Amazon’s fires may be calming down, but the battle for the future of the world’s biggest tropical rainforest is far from over.
The Amazon is one of the planet’s most important natural defenses against climate change, as investors, scientists and governments coordinate efforts to save what amounts to a vast sponge for planet-warming carbon dioxide.
The Brazilian government’s policies, the latest fires and the international response have reignited conversation around what can be done to save the Amazon.
Reversing harmful deforestation practices is one way. But a growing number of environmental advocates are also backing sustainable solutions that will not only be good for business, but will ensure the Amazon rainforest survives.
‘A Tipping Point’
According to Carlos Nobre, an expert on the Amazon at São Paulo University, current trends of deforestation may lead in 20 years to the Amazon crossing a “tipping point” after which the rainforest will irreversibly decline.
And the fires — a major cause of deforestation — are widely seen as efforts to clear land for cattle pastures and soy fields from entrepreneurs emboldened by the rhetoric of Jair Bolsonaro, the president of Brazil who took office in January.
Bolsonaro has said environmental regulations are “suffocating the country.” An analysis by the New York Times found that, during the first six months of his administration, enforcement actions by Brazil’s environmental authorities fell 20%, enabling deforestation.
After blaming the fires on a conspiracy of NGOs, Bolsonaro faced withering geopolitical pressure, principally the withdrawal of funds for environmental protection and threats of a cancelled trade deal from Europe. He committed on Friday to using Brazil’s military to combat the Amazon fires.
Yet Bolsonaro has also appeared intent on deflecting attention from the situation at the Amazon. On Tuesday, he said Brazil would accept $22 million in aid from the G-7 collective of nations only if France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, withdrew “insults made to my person.”
The Third Way
Nobre is one of a growing number of scientists and policymakers in Brazil and abroad to argue that economic despoilation of the Amazon cannot be counteracted merely by insisting on conservation.
Along with help from São Paulo University, the Brazilian nonprofit Imazon, and international funders such as the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Nobre has helped create an effort to find a sustainable economic model: the Amazon Third Way Initiative.
The “third way” is a route between conservation without development and development led by ruinous extraction. It seeks to take advantage of the fact that the Amazon is the most biodiverse area on the planet.
“Tropical biodiversity has a hidden economic potential which has not been really uncovered,” Nobre told Karma in an interview.
Sustainable development certainly sounds good. But can it work in practice? What products could it produce?
Here’s a list of industries whose success could keep the Amazon alive, along with some companies finding a way to combine economic productivity with environmental protection.
Thus far, the most popular sustainable export from the Amazon has been açaí. The dominant model of its harvesting, said Nobre, is “agroforestry,” a process that spreads the seeds of the desired crop in a forest, rather than replacing the forest with a plantation. In a lecture in Stockholm this February, Nobre estimated that cultivation of açaí is worth $1 billion to the Brazilian economy — 10% of cattle, timber, and soy combined.
Alimi Impact Ventures, a Brazilian firm that assists sustainable companies and fund managers, published last September a report on “climate-smart agriculture” in Brazil that used Sambazon, an American-held açaí producer and vendor, as one of its case studies.
With funding from the impact investing fund EcoEnterprises, Sambazon managed to capture a large share of the açaí market while making fair trade products that are certifiably organic and not genetically modified.
“Large investments of time, effort, and capital into the development of a working supply chain, of a Brazilian management team, and of long-term relationships with local farmers are the key success factors for the company,” says the Alimi report.
Natura & Co is a global cosmetics corporation with a net annual revenue of over $2 billion. Its success depends on sustainable agriculture in the Amazon.
The ucuuba tree, for instance, was logged nearly to extinction, yet Natura has found that its fruits can be used to make ucuuba butter for lotions and soaps. According to B the Change Media, by 2016 the butter became worth three times more than the wood.
Natura’s 2018 annual report describes its use of indigenous crops such as cocoa, açaí and andiroba to promote sustainable agriculture in the Amazon.
A recent article in TIME Magazine reported on several groups of scientists researching whether venom from the bushmaster snake, native to the Amazon, could stop the spread of cancer.
The article observes that this innovation would not be unprecedented: the drug captopril treats a range of medical issues, including high blood pressure and heart failure, and its main ingredient comes from the Brazilian pit viper.
In his Stockholm lecture, Nobre estimated that bushmaster venom was worth around $4,000 per gram. That’s more than 80 times the current value of gold, according to Money Metals Exchange.
Along with Brazil nuts, cocoa pods are widely seen as a crop that can be harvested without damage to the Amazon.
Cacauway, a chocolate plant in the northwestern Brazilian state of Para, has drawn attention for increasing both prices for cocoa producers and the biodiversity of local forests at the same time.
“For us, the factory is an experiment which can be replicated throughout the Amazon region,” Ademir Venturim, president of the local cooperative that runs the factory, told Agence-France Presse in June.
According to an April report in Reuters, efforts by the National Association of the Cocoa Processing Industry to encourage cattle ranchers to plant cocoa on used pastureland will help Brazil’s output of cocoa to double from 2018 to 2028.
There’s not yet much genomics research in the Brazilian Amazon, but “there’s great potential to be harnessed,” said Nobre. He believes sectors such as pharmaceuticals and biotechnology could find tremendous benefits in the genetic coding of the Amazon’s millions of plant, animal, and insect species.
As part of the Third Way Initiative, Nobre is launching three portable laboratories, known as Amazon Creative Labs, to research new economic opportunities in a range of industries, including genomics. He expects field research to begin in early 2020.
While there are signs of promise, the sector of sustainable development in the Amazon is still in an early stage, said Angélica Rotondaro, a founding member and partner of Alimi Impact Ventures.
“That is why,” she added, “impact investors have an important role in educating this market and creating a track record to prove it is feasible.”