Amazon – What should be done for the Amazon?

The dramatic news of wildfires in the Amazon, voluntary or not, coupled with the policy of the new Brazilian head of state to open this territory to the agri-food industry, puts the Amazon at the forefront of environmental concerns. However, one should not forget the reform of the Brazilian forest code by President Dilma Rousseff in 2012, whereby the amended forest code granted amnesty to clearers of the Amazon rainforest, without the Higher Court of Justice seeing in this in 2018 either a regression, or a violation of the Constitution.

The Amazon, considered the lung of the planet, is shared by nine states, including France.[1] It is actually already protected by national and international environmental law, provided that existing instruments are really applied. This requires both the political will of the states concerned and the continued pressure of NGOs, using wisely the legal instruments available to them in a knowledgeable manner.

The Amazon is first protected by the national laws of the countries concerned. In this regard, in 2018 the Colombian Supreme Court has given, in an environmental perspective, legal personality to the Colombian Amazon. The Court summoned 90 institutions from Colombia to explain their action before it in October 2019.[2] In Colombia, 80% of the Colombian Amazon has the legal status of an indigenous reserve or natural park.[3] Brazil, under the sovereignty of which is the largest part of the Amazon, introduced in its Constitution of 1988 a constitutional protection of the Amazon described as a national heritage by Art. 225-4. The Amazon is part of the common goods preserved for present and future generations. In addition, the Constitution provides that protected areas and indigenous territories, which represent 48% of the Amazon in Brazil, can only be altered or removed by a legislative act, which prohibits the President from taking decisions without formal agreement of the Parliament.[4]

International law should also help to rescue the Amazon without necessarily inventing new mechanisms. The global treaties on biological diversity (1992), on desertification control (1994), on wetlands of international importance (1971) and on the ban of mercury (2013) are all in force and have been ratified by Brazil. In addition, Brazil is also bound by the 1972 UNESCO World Heritage Convention. As a result, seven Brazilian natural areas, including part of the central Amazon, are inscribed on the World Heritage List. Indeed, since 2000, with an extension in 2003, six million hectares of the Amazon rainforest are under the protection of the UNESCO Convention. This implies a national protection regime, with reports and reviews that may lead to the removal from the international list or, in the event of environmental degradation, to inscription on the List of World Heritage “in Danger”.

At the regional level, there has been a treaty since 1978 between eight states bordering the Amazon: the Treaty for Amazonian Cooperation, or “Amazon Pact”, amended in 1998, with the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization (ACTO).[5] Being in force, this legal instrument allows for collective actions to protect and monitor the Amazon heritage. A Strategic Agenda for the Amazon Cooperation, adopted in 2010, set up South-South cooperation to address climate change, sustainable development and conservation of natural resources, in harmony with the Climate Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals 2030. At their 13th meeting on December 1st 2017, the Foreign Ministers of the States Parties adopted the Tena Declaration, which recognized the global importance of the Amazon ecosystem services; reaffirmed their commitment to reduce the effects of climate change; acknowledged that the water resources of the Amazon Basin are a shared universal heritage; decided to strengthen cooperation against cross-border forest fires; and welcomed the Colombian initiative “Amazon 2030” to achieve the “zero deforestation” goal.

On the financial side, many international NGOs are working to help indigenous peoples defend themselves in courts and to fund biodiversity conservation operations. The G7 and the European Union approved in 1991 a pilot programme for the protection of the Brazilian rainforest (PPG7) of USD 250 million managed by the World Bank from 1995. The GEF Amazon project from 2011 to 2014 allocated USD 52.2 million for an environmental management programme in the Amazon Basin.

Bilaterally, since France has a small part of the Amazon rainforest in French Guiana, Franco-Brazilian relations allow for joint actions, such as the agreement signed by Presidents Chirac and Lula on July 15th 2005 for the construction of a bridge over the Oyapock on the Franco-Brazilian border. This bridge was inaugurated in March 2017. The agreement provides for regular meetings through the Cross-border Joint Commission, which could host negotiations on the fate of the shared forest.

Deployment of all these tools should facilitate concerted action between states to better preserve the Amazon natural assets.

However, some believe that these tools are insufficient and advocate a much more collective action in the name of international solidarity in the field of the environment, and in the name of the fight against the effects of climate change. On the scientific level, an effort had been unsuccessfully made by UNESCO with the establishment in 1948 of the International Institute of Amazon Hylea,[6] intended to protect the Amazon by science “for the good of humanity”. This institute was abandoned in 1950. But the idea that the Amazon would be a common good of humankind continued to arouse contradictory lusts. This approach would entail considering the Amazon a “common heritage of mankind”, which would imply an unthinkable global agreement, especially since the legal term “common heritage of mankind” has hitherto been attributed only to spaces that do not belong to any state (the seabed, the moon, outer space). The internationalization of the Amazon seems moreover, according to Pope Francis, as only serving the “economic interests of multinational corporations.”[7] Preparing a synod of bishops for October 6th-27th 2019 on Amazon issues, a preparatory document of 8 May 2018 stressed the need for an integral ecology to preserve natural resources and cultural identity. During his trip to Madagascar on September 7th 2019, Pope Francis referred to deforestation in the Amazon in connection with deforestation in Madagascar, and called for granting “the right to the common distribution of the Earth’s assets to present and future generations.”

