Given its rich heritage and its role in regulating the world’s climate, is ‘internationalising’ the Amazon an option?

Given its rich heritage and its role in regulating the world's climate, is ‘internationalising' the Amazon an option?

In the same way that the United Nations, back in 1947-48, had proposed making Jerusalem an ‘international city’, many voices, over much of the world and over many decades, have spoken out in favour of ‘internationalising’ the Amazon, the largest expanse of primary forest on the planet. For some, the Amazon rainforest, a source of water and oxygen and an outstanding reservoir of biodiversity, should be seen as a global public good, belonging to us all. It is an idea somewhat reminiscent of the Pachamama or ‘Mother Earth’ concept in Andean culture.

As recalled by jurist Christian Caubet, the Amazon, covering an area of around seven million square kilometres, is “the largest hydrographic basin in the world. Its 80,000 rivers, many of which are navigable, together account for 20 per cent of all the freshwater available on earth. Its natural resources, which are far from being fully inventoried, include the countless plant species of the world’s largest tropical rainforest but also a wide variety of known and economically exploitable mineral resources, such as iron, copper, manganese, cassiterite, bauxite, nickel, kaolin, titanium, vanadium, gold, diamonds, gypsum, limestone or halite.”

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) launched an initiative to set up the International Institute for the Hylean Amazon (IIHA) with a view to internationalising scientific and agronomic research into the Amazon by bringing together researchers from the various countries sharing the Amazon basin. Part of UNESCO’s aim was also to contribute, through this international body of scientists, to stimulating economic development in the region, whose inhabitants were already very poor.

UNESCO held conferences in 1947 and 1948, bringing together representatives from the countries in the region, from the United States, France and the United Kingdom, as well as delegates from other UN bodies such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and Pan-American organisations, to draft the statutes of the IIHA, through a convention.

But as Caubet observes, Brazil, already back then, was the scene of “many protests against the ratification of the convention, which would entail internationalising the Amazon, at the expense of Brazil’s sovereign decision-making power”.

UNESCO finally abandoned the project. Already one century earlier, similar projects had emerged, but the spirit of the initiatives was not always progressive. For example, “Matthew Fontaine Maury (1806-73), director of the US Naval Observatory in Washington DC, once suggested that racial problems in the US could be solved by colonising Amazonia and moving black Americans there,” as Renaud Lambert reports in his article Does Amazonia belong to the world?, for Le Monde Diplomatique.

In the 1960s, the Hudson Institute, a conservative US think tank, came up with the ‘Great Lakes’ project, an ambitious bid to develop the entire Amazon region. The idea was to create seven lakes all linked together by canals. As noted by Caubet, the project was designed to enable “the navigation of vessels weighing up to 20,000 tonnes, to facilitate the export of the resources to be exploited in the region. The project was widely publicised. Several meetings on the matter were held in Brazil and attended by various ministerial-level representatives. The scale of the project, its serious shortcomings and the threat it posed to Brazil’s sovereignty soon gave rise to strong opposition,” writes Caubet. The Hudson Institute’s project thus also ran aground.

A desire to possess or to protect?

It became increasingly clear, over time, that the involvement of foreign powers represented an obstacle to the development of a global project, particularly for Brazil, the country on whose sovereign land most of the primary forest lies. In the decade that followed, another plan was therefore launched, this time by eight countries from the region: Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela. On 3 July 1978, they signed the Amazon Cooperation Treaty (ACT) or ‘Amazon Pact’ in the Brazilian capital of Brasilia. This multilateral instrument for Pan-Amazonian cooperation was aimed at “preserving the ecological balance of a particularly vulnerable region”, but also, and above all, to assert the sovereignty of the signatory states over the riches it contains and to protect it from the covetous ambitions of foreign powers.

In the 1980s, the debate was once again rekindled after concerns were raised about the consequences of deforestation and worldwide campaigns were waged by indigenous peoples to defend their ecosystem from the threat of economic plundering. In 1989, US politician and environmentalist Al Gore said: “Contrary to what Brazilians think, the Amazon is not their property, it belongs to all of us.” That same year, the president of France, François Mitterrand, insisted: “Brazil must accept relative sovereignty over the Amazon.”

