The prevailing model for rural development in the Amazon over the last half century – replacing forests with agriculture and cattle ranching – has long been outdated for a number of environmental, economic and social reasons.

For instance, for Brazil the gross agricultural product of the Amazon represents less than 0.5% of its GNP. The conclusion is inescapable: 50 years of deforestation have not resulted in wealth creation or better quality of life for those living in the Amazon – the Amazônidas­.

It is urgent to halt deforestation, keeping in mind that almost 1 million km2 of the Amazon tropical forests have already been deforested while another equal portion finds itself in process of degradation. There is encouraging evidence that the rate of deforestation has declined in the last several years; this decline is conspicuous in the Brazilian Amazon, where deforestation rates have been cut down by almost 80% since 2005. Important to note is that agricultural output in the region has been increasing significantly. It is becoming clear that economic growth is decoupled from deforestation as demonstrated by ample facts.

Yet the present economic scenario continues to conspire against the Amazon by placing a higher premium on agricultural commodities such as soybeans and meat than on the forests. The long-term success of anti-deforestation policies must rest on firmer ground besides command and control measures to curb illegal deforestation.

The challenge, therefore, is to reconcile the current model with a new vision of optimal and sustainable renewable natural resource utilization as first suggested in the Journal of Brazilian Chemical Society in 2008. A corollary to this greater challenge is the urgent need of a high tech approach and scaleable innovation model to serve as the basis for a new model of sustainable regional development for the Amazon.

Transforming the current regional developmental model presents multi-dimensional challenges, which cannot be achieved through science and technology alone. Nevertheless, new innovation and public-private business models are essential if we are to fully develop and scale innovative, biodiversity-based value chains, and to properly value the environmental services. It has become vital to instigate a real scientific, high tech and innovation revolution in the Amazon.  

In practical terms, this requires the development of a new model based on the forest and its terrestrial and aquatic resources, which recognizes the economic value of its biodiversity and of the ecosystem services it provides. Nowadays, very few value chains based on the Amazon’s natural products either involve global markets or bring benefits across the social strata. Actually, quite the opposite has been the case with more and more imported products being used within the Amazon to replace traditional Amazonian goods.

Our view is that transitioning to this new sustainable development model will require an Amazon-specific high technology innovation ecosystem that would include a regionally distributed network of new public R&D institutions with specific focus on renewable natural resources, resource productivity and biodiversity. This would then provide a basic foundation to nurture an innovative bio-industrial model for the region capable of attracting private R&D laboratories, public-private partnerships, entrepreneurs, venture capital and innovative corporations – much like Silicon Valley.

There is huge unexploited potential for innovations using science and technology developments in Latin America and internationally in industrial biotechnology, sustainable agriculture, resource risk management, biodiversity genomics and biomimicry-enabled nanoscience (i.e. reproducing for practical application the solutions of complex biological systems to problems on a nanomolecular scale). This should all be enabled by Big Data platforms and high-end research networks – and applied to a suite of new markets, new processes (e.g. bio-refineries) and new high value-added products.

We estimate that it is quite feasible to develop a number of biodiversity-based product value chains capable of reaching global markets with unique differentiation. Within a decade or two, this could give rise to a new forest and aquatic-resource based economy with intensive economic and sustainable use of biodiversity and strong local value aggregation via industrialization, that is, the emergence of a robust bioindustry in Amazon. This new economy has the potential to become much larger than the present one that is based on the replacement or destructive exploitation of the forest.

Author: Carlos Nobre is National Secretary of R&D Policies at the Ministry of Science, technology and Innovation of Brazil and a Member of the Global Agenda Council on Measuring Sustainability.  

With the collaboration of Juan Carlos Castilla-Rubio, Chief Executive Officer of the Planetary Skin Institute (PSI) and Chair of the Global Agenda Council on Measuring Sustainability – he will be participating in the World Economic Forum on Latin America 2013

Image: A view of a natural lake fed by a spring in the Amazon River basin REUTERS/Ivan Canabrava