The Amazon Bioeconomy: Exploiting The Rainforest To Save It
Careful cultivation of the Amazon's curative fruits and plants could be far more profitable than destructive practices like soy or livestock farming.
SANTIAGO — The best way to preserve the planet's largest tropical rainforest is to intervene in a responsible and proportionate way, which also means giving it economic significance and value alongside its ecological relevance. Beyond avoiding deforestation, this would create social value for the Amazon by including local communities in new, sustainable production chains that boost development.
This does not exclude efforts to improve methods of fighting forest fires and strict supervision to avoid indiscriminate and illegal logging, which is the main cause of the fires, but responsible intervention would undoubtedly also help reduce the risk of fire. Seeing as such lands currently have zero economic value, regulated intervention could allow the creation of wealth through biodiversity and biological resources that can be extracted from the forest and sold to benefit consumers, native communities and firms incorporated in the value chain.
In this sense, the bioeconomy and the Amazon have something in common. They need each other to exist in the long term. A perfect relation of interdependence would, if attained, prove extremely valuable to the planet and create an innovative ecosystem that exploits biodiversity and avoids the rainforest's so-called "savannization."
Most products from the Amazon are consumed locally.
For the forest's degradation into grassland would entail changes in vegetation, reduced biodiversity and longer dry seasons. It would also mean reduced ability to capture carbon dioxide, which would happen at the point of no-return, with the deforestation of 25% of the entire Amazon. It is estimated this may happen within 20 to 25 years at the current rate of deforestation. The Amazon basin occupied an original area of 6.2 million square kilometers, across what are now nine countries. In recent decades, deforestation has deprived one million square kilometers of tree cover — mainly because of activities like livestock farming, agriculture and mining.
Brazilian scientist Carlos Nobre has been proposing a new way to avoid this, presenting examples of the potential of what he terms the "Third Way" or "Amazon 4.0", beside preservation practices, farming, logging and intensive mining, which are insufficient. Most products from the Amazon like meat, soy and wood, are consumed locally, not exported. This means it is also important to clarify their origins, certify that they have not come from illegal deforestation, and promote their responsible consumption.
One example is in the sale of acaí berries, a traditional fruit consumed in Amazonian lands, rich in antioxidants and Omega 3, 6 and 9, which delay aging and protect against cancer and cardiovascular conditions. Its pulp has become a favorite food of the young and not-so-young in many countries, and its utility in cosmetics has created a multi-million-dollar industry that benefits some 250,000 producers.
Guayusa leaves, which have energizing qualities and are native to the Amazon in Ecuador, are another species used in cosmetics, medicines and chemistry. These examples suggest that through an alliance of centers of innovation, foundations and local communities, magnificent and ancestral raw materials may be key to providing modern solutions.
Fighting Amazon fires on Aug. 28 — Photo: Operação Verde Brasil, Rondônia
The potential advantages of such interventions go beyond protecting the rainforest, aiming to create enough value that it can be more profitable in economic terms than soy, livestock farming or logging. They also can have an enormous social potential for bringing tens of thousands of rural households involved in collection and processing of primary sub-products, into the employment and income cycles.
Last but not least, this model assures the environmental role of rainforests in the long term, reducing — if not eliminating — deforestation and the fires generated on account of farming, mining or livestock farming.
The idea of a bioeconomy based on the forest is not new. The innovative element being proposed here is the use of modern technologies to create new knowledge and capabilities through the use of the internet, artificial intelligence, genetic or molecular engineering, and nanotechnologies among others, to add value and augment the scale of local production practices.
This model assures the environmental role of rainforests in the long term.
Obviously, this is not applicable in all areas of the Amazon with native rainforest, so it cannot exclude the continuation of the two sets of practices that currently predominate: preservation and use of intensive technologies in the sectors causing deforestation. But in cases where biodiversity permits sustainable exploitation of resources while safeguarding the essence of the forest, the benefits to nature and local communities outweigh the risks.
The idea, then, is to create open and collaborative innovation ecosystems, where producers, tech firms, scientific centers, communities, NGOs, universities and local authorities collaborate and exploit in proportionate terms biodiversity's biological and biomimetic assets, i.e., allowing use of natural processes to solve human problems. By now, the knowledge exists and can be attained if the various parties can reconcile their interests and work together in good faith for the good of the Amazon and of us all.