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The Brazilian president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has vowed to haul the Amazon out of centuries of violence, economic “plundering” and environmental devastation and into “a new Amazon dream”, at the start of a major regional summit on the world’s largest rainforest.

Addressing South American leaders gathered in the Brazilian city of Belém, Lula offered a bold blueprint for the future of the Amazon, a 6.7m sq km region that is home to nearly 50 million people spread across eight countries and one territory.

The Brazilian leftist promised to repair his country’s environmental and international reputation after four “disastrous” years under his predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro, during which the rainforest and Indigenous communities came under growing attack. “Thankfully … we have managed to turn this sad page in our history,” said Lula, who took power in January after thwarting Bolsonaro’s re-election plans.

Lula pledged to promote an ambitious model for the rainforest region – 60% of which lies within Brazil – in which environmental protection was accompanied by desperately needed social inclusion, economic growth and technological innovation.

“The rainforest is neither a void that needs occupying nor a treasure trove to be looted. It is a flowerbed of possibilities that must be cultivated,” Lula told the audience, which included the presidents of fellow Amazon nations Bolivia, Colombia and Peru, as well as the prime minister of Guyana and Venezuela’s vice-president.

Pledging to achieve zero deforestation by 2030, Lula said: “The Amazon can be whatever we want it to be: an Amazon with greener cities, with cleaner air, with mercury-free rivers and forests that are left standing; an Amazon with food on the table, dignified jobs and public services that are available to all; an Amazon with healthier children, well-received migrants [and] Indigenous people who are respected … This is our Amazon dream.”

The comments came at the start of a rare two-day meeting of the eight-member Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization (Acto), which Lula called as part of efforts to reposition Brazil on the world stage as a key player in the fight against the climate crisis.

Among the issues being discussed at Acto’s first such meeting in 14 years are a possible deal to halt deforestation by 2030 and joint efforts to fight rampant illegal mining and organised crime groups that are tightening their grip on the rainforest region. Colombia’s president, Gustavo Petro, has been pushing for an end to oil and gas exploration in the Amazon, although Brazilian moves to develop an oilfield near the mouth of the Amazon River complicate those efforts.

Petro used his intervention to call for the creation of “an Amazonian Nato” under which regional military would join forces to protect the jungle, about 6% of which lies within Colombia’s borders.

“You defend life with reason – but also with weapons,” he said, also proposing a “Marshall Plan” to pump resources into Amazon protection and a specialised Amazonian court to punish crimes against the biome.

Dina Boluarte, the president of Peru, home to about 11% of the Amazon, also urged action to preserve a rainforest that “isn’t just the lungs of the world – it’s the heart of the world”.

“We must act now. There is no time to lose,” said Boluarte, who was making her first trip abroad since Peru was gripped by protests after she took power last December.

A final communique, the Belém Declaration, is expected to be unveiled by Acto members at the end of Tuesday’s talks. Experts say it is likely to contain collaborative strategies for fighting deforestation and financing sustainable development initiatives, and the creation of a law enforcement centre in the Brazilian city of Manaus to promote cooperation among regional police forces.

The challenges facing the group’s members are almost as immense as the Amazon itself, which is home to an estimated 400bn trees belonging to 16,000 different species, more than 1,300 species of birds, tens of thousands of species of plant, and 20% of the world’s freshwater resources. It is also estimated to contain more than 120bn tonnes of carbon, making it a vital carbon sink.

But over the past half-century, the advance of cattle ranching, logging, mining, soy farming and oil exploration has devastated huge swathes of the region, pushing it towards what scientists fear could be an irreversible tipping point that would cause the forest to die off.

According to the MapBiomas scientific network, about 17% of the rainforest region – about 750,000 sq km (an area almost as large as Turkey) – had been destroyed by 2021.

Transnational mafia groups have expanded their footprint, with one senior Brazilian police chief recently warning “criminal insurgents” could commandeer parts of the Amazon with dire consequences for the rainforest and its inhabitants.

Speaking on Tuesday, Lula vowed to strike back against crime syndicates, opening 39 new police bases across the region.

“My predecessor opened the doors to environmental crime and organised crime,” he said. “Criminal networks are organising across borders bringing increased insecurity to the whole region. We are determined to turn the situation around.”

However, the Brazilian president insisted international support would be key to efforts to protect the Amazon, and urged regional governments to unite before this year’s Cop28 summit in Dubai “so that rich countries which have already destroyed their forests take responsibility for funding our development”.

Excitement over Lula’s Amazon blueprint is accompanied with anxiety that Brazil’s conservative-dominated congress might prevent the president from enacting his ambitious environmental agenda, which has already achieved a 42.5% drop in deforestation.

“We know we have so many enemies in congress who don’t like us,” said Alessandra Korap, a leader of the Munduruku people.

Korap urged Lula to oppose oil exploration in the Amazon and take a stand against draft legislation that would invalidate Indigenous claims to lands so they could not prove they occupied them when Brazil’s 1988 constitution was enacted. “This would mean the death of our peoples,” Korap said.