Earth Needs an Amazon Bioeconomy
Preserving rainforests is crucial to global climate stability, but success will require new economic models that pair significant emissions reductions with viable alternatives to clearing the land. Such a framework is now taking shape in the Amazon Basin, where the most urgent task is to harmonize competing approaches.
RIO DE JANEIRO – Climate change and biodiversity loss are pushing the world’s vital ecosystems to the brink of collapse, with scientists warning that six of nine key planetary boundaries are already breached. Protecting and conserving rainforests is crucial, but to do that, we need investment in rule of law and new economic models that pair significant emissions reductions with viable alternatives to clearing the forest. Nowhere is this challenge more pressing than in the Amazon.
Spanning more than eight million square kilometers (3.1 million square miles), Amazonia is home to the world’s largest tropical rainforest. It is also the front line of environmental crimes, including land grabbing and illegal gold mining, as well as extractive industries such as logging, ranching, and soy production. Owing to these activities, large swaths of the region are approaching an irreversible tipping point that could turn rainforest into savannah. Despite recent reductions in forest clearance, deforestation and severe land degradation have already affected 26% of the region, putting more than 10,000 plant and animal species at risk of extinction.
If illegal deforestation and the extractivist development model persist, the World Resources Institute warns, the region’s 2050 carbon emissions will be five times higher than the threshold set by the Paris climate agreement. A staggering 57 million hectares of forest – an area the size of France – could be destroyed, with dire consequences for the climate, biodiversity, ocean currents, and global food supplies.
A sure way to slow and reverse all forms of deforestation and land degradation is to increase the economic value of standing forests. We need improved security and market incentives – the ability to profit from protecting nature – to promote decarbonization and conservation. To that end, one especially promising model is the “bioeconomy,” which comprises regenerative agriculture, livestock, and fishing; sustainable timber and non-timber cultivation; green- and renewable-energy production; sustainable biomaterials (including pesticides, fertilizers, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals); eco-tourism and related services; sustainable fashion and textiles; and services based on carbon capture and biological and environmental conservation.
Enthusiasm for the bioeconomy is growing, especially in the Amazon Basin. A Pan-Amazonian Conference on Bioeconomy in Belem, Brazil, this past June brought together hundreds of experts from more than 100 organizations across the region. This is not just “feel-good” environmentalism; the potential economic returns are considerable. By some estimates, fully implementing a bioeconomy approach would enable Brazil to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 550 million tons and generate $284 billion per year by 2050.
Aside from a few enlightened businesses, however, there is still resistance from the extractive sectors, which see little to gain from such a shift. The institutional scaffolding of the Amazon bioeconomy is only just being erected. Scaling it up will require sustained, high-quality research and development, widely available infrastructure and capital, and new, resilient supply chains. Safeguards to protect the intellectual property of bioproducts and genetic resources are essential, as are strategies for respectful knowledge sharing with indigenous communities.
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An urgent task is to clarify what the bioeconomy model does and does not entail. As matters stand, the eight countries that share the rainforest have competing interpretations, and the definitions being applied in the Amazon are often distinct from those promulgated by governments, businesses, and NGOs in North America and Western Europe. Determining what is included in the bioeconomy matters fundamentally, because it will shape the foundation of a green future. That is why we at the Igarapé Institute are partnering with the Inter-American Development Bank’s (IDB) Amazonia Forever program to expand the bioeconomy in a way that respects regional diversity.
The IDB’s Amazonia Forever program is leading the charge in promoting and accelerating bioeconomy opportunities through financial support and technical assistance to local start-ups, bio-enterprises, and producers and harvesters at all levels of the value chain. Since fostering synergies between researchers, entrepreneurs, investors, producers, and communities in remote areas presents daunting logistical hurdles, the IDB and others are focusing on the high-value-added products that are needed to make the bioeconomy succeed.
Expanding this model requires stronger connections among bioeconomy scholars and researchers, which is why we have mapped several clusters of research communities working on related issues across the region. Some of the most advanced appear to be in Brazil and Colombia, where one generally finds robust, well-targeted bioeconomy policies and programs. Both countries have rapidly evolving productive sectors that are pursuing scientific and technological priorities, while also harnessing the valuable experiences and contributions of traditional communities.
In Ecuador and Peru, bioeconomy policies are less advanced despite many government-led efforts to promote “bio-business” and “bio-innovation” in certain sectors; Ecuador is in the process of developing a national bioeconomy policy. By contrast, Bolivia and Venezuela have resisted using the term “bioeconomy” (in favor of “sustainable use of biodiversity”), and remain more focused on smaller-scale initiatives to address food security and specific inputs like biofertilizers. Finally, in Guyana and Suriname, incipient low-carbon and green-economy strategies are confronting a powerful, entrenched fossil-fuel lobby.
Despite competing definitions, there are some shared principles. It is generally agreed that the bioeconomy includes activities that make use of biological resources and typically involve scientific and technological innovation, as well as insights and expertise from ancestral and traditional knowledge. Promoting value-added through processing and supply-chain efficiency is key, as are environmental services and the replacement of fossil-fuel-based products with sustainable alternatives.
Understanding how these bioeconomy approaches converge and diverge is critical for developing coherent policies and sustainable investment strategies. As long as conceptual asymmetries between local definitions and global guidelines go unrecognized, potential beneficiaries could miss out on funding opportunities. Ultimately, the environmental and social impact of bioeconomy-related investments will depend on the extent to which they genuinely address a country’s specific needs, priorities, and capacities. If bioeconomy initiatives are to be amplified, they will need patient capital and buy-in from a wide range of stakeholders, both regionally and globally.
The shift from extractivist to ecological production models is not just a national strategic imperative. It is a matter of human survival. The bioeconomy has vast potential, but it faces stiff competition from environmental crime and legacy industries. By sustainably leveraging Amazonia’s rich biodiversity and promoting the rule of law, we can build a prosperous and sustainable future for the forest and its inhabitants, while also making major contributions to decarbonization. The first step is to build awareness of the economic dividends that nature is capable of paying.