Tourists in Peru’s Madre de Dios region learn to gather and open Brazil nut pods.
If there is one lesson the coronavirus pandemic ought to hold for the countries that control the Amazon rainforest, it is the public-health value of keeping tropical woodlands intact. Effective conservation of such forest, experts point out, reduces the likelihood that a virulent pathogen will leap from a wild animal to a human host, triggering a disease outbreak. (See "Could a zoonotic pandemic start in Latin America?" —EcoAméricas, March 2020.)
There are, of course, other powerful reasons for Amazon forest conservation—an urgent one being that land clearing is tipping the forest into a cascade of climate-warming effects. Yet incentives to safeguard the vast biome have failed to stem the advance of soybean farming and cattle ranching, two key drivers of land-use change. Although fruits, nuts, vines and other natural bounty have sustained humans in the region for millennia, many of those products are seasonal, making it difficult to harness the woodland’s biological diversity for consumers elsewhere who expect year-round availability.
Is there no hope that genuinely transformational, forest-friendly development models will reverse the trend of relentless Amazon land-clearing?
Despite the many pilot projects that have failed the long-term sustainability test, some experts are optimistic. They point to entrepreneurs increasingly finding ways to provide woodland products that appeal to green-minded domestic and foreign consumers while generating income for local communities. And they see the potential for far more.
The Amazon is “a gigantic library for the life scientists,” says biologist Thomas Lovejoy of George Mason University in the U.S. state of Virginia. “Each species has evolved and is developing new solutions for its biological challenges and continued existence, and any one of those can be transformational for medicine or agriculture or some other biologically based activity.”
Covid-19 may be the impetus needed to spur a kind of “green new deal” for the Amazon, says Brazilian climate scientist Carlos Nobre of the University of São Paulo. “It’s a very clear sign that protecting tropical forests, reducing risks of future pandemics, is perhaps as important as reducing the risk of climate change,” he says.
The health crisis—nearly 400,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases and more than 13,000 deaths in the Amazon region as of June 24, based on reports from the nine countries that share the Amazon basin—is triggering a recession. Overall, the economy of Latin America and the Caribbean is likely to shrink by 9.4% this year, the International Monetary Fund says. Many experts worry that once Covid-19 cases subside, countries will seek to create jobs by financing new roads, dams and other infrastructure that, in the Amazon, would likely spur deforestation. This would cause the kind of habitat disturbance that could boost the chances of another epidemic. And it would contribute to a climate-warming feedback loop that eventually could push the Amazon past a “tipping point,” converting large swaths of its current-day forest into dry savanna. (See Q&A—this issue.) Says Lovejoy: “Further invasion of the forest right now is the last thing that needs to be done.”
The solution is not to create more protected areas, contends José Álvarez, who heads the Peruvian Environment Ministry’s Biological Diversity Office. “We can’t try to turn the entire Amazon into a national park—that model is done,” Álvarez says, arguing that forest-dwelling communities would rather have opportunities for development than live inside state-controlled protected areas. But “the original sin” of government and aid agencies, he adds, was to import development models from other countries that proved destructive to the region.
By pushing ranching or the cultivation of crops like cacao and coffee, he says, “the only thing they have been promoting is deforestation.” At the other end of the spectrum, small-scale pilot projects to create handcrafted products could not scale up. “The people involved had good intentions, but they did not know about business or markets or value chains,” Álvarez says.
Álvarez, a biologist who has spent most of his life in Peru’s northeastern Loreto region, has long pointed out the marketing possibilities of forest fruits that can be harvested without cutting down trees. He found kindred spirits at the Aje Group, a Peruvian company whose soft drinks compete globally with giants like Pepsi and Coca-Cola by targeting lower-income markets. The company, founded in the Peruvian highlands in the 1980s, was seeking a greener identity a few years ago. Looking to contribute to Amazon conservation, Aje executives were considering buying land to protect, but Álvarez instead sold them on tapping the properties of two native fruits—aguaje, the yellow fruit of the Mauritia flexuosa palm, and tart, red camu camu (Myrciaria dubia). Both could be sourced from indigenous communities.