In conclusion, one should first support Brazilian lawyers to use national legal instruments that are particularly protective of the Amazon. According to Cacique Raoni Metuktire, other nature reserves should be created in the Amazon[8] even if already 48% of the Amazon is protected, including Indian territories and conservation units.[9] Why not urge Brazil to seek from UNESCO a 12% extension of its Amazonian forest area under the World Heritage List, thus totalling 60% of protected forests, as Bhutan did in its 2008 Constitution proclaiming that 60% of the country’s forests are perpetual and therefore cannot be cleared. France could take the initiative, together with the other Amazon states, to request for each one of them the inscription of 60% of their Amazonian forest area on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Thus, 60% of the entire Amazon Basin would be protected.

At the same time, the international community should mobilize for more effective monitoring of the territories inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List and provide special support to States Parties to the “Amazon Pact”.[10] North-South cooperation should reinforce the actions undertaken by ACTO.

It is to be regretted that the Leticia meeting of September 6th 2019, on the initiative of Colombia, attended by Brazil’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, did not involve all the Amazon states, as Venezuela and France, not invited or not present, did not participate, while Ecuador, which was in attendance, has the same Amazon forest area as France. Nevertheless, one should notice the openness of the “Leticia Pact”[11], which reaffirms the necessary cooperation between the Amazon countries; calls on the international community to cooperate for the conservation and sustainable development of the Amazon; creates a cooperation network to combat natural disasters; and promotes cooperation with other interested states and international and regional organizations.

This call makes it possible to concretely apply international and ecological solidarity to the Amazon. The nine states concerned should rapidly strengthen their cooperation in the common interest of humankind with the support of the entire international community, especially the European Union and the specialized agencies of the United Nations, in particular FAO and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). All of these official initiatives can only be developed if consumer citizens in the North reduce their consumption of meat and soy purchases for their livestock. In parallel, legal and social action for the indigenous peoples of the Amazon[12] should be enhanced by implementing the guidelines contained in the 2007 United Nations General Assembly resolution “Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples”[13] adopted by 144 votes, including that of France, and requesting the ratification of the International Labour Organization’s International Convention No. 169 of 1989 concerning indigenous and tribal peoples, which has only been ratified by 23 states. Three Amazon states have not yet ratified it: Guyana, Suriname and France. Curiously, France has nevertheless signed this Convention. On February 23th 2017, the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights called for such ratification to actually take place (Recommendation 7).

Michel Prieur
President of the International Center for Comparative Environmental Law
September 8th 2019

[1] 63% in Brazil, 10% in Peru, 7% in Colombia, 6% in Bolivia, 6% in Venezuela, 3% in Guyana, 2% in Surinam, 1.5% in Ecuador, and 1.5% in French Guiana.

[2] Anne Proenza, «A Leticia, six pays tentent de se coordonner», Libération, 7-8 September 2019, p. 5.

[3] Anne Proenza, idem, p. 5.

[4] Edison Ferreira de Carvalho, «La protección de los bosques a la luz del derecho ambiental internacional y la constitución brasileña: serán capaces de salvar la foresta Amazónica?», Universidad federal de Para, Naece editora, 2018.


[6] Means wood and forest in Greek.

[7] Encyclical “Laudato Si”, 2015, p. 30, which quotes the 5th Conference of the Episcopate of Latin America and the Caribbean, Aparecida, 29 June 2007, Nos. 84 and 86.

[8] Interview of Raoni Metuktire, «La forêt est cruciale pour le climat planétaire», Libération, 7-8 September 2019, p. 3.

[9] François-Michel Le Tourneau, «Faire en sorte que l’Amazonie debout rapporte plus que le déboisement du territoire», Le Monde, 3 September 2019, p. 27.

[10] France, as a sovereign state in the Amazon, should be able to join the 1978 Treaty for Amazonian Cooperation. This would require an amendment to Art. 27 of the Treaty, which now prohibits accessions.

[11] Carlos Holmes Trujillo, Minister of External Relations of Colombia, sends a message of unity and hope to the region and to the world, in «Cumbre presidencial para reafirmar el compromiso con la Amazonia», El Tiempo, Bogota, 6 September 2019.

[12] There are three million people representing 390 distinct peoples and 130 indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation.

[13] Resolution 61/295, A/RES/61/295.

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