In 1990, German ecologists (pioneers at the time of environmental awareness in the world) argued that the Amazon, as the forest reserve of humanity, should be “untouchable”.

According to the World Council of Churches, meeting in Geneva in 1992: “The Amazon is the heritage of humanity, and the fact that this vast territory belongs to Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, Peru and Ecuador is just a matter of circumstance.” Also in 1992, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev expressed the view that “Brazil should delegate part of its rights over the Amazon to the relevant international bodies”.

In the year 2000, Cristovam Buarque, a Brazilian economist and politician within the Workers’ Party (PT) at the time, responded to the claims to the Amazon with these thoughts: “Before we internationalise the Amazon, I would like to see the internationalisation of all the world’s great museums. The Louvre should not belong merely to France…we cannot let this cultural heritage, like the natural heritage of the Amazon, be manipulated and destroyed at the whim of an owner or a country.” He developed this argument in an article published in the Brazilian daily O Globo, translated into several languages, saying that if we internationalise the Amazon, we should also internationalise all the world’s oil reserves.

Like a recurring cycle, the issue came back to the fore in 2019, the year when the Amazon rainforest was the scene of some 90,000 fires, once again placing the Amazon “at the centre of the world”. The controversy was refuelled when, during the G7 summit in Biarritz, France’s president Emmanuel Macron raised the idea of conferring “international status” on the Amazon, prompting a furious response from Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro in his first speech to the UN General Assembly. “It is wrong to say that the Amazon is the heritage of humanity,” he insisted. Not surprisingly, now as in the past, this is a very sensitive issue among Brazilians and their neighbours.

Looking to alternative solutions

Brazilian and international lawyers, for want of preparing the ‘internationalisation’ of the Amazon, are looking into the possibility of charges being brought against the Brazilian state for the crime of ecocide. According to Brazilian political science professor Mauricio Santoro, the destruction of the Amazon rainforest should be considered as equivalent to “a crime against humanity”. For Valérie Cabanes, a lawyer specialising in international law, the crime of ecocide, as well as the crime of ethnocide (of which the indigenous peoples of the Amazon rainforest emerge as victims), should be recognised by the International Criminal Court (ICC). Those responsible should be prosecuted, such as Texaco, for example, which damaged Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest from 1964 to 1990 during its oil drilling operations there. An association representing some 30,000 victims of the pollution filed a lawsuit over the matter in 2014.

Thanks to the international campaigns waged over recent decades, the indigenous peoples of the Amazon (now around two million people, from over 350 tribes) have also managed to legitimise their ‘property’ rights in the Amazon. They are fighting to secure, extend and obtain sanctuary status for protected reserves, over which they should also have a right to be heard and to take part in the management of the forest they inhabit.

But the resistance they face from their governments and the increase in the violence against their leaders is hindering their fight. Indigenous leaders are, nevertheless, increasingly present at international summits on the climate and human rights, such as Sonia Guajajara, Davi Kopenawa Yanomami and Raoni Metuktire, who has taken up the fight again at the age of almost 90. The APIB, an alliance of indigenous peoples in Brazil, is meanwhile calling for a boycott of Brazilian products responsible for deforestation and violations of local people’s rights.

Other international mechanisms devised to protect the Amazon include the Fundo Amazônia, set up in 2008, managed by Brazil and funded mainly by Norway and Germany, which was a good example, for a while, of international cooperation against deforestation. Unfortunately, the project is currently being undermined by the Bolsonaro government, which no longer wants to respect the country’s initial commitments.

But a number of other avenues are still open, such as that taken by the FAO in cooperation with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and other partners, which have set up the Integration of Amazon Protected Areas (IAPA) project. The idea is that “by ensuring a regional, cross-border approach to the Amazon, the project better protects its biodiversity and safeguards the communities and local economies that depend on the Amazon for food and livelihoods”.

This story has been translated from French.