“It took us three years to put them in a bottle,” says Jorge López, Aje’s chief communications and sustainability officer. The drinks hit the Peruvian market last year under the name “Bio”. Both are touted for their micronutrients; and as soft drink sales lag during the pandemic, the drinks are getting a market boost, with sales headed for a record this month. The company already has plans to sell them in other countries.
Typically, aguaje harvesters fell the trees to collect the fruit. But Aje contracts with communities that have land rights or have management plans and permits to harvest in protected areas, with harvesters required to climb the trees to cut off the fruit. The company also must leave a certain amount of fruit unharvested to further reproduction and provide food for wild animals. Value-added production delivers the region benefits, too: Aguaje and camu camu are processed into pulp by small companies in the cities of Iquitos and Pucallpa.
“We are trying to create a bio business in the Amazon, to convince the world that green growth is more profitable,” he says. The company is also trying to balance supply and demand in order to avoid boom-and-bust cycles. Ultimately, López says, Aje is trying to green capitalism. “Corporate people say our role is to add value to the shareholder. OK, who is the final shareholder of everything we do? It is mother earth. Everything we have is rented from her. So if a company is to give value to the owner, it has to give value to mother earth.”
In Brazil, Nobre envisions a marriage of biodiversity and technology to create powerful incentives for forest conservation, with local communities themselves adding value to the products they harvest. He calls his proposal “Amazonia 4.0,” a nod to the so-called “fourth industrial revolution,” which takes advantage of digital technology, large amounts of data, machine learning and internet-based connectivity.
Like López, he believes the growing interest in healthy eating—and awareness of the ways in which the pandemic has disrupted food distribution networks—makes forest foods a good candidate for development. Nobre points to açai, a locally popular palm fruit (Euterpe oleracea Mart.) that has become a global sensation, thanks to its image as an antioxidant-rich “super food.” The deep-purple fruit is found in ice cream, juices, cosmetics and açai bowls at trendy restaurants in the United States and Europe.
Yet Brazil still mainly exports the pulp, with the greatest value added in production taking place in other countries. Nobre’s proposal also calls for providing Amazon communities with portable laboratories and instruction in processing techniques, and linking would-be local producers with investors so they can set up their own processing facilities. “A bioeconomy means bringing bioindustry to the heart of the forest—to villages, riverine communities, cities, small towns, so they can process these products and add value,” he says.
Plans to take a portable lab this year to a community near Santarém, in the state of Pará, where an association of women produces cupuaçu (Theobroma grandiflorum), a tropical fruit, have been delayed by the pandemic. Nobre expects to reschedule the work for early 2021, however. He also envisions other labs for processing cocoa (Theobroma cacao L.), Brazil nuts and cooking oils, a genomics lab, and a lab for a university in Manaus “to inspire students to become entrepreneurs in a particular value chain.”
Amazonia 4.0 was embraced by the Vatican Academy of Sciences after Nobre presented the idea at a gathering of Catholic bishops and church workers from the Amazon region in Rome last year. (See “Bishops call for halt to Amazon region deforestation”—EcoAméricas, Oct. ’19.) Some participants were skeptical, noting the açai boom has led certain producers to spur growth of the palms by clearing other native plants, or to switch to plantations instead of harvesting from natural forests. The ideal, Nobre says, is “agroforestry,” which combines food and forest species in a managed landscape.
Critics also worry that introducing technology into small communities could lead to colonial-style domination. Nobre counters that even people in remote communities now have smart phones, and says the goal is for people to add value and sell their own products. Because most forest plants bear fruit seasonally, sometimes for just a few months a year, creating new products from the raw materials is one way to increase people’s income so they are not drawn to more environmentally damaging activities such as logging or gold mining, he says.
