Nature and Biodiversity

Nature-inspired design: how the Amazon can help us solve humanity's greatest challenges

A village of indigenous Yanomami is seen during Brazil’s environmental agency operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 18, 2016. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

Biological systems in the Amazon are the result of millions of years of evolution. We must learn from them Image: REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

Juan Carlos Castilla-Rubio
Chairman, Space Time Ventures
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This article is part of: Annual Meeting of the New Champions

The Amazon system stores an estimated 10 years’ worth of global greenhouse gas emissions, removes over 2 billion tonnes of CO2 every year, and presents a mosaic of ethno and linguistic diversity. Its ecosystems harbor about 25% of land biodiversity; while its abundant rainfall generates 20% of the freshwater input into the world’s oceans.

In fact, the Amazon system can be considered a global commons in the current geological era – the so-called Anthropocene – given the relevance of its functioning for planetary health.

A number of large-scale drivers of environmental change are operating simultaneously in the Amazon, namely land-use change, climate change and deforestation. Continued deforestation in the Amazon could lead to the irreversible change of its tropical forests and the major loss of its biodiversity. Earth system models predict that up to 60% of the Amazon forests could vanish by 2050, with most of the forest replaced by dry savannas with far fewer species and much less carbon stored, producing catastrophic impacts for the world at large.

The need to find alternative models has become increasingly urgent. The rate of deforestation in Brazil declined 80% between 2004 and 2014 to reach 5,000km2. Since then, however, deforestation rates started to rise again, to reach nearly 8,000 km2 in 2016.

Moreover, in terms of development pathways for the Amazon, two modes have historically dominated:

1) A valuable nature conservation approach with large swathes of territory legally protected from any economic and human activity outside indigenous peoples.

2) An approach that focuses on conversion of the Amazon’s natural resources for the production of either protein commodities (such as meat and soya), underground resources for minerals, oil and gas, tropical timber at the forest frontier and the build-out of massive hydropower generation capacity.

On the other hand, biological systems in the Amazon are the result of millions of years of evolution. Learning from and then emulating Amazonian natural forms, processes, and ecosystems giving rise to a myriad of so-called biomimetic assets – to create more sustainable designs and innovations that will be foundational to accelerate the transformations of the energy, water, food, healthcare, material and transportation industries that humanity urgently requires.

These assets, in combination with the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, can enable nature-inspired nanoscience reproducing complex biological systems to problems on a nano-molecular scale such as developing new environmental-friendly processes and pollution prevention or remediation technologies; new textile structures; new energy production and carbon sequestration technologies; new robotic applications; new sensors, and new artificial intelligence algorithms for autonomous shared electric vehicles; to mention just a few.

In addition, there are about 285,000 natural products derived from the world’s biodiversity but we can only synthesize 10,000 of them. Given that the Amazon concentrates a large portion of the land biodiversity and we discover one new species every three days, we believe that it holds many of the codes to produce the valuable bio-products and bio-materials of the future, which will use a combination of synthetic biology, artificial intelligence and robotics, and the Amazonian biological assets.

But historically, there has been a deep-rooted societal fear of ‘bio-piracy’ in the Amazonian countries, of both the intended and the unintended types. Its roots go back to mid-19th Century, due to the ‘theft’ of rubber tree seeds by the British, which gave rise to the plantations in SE Asia and the demise of the rubber boom in the Amazon early in the 20th Century.

This all naturally led us to formulate the Amazon Third Way (A3W) innovation initiative whose long term goal is to ‘Make the current and future value of the Amazonian IP visible, thereby creating much higher economic incentives to protect the Amazonian Biodiversity IP by conserving its forests, but doing so in a way that allows for the fair sharing of the benefits between the peoples/ indigenous communities of the Amazon and the commercial users of the IP worldwide’.

In order to jumpstart and fast-track a bio-inspired entrepreneurial revolution in the Amazon, we are in the process of convening and building a Coalition of the Willing in partnership with the World Economic Forum to design and deploy the ABC – the Amazonian Bank of Codes – an open global public good digital platform that:

  • Maps the biological functions and biomimetic and biological assets of the Amazon
  • Immutably registers and certifies the Amazon’s biological and biomimetic IP assets on the blockchain
  • Codifies the rights and obligations associated to the commercial use of those IP assets, so that fair sharing of benefits between the peoples of the Amazon and the commercial users of the IP can be secured from the get go
  • Provides an “ebay-like’’ global marketplace for the Amazonian IP that reduces the search and transaction costs between providers and users of IP in the Amazonian countries and globally

If we are successful with fast-tracking bio-inspired design in the Amazon we can replicate this approach to all land-based and ocean-based hotspots in biodiversity in the world. The future of the Amazon, and its impacts on the planet, lies so clearly in the balance. Time is not on our side, but we can still choose the Third Way.

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