How Brazil can save the Amazon through bioeconomy

The sustainable use of land in the Amazon is crucial to achieving the objectives set on the Paris Accord and to securing food for the rest of the world. Experts based in Brazil outline ways this could be done.

The latest IPCC report on land use highlights that soil degradation accelerates the climate crisis, while sustainable land use is crucial to achieving the objectives set on the Paris Accord and to ensuring food security.

Carlos Nobre, an expert on climate variability and sustainability of tropical forests based in Brazil, proposed an idea he called Amazon 4.0 as an alternative for the country to achieve sustainable development through the exploitation of biodiversity’s economic potential.

This idea has been widely debated in public especially after the publication of the latest figures from the National Institute of Space Research (INPE) which revealed that deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon reached 2.254,8 square kilometers, or 278 per cent more than the same month last year.

Those figures were highly criticised by the Brazilian government, which led to a debate aired over national television where then INPE director, Ricardo Galvão, stated that “every political leader must understand, that when dealing with scientific matters, there is no higher authority over the sovereignty of science”.

Asked about the current and complex scenario in the Amazon, Carlos Durigan, director of the World Conservation Society Brazil (WCS), explained that degradation and invasion of 50 per cent of the Amazon land where most of the indigenous communities live is due to various socioenvironmental phenomena which have been occurring in the region for some time.

First, since five years ago, deforestation rates increased largely due to the expansion of large-scale agribusiness and livestock industries, done mostly through illegal land occupation, Durigan said. Urban footprint from large cities such as Manaus and Belem with new highways being constructed was also linked to an increase in forest fires. 

Second, sewer waste from the city is disposed off without any treatment mostly in communities where indigenous peoples live, polluting ecosystems.

With every year that goes by, the forest has less capacity to recover from droughts which have become more frequent due to climate change.

Philip Fearnside, researcher, National Institute of Investigations on the Amazon

Third, mercury contamination from gold mining is also wreaking havoc to water bodies. Durigan said mercury finds itself in the food chain, affecting populations that depend on fishing, particularly on the rivers Madeira and Tapajós.

Fourth, hydroelectric projects such as the Belo Monte dam on the Xingú river and the Madeira Complex affect the water flows, causing an impact on the migratory fishes which represent 80 per cent of the species consumed by the Amazon people.

Fifth and last, illegal traffic of wildlife, particularly of endangered species, which makes the already fragile biodiversity more vulnerable.

On the contrary, bioeconomy as an alternative for the country’s development has a lot of potential for economic activity that will benefit the people, while preserving the natural ecosystem, Durigan said.

Tapping wood and non-wood resources, such as the açaí, the Pará chestnut and oils used for the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industry, as well as fishing and ecotourism, could present a more sustainable way of harnessing Amazon’s lands. These sectors have not expanded due to lack of support and funding, Durigan said.

“There isn’t a top-down solution that could work. The real solution must involve communities and experts based in the region in order to expand [these industries] and replicate them”, he said.

Every political leader must understand that when dealing with scientific matters, there is no higher authority over the sovereignty of science.

Ricardo Galvão, former director, National Institute of Space Research, Brazil

Rubens Gomes, president of the cooperative Amazonbai, located in the Bailique archipelago, agrees with this. Bailique is a group of eight islands set on the overture of the Amazon river. Amazonbai was organised in 2015, when 39 communities created a protocol for protecting and managing the territory and its natural resources.

In 2017 the group founded the cooperative and, a year later, inaugurated the Açaí House in Macapá, where they produce natural and fresh pulp from these berries.

“The idea is to create a participatory economy composed of the communities, to share the benefits with them. Involving 1200 families, we created the Family-School to educate us and produce products in a way that is sustainable and that fosters solidarity, while at the same time protecting the environment,” Gomes said.

Gomes added that the group is striving to be autonomous from national government support or from large agri-business, which would allow them to work directly with the market without intermediaries.

“For each açaí can that we sell, a 5 per cent of its profit comes back to the fund to support the Family-School, which allows us to give value to its principles of respecting nature,” he said.

Dr. Philip Fearnside, a researcher at the National Institute of Investigations on the Amazon (INPA), said that community-led bioeconomy models of agricultural production in the Amazon is a better alternative. But, the producers must preserve the protected areas while keeping their market share steady with a reliable supply of their products. Although açaí producers will not receive any more support from the government, that doesn’t mean that they should quit what they are doing, as the other options offered are at the other side of the table: livestock or palm.

“Both the livestock and palm oil industries are profitable but more harmful to the ecosystem,” Fearnside said.

“The eastern part of the Amazon has been widely deforested, but the west is still preserved and there is still time to act. However, problems will not be solved by themselves, particularly if we consider that with every year that goes by, the forest has less capacity to recover from droughts which have become more frequent due to climate change”, Fearnside said.

Julián Reingold is an environmental sociologist from the University College London.

This story was originally published at One Earth, an initiative by the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation.

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