Luiz Davidovich, president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, hopes concern about Covid-19 will boost biopharmaceuticals, which could create powerful forest-conservation incentives. He says that although Brazil mainly produces generic drugs, the pandemic has sparked discussion about new biopharmaceutical investment, noting world forests have yielded drugs for malaria, headaches and hypertension.
Natural cosmetics could boost forest preservation, too. The Brazilian cosmetics behemoth Natura, arguably Latin America’s best-known natural products company, works with local Amazonian families to obtain raw materials such as passionfruit for soap and hand cream; ucuuba (Virola surinamensis) seeds for body wash and lotion; and pitanga (Eugenia uniflora) for fragrance. The company, which started as a small store in São Paulo and went on to acquire The Body Shop and Avon, also uses seeds better known as foods—such as açai, cacao and Brazil nuts—in creams, soaps and even candles.
Lovejoy sees possibilities in the region’s lakes, where community-based fisheries management has led to increases in the number of popular food fish, including the huge, air-breathing arapaima (Arapaima gigas). Such has been the case in the Paumari Indigenous Lands, located in the Purús watershed in Brazil’s Amazonas region. Years of uncontrolled fishing decimated the arapaima population in lakes there. Then community members put some lakes off-limits for fishing, set quotas in others and began monitoring fish stocks, which have grown from about 300 to more than 8,000 of the prized food fish today, community leaders say.
Not all solutions have to be high-tech or scaled for world markets, says Sofía Rubio, founder of Shiwi, a small forest-products company in Peru. Rubio began her business career at the age of 21, when she took over the management of her family’s Brazil nut concession in the Tambopata National Reserve. It was 2008, and the global economic crisis was making it even more difficult for Brazil nut harvesters in Peru’s southeastern Madre de Dios region to profit from the nuts, which are harvested only from January to March every year. Rubio, a biology student, experimented with granola made from Brazil nuts and Andean grains such as quinoa and kiwicha. She also produced a Nutella-like Brazil nut butter, Brazil nut oil, and Brazil nut chips flavored with herbs for those who prefer savory to sweet. All of which led her to found Shiwi, a marketing platform for people who manage private or community conservation areas and produce items such as coconut oil and honey. Says Rubio: “I see my role as being a catapult.”
Before the pandemic, Madre de Dios was a magnet for nature tourists drawn to its protected areas, including the Tambopata reserve, where Brazil nut harvesters like Rubio’s family were allowed to keep concessions that existed before the reserve was created. Rubio tested tourism in the family concession in 2013 with an outing of hiking, fishing and Brazil-nut gathering. The pilot trip grew into a “Brazil nut route,” with an emphasis on foods from the forest. She took a break after five years to earn a Master’s degree in food culture communication and marketing at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy, but other harvesters have continued experiential tourism in their own concessions.
Back in Peru now, Rubio is promoting the slow-food movement in the country, which was a prime gastronomy center before the pandemic shut down restaurants and tourism. She sees plenty of potential for small businesses to target local consumers without the need to aim for foreign markets. “Just as in nature there are both big mammals and ants, and they’re all happy being what they are, and they all play a role, businesses are the same,” she says. “Scaling up is not necessarily what improves people’s lives.”
Producers using Shiwi value “maximum quality, maximum creativity, maximum value added, but not maximum growth and being the biggest company on the planet,” she says. She finds them consumers who “buy the whole story” of the product and its forest origins.
It remains to be seen whether green-friendly strategies such as the marketing of açai bowls in Manhattan and Brazil-nut butter in Lima will turn the regional investment tide against cattle ranching, logging and monocrop soy cultivation. But experts agree now is the time to devise development models that promise a more sustainable future for the Amazon and the world.
“This is one of these moments of truth where we have to figure out new and more effective ways of dealing with the challenges,” Lovejoy says. “Covid has revealed the fragility of human social systems, so we need to be really thoughtful about how we rebuild.”
- Barbara Fraser
In the Index: Members of a community in Peru’s Loreto region boil aguaje to produce oil for cosmetics.(Photos by Barbara Fraser)