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France contributes to protection of Amazon stronghold, Yasuní National Park

Squirrel monkeys (Saimiri sciureus) play in the trees, along the Yasuni river. Image by Kimberley Brown for Mongabay.

  • France and Ecuador have announced a plan to curb deforestation in famed Amazonian national park, Yasuní, while promoting its improved administration.
  • Peru, Colombia and Brazil are expected to see similar agreements with France as part of President Emmanuel Macron’s growing environmental initiatives in the region.
  • The contentious EU-Mercosur trade agreement is still up for ratification, but EU members appear to be split over weak environmental regulation.

France has rolled out a new initiative to fight deforestation and promote sustainable development.

Under the initiative, announced in Ecuador in early December 2020, the South American country will be the first regional beneficiary of the related pilot project, dubbed TerrAmaz. The overall initiative is backed by $11.48 million in funding to be divided between Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, with support from the French Development Agency (AFD).

The project in Ecuador will tackle deforestation in Yasuní National Park and nearly $1.5 million in dedicated funding. The protected area has long faced myriad environmental threats, including recent approvals for oil exploration and drilling. The French government also wants to help promote better controls over agricultural and forestry systems.

“In Ecuador, the objective is to strengthen the governance of biodiversity and life to sustainably develop the conservation of nature,” AFD project manager Charlotte Venturini told Mongabay in a recent interview. “However, each country has a different focus.”

Future announcements for Colombia will be made at the end of January according to Venturini.

For years, the Yasuní reserve has been mired in oil industry battles, as extractive interests have worked to inch deeper into the park’s oil-rich zone within the ITT (Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini) project.

Base Map of oil exploitation in Yasuní National Park, based on data from EcoCiencia, the Ministry of the Environment, Esri, Planet, and DigitalGlobe.

Ecuador’s Ministry of Environment and Water pointed out in the AFD investment that more than 82,000 hectares (203,000 acres) of forest were lost between 2017 and 2018 in Yasuní.

Environmental defenders have advocated for a nationwide ballot initiative allowing Ecuadorans to decide if extractive policies should persist in Yasuní, with limited success. There is no such ballot measure on the country’s presidential election on Feb. 7. That, despite the fact that in a 2018 nationwide referendum, more than 67% of voters were in favor of strengthening the reserve’s intangible zone.

Back in 2007, the Ecuadoran government launched an initiative seeking international donations to keep Yasuní’s oil in the ground, but after six years it fell short of collecting the necessary funding.

The recent launch of TerrAmaz in Yasuní is in part due to French President Emmanuel Macron’s administration’s environmental agenda to safeguard the Amazon rainforest after rampant wildfires blazed through Brazil in August 2019.

The inability, or unwillingness, of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to tackle the fires led to a spat between the two leaders and sparked the expansion of French president’s international environmental platform to curb deforestation and the effect European imports have on the region.

“This initiative comes directly from Macron to protect tropical rainforests and part of a European policy to promote imports with no association to deforestation,” Quito’s AFD director Clotilde Boutrolle said in an interview.

A view of the forest in Yasuní National Park, located in the provinces of Pastaza and Orellana. Image by José Schreckinger.

At a 2019 U.N. summit, Macron formed the Alliance to Protect the Amazon and Other Tropical Forests alongside Chilean President Sebastián Piñera and Colombian President Iván Duque.

The alliance officially states that it seeks coalitions and countries that “share the same ambitions for forests.” It also includes countries in the Congo Basin and Southeast Asia, and donors from Europe.

France’s latest projects and coalition building in South America come as a major trade agreement between the EU and the South American trading bloc Mercosur (known in Brazil as Mercosul) awaits ratification. There are concerns the deal does not go far enough to protect the environment and prevent deforestation in the Mercosur member states of Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina while backtracking on Macron’s South American initiatives.

The deal as it stands would liberalize trade between the two continents by lowering tariffs on products such as European cars and parts, beverages and machinery going to South America. In the other direction, it would eliminate barriers for beef, soybeans, and ethanol for biofuel produced from sugarcane, and is expected to result in a higher demand in Europe for those commodities.

Macron has been a leader amongst European leaders in taking a contentious approach against the trade agreement unless the member states of the South American bloc adhere to the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

The French government organized a special commission to examine the environmental consequences of the trade deal in September 2019. A year later, the published report found deforestation would accelerate by 5% annually in the span of six years and wipe out 700,000 hectares (1.7 million acres).

“We recommend … to link the reduction of the tariffs to the performance of fighting against deforestation,” Stefan Ambec, a professor at the Toulouse School of Economics and president of the special French committee on the EU-Mercosur deal, said in an video interview with Mongabay from France.

Waorani people celebrate their legal victory against oil exploitation in the jungle. Puyo, Pastaza, Ecuadorian Amazon, April 2019. (Photo: Mitch Anderson / Amazon Frontlines)

Other EU countries, like the Netherlands and Germany, have also indicated similar concerns over deforestation and last year’s wildfires in Brazil. In August 2020, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had “considerable doubts” over the trade deal and finalizing would be unlikely given the developments of forest lost.

Amid pleas by the EU for a stronger environmental pledge from Brazil, the deal hangs by a thread over Bolsonaro’s non-compliance with the Paris climate accord and infringement of human rights abuses of Amazon defenders.

Human Rights Watch urged European parliamentarians in a July 2020 letter to reconsider the ratification of the EU-Mercosur trade agreement over Bolsonaro’s policies that contradict Brazil’s commitments to uphold efforts to fight deforestation.

The organization said the EU “should send a clear and categorical message to President Bolsonaro” that failing to uphold climate goals will only jeopardize the ratification of the trade agreement “until Brazil’s government shows it is ready to comply” again.

With the likelihood of the EU-Mercosur deal driving deforestation, a paper published in the journal Science in July 2020 found that a fifth of EU soy and beef imports from Brazil may already contribute to illegal deforestation.

“What has happened in the past 10 years in Europe and France is we have considerably reduced our carbon footprint,” Ambec said. “But we’ve increased the carbon footprint of importations.”

“We really need to include climate in trade policy.”

Banner image: Squirrel monkeys (Saimiri sciureus) play in the trees in this July 2019 photo, along the Yasuní River. Image by Kimberley Brown for Mongabay. 

Citation:

Rajão, R., Soares-Filho, B., Nunes, F., Börner, J., Machado, L., Assis, D., … Figueira, D. (2020). The rotten apples of Brazil’s agribusiness. Science, 369(6501), 246-248. doi:10.1126/science.aba6646