cultures, lives, and livelihoods of millions. Its “flying rivers” (atmospheric water vapor) provide moisture and precipitation for glaciers, ecosystems, agriculture, and cities, and play a fundamental role in climate regulation, not just in South America but also for the rest of the world. This is due to the great symbiosis that exists between the rainforest and the rivers that permeate the entire Amazon basin. 

The Amazon basin transports the largest volume of water of any river system, accounting for about 20% of the total water carried to the oceans by rivers. The Amazon’s aquatic biodiversity is the largest in the world, with more than 2,400 species of fish identified.

The Amazon is also home to thousands of Indigenous, traditional and riverine peoples who live in close relationship with the rivers and the forest, and are the main guardians of this natural heritage and biodiversity.

Despite the vital role that the river plays, the Amazon and its peoples have been under increasing threat from an extractive economic development model that exploits nature, often in violation of the rights of traditional and Indigenous Peoples that rely on it.

Plans are underway to transform the Amazon into a massive export corridor for agribusiness (soybeans, corn, cattle) and mining (iron, bauxite, gold, lithium, etc.), heedless of the impacts on the Amazon rainforest, its rivers, and peoples. 

This model is predicated on the construction of new mega-infrastructure projects such as hydroelectric plants, waterways, and railroads, designed to serve the interests of these large private economic groups. For example, the “Arco Norte” railway project will transport export commodities through the northern region of the country. The Tapajos hidrovia waterway and the railroad called the Ferrogrão scheme, would similarly transport and facilitate the plunder of commodities while driving deforestation and land conflicts. The same logic follows with hydroelectric plants, such as the Castanheira Hydropower Plant, the group of small hydropower plants (PCHs) in the Juruena Basin, and three other hydropower plants in the Jamanxin River, to meet the demand for energy from large soy producers and mineral exploration.

Urgency and Hope for the Amazon Summit

Scientists point out that we are already close to the point of no return for the Amazon rainforest, when the forest loses its ability to regenerate itself as a result of deforestation, the degradation of rivers, and intensified global warming. Urgent steps must be taken to protect the Amazon from further harm. As such, International Rivers, alongside allies from among Indigenous organizations, social movements from traditional and riverine communities, and the outskirts of Amazonian cities, convened ahead of the summit for a series of Amazon Dialogues to chart a sustainable path forward for the basin. Hundreds of groups gathered in Belem from across the Amazon countries to make concrete proposals for heads of state to act on as they decide the fate of the Amazon.

Core proposals offered to protect the Amazon and its peoples included: 1) the requirement for any infrastructure and mining project to secure the Free, Prior and Informed Consent of Indigenous communities; 2) strong planning instruments to ensure that projects with unacceptably high environmental and social impacts are avoided and better alternatives are identified; 3) that governments adopt a moratorium on new hydroelectric projects in the Amazon until their National Energy Plans are reviewed and aligned with the Paris Agreement; and 4) the governments of the Amazonian countries promote joint initiatives to elaborate and implement new legal instruments for the permanent protection of rivers, with autonomous protection and acquisition of their own rights.

Heads of state gathered in Belem must hear and respect these calls if they are sincere about making a lasting contribution to secure a sustainable future for the Amazon. 

With 25 years of experience in the protection of forests and traditional populations, Flávio Montiel is the manager of International Rivers Brazil. He led IBAMA’s Environmental Protection, being responsible for the implementation of the Plan for Prevention and Control of Deforestation in the Amazon. He holds a degree in sociology from the University of Brasilia and is a specialist in sustainable development in the Amazon basin at the University of London.