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For the Climate’s Sake, Listen to Urban Amazonians

A climate activist holds a microphone among a crowd
Climate activists take part in an international climate demonstration in front of the Brazilian Institute for Environment and Renewable Natural Resources in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on September 25, 2020. © Andre Lucas/dpa/Getty

The Amazon region is internationally famous for its rainforest, one of the most biodiverse places on earth. The Amazon rainforest absorbs more carbon than any other land region in the world and has long been central to international efforts to avoid the worst effects of the human-made climate crisis. 

However, national governments, such as those in Brazil or Colombia, and international leaders, such as the ones from EU, and United States, for example, often forget about the vibrant urban communities that also exist within the Amazon. From Manaus and Bélem in Brazil to Leticia in Colombia or Iquitos in Peru, there are millions of Amazonian city dwellers who call the rainforest home. 

Through the Open Society Foundations’ Latin America Program, we support solutions that center Amazonian urban populations and their importance in protecting the region. We believe local organizations and movements can bolster the preservation and restoration of the Amazon through actions at the local, state, and federal level directed at government actors, agribusiness, and the public, aiming to prevent the rainforest from reaching an irreversible tipping point.

In recent decades, efforts by philanthropic, nongovernmental, and multilateral organizations to protect the Amazon have focused on conservation efforts in the rainforest and at national level policy. Little effort was put into engaging Amazonian urban areas and their people, comprised mainly of Indigenous people and Afro-Descendants.

In Brazil, for example, which encompasses over 60 percent of the Amazon, the city of Belém alone has over 2 million inhabitants. The whole Brazilian Amazon has 29 million people, and 70 percent of the population [Portuguese]—live in metropolitan areas. Urban Amazonians, especially children, face high rates of respiratory disease due to the fine particulate matter contained in the smoke of forest fires, which also made many people more vulnerable during COVID-19 infections. Urban Amazonians, therefore, have many reasons to push for reforms that include adequate laws to prevent deforestation, improve sanitation, increasing city infrastructure to prevent harm against flooding, and stronger forest-fire prevention. 

To understand Brazil’s situation at the current moment, it is helpful to look at the country’s history of climate policy and forest management. In the early 2000s, the country made great strides in protecting the Amazon rainforest—reducing deforestation by 82 percent from 2003 to 2012. However, it started rising again in 2013; and by 2020, Brazil’s deforestation in the Amazon surged, hitting a dramatic 12-year high. The backsliding came shortly after President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration issued a series of anti-environmental policies, which undermined existing forest conservation and indigenous rights policies and participation in decision-making. 

Currently, Brazil’s federal government is not a helpful partner concerning forest protection. Instead, then, a better strategy is to engage with Amazon states and its cities, where most of the population is living. Across Amazon cities, there are diverse and vibrant civil society movements mobilizing to stop deforestation and to secure inclusive social and economic policies, such as Kanindé AssociationNOSSAS, IMAZON, and Comitê Chico Mendes. Indeed, as Alana Manchineri, a young Indigenous woman from the northwestern Brazilian state of Acre, recently told me, “Black and Indigenous youth have a tremendous power to influence decision-makers and mobilize schools and universities to protect the Amazon Rainforest.”

Ame o Tucunduba founders and supporters pose for a photo in Belém, Brazil, on September 21, 2019.
Ame o Tucunduba founders and supporters pose for a photo in Belém, Brazil, on September 21, 2019. © Elias Costa

Key youth, feminist, Indigenous, and Black-led movements such as Centro de Estudos e Defesa do Negro do ParaDEMA’s Fund, and Juventude Indígena de Rondônia are doing outstanding work translating the connection between climate and racial justice and the Amazon Rainforest protection to different audiences. These groups are constantly making visible that climate and environmental conservation should not be separated from the region’s social dimension. Brazil’s worst socioeconomic indicators, health care systems, and sanitation are in the Amazon region, which is also being extremely hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and where vaccinations are still moving slowly. 

In the city of BelémPará Ame Tucunduba, a women-led organization, is working to promote capacity-building for women leaders within environmental agendas and advocacy, to extend and buttress a democratic culture while discussing and creating political pressure for climate justice in municipal government.

Increasingly, urban Amazonians are sending three clear messages to the national government and international actors that support rainforest preservation. First, the idea that Brazil must clear part of its rainforests to experience economic growth is unacceptable, outdated, and dangerous. Second, it is time to move beyond seeing the rainforest as a pristine environment mostly devoid of people. Third, it is necessary to implement new ways of development for the region, promoting climate and social justice, and scaling green jobs and the “bioeconomy.”

Until Brazilian and International leaders start taking these truths seriously, economic stability and climate justice for the people of the Amazon will remain out of reach.

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