What Could a “Bioeconomy” in the Amazon Look Like?
News coverage of the Amazon rainforest in the past few years has been grim. Deforestation rates in the Brazilian Amazon increased 15% during 2021, with 9,770 square kilometers of native vegetation lost, an area the size of Puerto Rico. If deforestation continues, a tipping point may be reached, where the Amazon rainforest becomes a net emitter of carbon rather than a carbon sink.
Aside from fueling climate change, deforestation poses risks to biodiversity: the Amazon is home to one out of every 10 species known to science.
The problem is that the current regional economic model in the Amazon is highly dependent on resource extraction and exploitation, pushing the rainforest closer to its tipping point. Changes in land use account for almost half of Brazil's greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and of those emissions, approximately 80% are linked to deforestation in the Amazon.
It's clear that heavily forested nations like Brazil need a new economic model — one fit for a low-carbon, sustainable and prosperous future.
Enter the “bioeconomy.”
What Is the Bioeconomy?
The concept of the “bioeconomy” emerged recently as a potential approach for sustainable development in the Amazon, but it’s not new around the globe. The European Union, the United States and institutions such as the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) have their own definition of the bioeconomy, with different objectives and possible outcomes. Developed countries usually understand bioeconomy as a solution for reducing emissions and shifting to low-carbon energy, but not necessarily for conserving biodiversity.
In a rainforest biome like the Amazon, which faces many social and environmental crises, the bioeconomy needs to boost economic opportunities while maintaining biological, cultural and social diversity. Establishing a clear definition is essential, and a bioeconomy in the Amazon might look different than in other regions.
WRI Brasil’s paper, An Innovative Bioeconomy for the Amazon: Concepts, Limits and Trends for a Definition Appropriate to the Rainforest Biome, begins to paint a picture of what a bioeconomy in the Amazon could look like.
3 Essential Elements of a Bioeconomy in the Amazon
The Amazon region is rich in social and biological diversity. A bioeconomy model there should seek to capitalize on and preserve this diversity, while valuing the knowledge and ways of life of traditional populations and ensuring a just distribution of benefits. Eliminating deforestation is critical; conservation and the production processes behind forest products are key.
A true bioeconomy in the Amazon needs to embrace three elements:
1) Conservation and Regeneration of Forests
The Amazonian bioeconomy needs to successfully manage and preserve its high-integrity forests while working to restore lower-integrity, degraded lands and eliminating deforestation.
There are multiple areas of potential economic development in well-preserved forests, including the sustainable exploitation of non-timber forest products like super foods or essential oils; the discovery, development and price stabilization of medicines, cosmetics and more; and sustainable ecotourism.
Indigenous and other traditional communities already know how to manage and produce in high-integrity forests. Their historical practices and knowledge provide techniques that can increase productivity while restoring natural systems, offering an alternative paradigm to modern agriculture.
In forest areas more affected by human activities like logging, fires or farming, regeneration and restoration must become priorities. These goals needn’t come at the expense of agriculture. From native species silviculture to agroforestry and other systems that integrate crops, livestock and forestry, there are many farming practices that can aid in restoring degraded landscapes.
With the right incentives and financing, farmers in the Amazon can move faster to forest-friendly practices. Research and technical assistance can also aid in the transition.
2) Territorial Planning and Law Enforcement
The conflict between forest conservation and other forms of land use has been a regional problem since Brazil’s colonial era. Although Brazil has proven expertise in dramatically reducing deforestation between 2005 and 2012, recent changes in Brazil’s regulations have reportedly encouraged illegal extractive activities. A new cycle of degradation and violence has swept the countryside, including recurrent invasions into Indigenous reserves.
To promote a new bioeconomy in the Amazon, the country will need to build on previous experiences and develop a new approach to territorial planning that can respond to the current reality. National and subnational governments need to start by enforcing existing laws. For example, according to Brazil’s Forest Code, a federal law updated in 2012, private landowners in the Amazon are required to preserve 80% of their property for conservation. However, enforcement has been limited by the lack of a comprehensive land registry to track property.
Government officials will also need to combat illegality, as illegal deforestation is estimated to account for up to 98% of total forest loss in Brazil.
Allocation of public lands and guaranteeing the land rights of Indigenous Peoples and traditional and local communities will also be key to eliminating deforestation this decade. Research shows that local communities and Indigenous Peoples are good land stewards, with rates of forest loss 2-3 times lower than in similar forest areas managed by others.
3) Centering Decisions on People
Fortunately, many relevant production processes suitable for a sustainable bioeconomy in the Amazon already exist across diverse local communities, with the support of public and private partners. It’s essential that a bioeconomy benefit the people who call the Amazon home.
Community cooperative work already showcases sustainable economic models. One example is Cooperacre, a co-op in Rio Branco that produces sustainably harvested rubber and Brazil nuts. In both cases, production involves harvesting goods from standing trees. The Baniwa Jiquitaia chili pepper is another example: Cultivated and sustainably harvested by Baniwa indigenous women in Alto Rio Negro in the northeastern Amazon, the native vegetable now finds itself in demand by chefs and high-end restaurants, creating an important source of income to the community while protecting forests.
These ventures support local, national and international economies with deforestation-free agricultural and forestry products, all while ensuring biodiversity conservation and empowering community organizations.
The economic opportunities that come with the bioeconomy’s new production processes must also work to counter illegal activities that harm local communities. This means enforcing existing laws like the Forest Code and strengthening protections for Indigenous Peoples and lands.
These opportunities depend on integration with the economy, correct valuation and a just distribution of benefits. Respect for traditional knowledge must be a guiding element of any scientific and technological innovations.
Creating a Bioeconomy in the Amazon, for the World
The bioeconomy presents a new frontier of economic thought, and it’s essential that we get it right — not only for the Amazon, but for the world. Communities across the globe depend on the Amazon rainforest for commodities, for water, for biodiversity, for climate regulation and a host of other ecosystem services. If we are to succeed at tackling climate change and biodiversity loss, we must succeed in decoupling economic development from conservation.