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On the occasion of World Cities Day, celebrated on October 31st, we want to shed light on a relatively lesser-known and explored facet of urban life in the region: Amazonian cities. While the Amazon is renowned as the world’s largest rainforest, it’s often overlooked that it’s also home to a highly urbanized population. The majority of its people reside in towns, settlements, and cities, which has sparked growing interest in the urban issues of the region on national, regional, and international agendas.
In this context, we introduce the creation of the Amazonian Cities Forum, an initiative driven by the IDB Cities Network within the framework of the Amazonia Forever program. This project aims to provide a platform for Amazonian local governments to cooperate, exchange experiences and best practices, and collectively address the social and environmental challenges faced by their cities and territories within the Amazon basin.
In this article, we will delve into the significance of Amazonian cities, the challenges they face, and the role that the Amazonian Cities Forum plays in integrating urban centers as key actors in sustainable development and the protection of the rainforest, in the fight against climate change.
The Importance and Challenges of Amazonian Cities
With a population exceeding 48 million people, the Amazon region is undergoing rapid urbanization, mirroring a regional trend in Latin America and the Caribbean, where 81% of the population resides in urban areas. Demographic and urban transition in the Amazon is happening at an exceptionally fast pace, surpassing national levels. It is estimated that the urban population in the Amazon region increased from about 30% in 1960 to 60% in 2009, and in recent years, it has risen to over 70% in several countries. This transition is driven by multiple factors, including state policies for colonization and settlement, the expansion of extractive and productive activities, agrarian transformation, and increased provision of public services in urban environments compared to rural areas.
Image: Manaos, Brasil
Rapid urbanization in this region presents significant challenges. Some of these challenges include limited access to basic services, vulnerability to climate change, and the preservation of sociocultural diversity, particularly that of indigenous peoples, who make up a quarter of the urban population. The migration of this population to cities ill-equipped to preserve their culture poses a challenge to cultural survival and the sustainable relationship between human settlements and nature.
Furthermore, cities, towns, and settlements in the Amazon face considerable social and environmental risks. Over 60% of the urban populations in the region live in vulnerable conditions. In this context, the expansion of urban areas with very low population densities poses significant difficulties in providing basic services such as clean water, sanitation, electricity, waste management, as well as fundamental rights like education, healthcare, and transportation. For example, according to a recent IDB study, only 22.3% of the urban population in Andean countries of the Amazon has limited access to electricity, 11.7% are more than a 30-minute drive away from a health center (hospital or clinic), and 7.9% have limited access to primary and secondary education.
Imagen izquierda: Belém, Brasil | Imagen derecha: Leticia, Colombia
With the rapid growth of the urban population, the situation becomes even more precarious, especially in cities with fewer than 50,000 inhabitants. These cities represent 80% of the total cities in the region and experience the highest population growth rates. They are often located far from major national urban centers and face difficulties in coordinating effectively across various levels of government, resulting in a lack of a common agenda and integrated action plans.
The Amazonian Cities Forum: A Collaborative Response
To address these challenges, the Amazonia Cities Forum was established, supported and co-led by the IDB Cities Network. The forum took place on August 3rd and 4th, 2023, in the city of Belém, Pará, Brazil. This gathering resulted from a collaborative effort aimed at tackling the complex problems facing cities in the Amazon region and promoting their sustainable development. It represents a significant milestone in the quest for solutions to achieve a more prosperous and sustainable future for Amazonian cities.
Within the framework of the Amazonian Presidential Summit, the Amazonian Cities Forum brought together over 25 mayors from various cities in Amazonian countries who engaged in high-level discussions on crucial topics. These discussions highlighted issues such as institutional capacity, sustainable employment, bioeconomy, climate change, and urban planning. The challenges identified during these discussions are multifaceted and complex, encompassing weak local governments, informal urbanization, high poverty levels, environmental pollution, biodiversity loss, and the impact of climate change, among others.
One of the standout outcomes of the event was the creation of the Belém Letter, an intention document signed by participating mayors, organizers, and endorsed by the presidents of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization (ACTO) in the Belém Declaration (2023). The Letter outlines a shared proposal for the establishment of the Amazonian Cities Forum, serving as a permanent institutional space for mobilizing and coordinating the efforts of local authorities from ACTO member countries. Through regular meetings, workshops, and shared resources, the Forum aims to drive collective action toward sustainable and resilient cities aligned with the global agenda and led by local and national governments. Some of its main functions include:
– Cross-border knowledge platform: Creating a knowledge platform about Amazonian cities to map their characteristics and local demands, enabling the exchange of best practices and experiences.
– Support for the development of institutional capacities: Providing technical assistance for the development of territorial planning and the creation of sustainable and resilient projects tailored to the specific needs of each city.
– Mobilization of resources for projects: Facilitating the mobilization of resources for urban infrastructure and bioeconomy projects, contributing to the sustainable and resilient development of the region.
By signing the Belém Letter in connection with the Amazonia Forever program, the IDB has committed to supporting the Forum in its monumental task. The Amazonian Cities Forum serves as an example of the IDB’s commitment to consolidating a common agenda and action plans for achieving sustainable and resilient urban development. The intention is for this permanent alliance to be well-established by COP30, scheduled for 2025 in Belém, Brazil, which, for the first time in history, will be hosted by an Amazonian city.
On this World Cities Day, we celebrate the increasing visibility of Amazonian cities and renew our commitment to work together in building more sustainable, resilient, and inclusive municipalities in the magnificent Amazonian region.