Nature and Biodiversity

The Amazon could hold the key to solving our biggest challenges

A cow grazes next to a fallen tree on a tract of deforested Amazon rainforest near the city of Novo Progresso, Brazil July 2, 2013. Picture taken July 2, 2013. REUTERS/Nacho Doce/File Photo - RTSHYDN

The Amazon is teaming not just with life, but also with extraordinary ideas which can benefit us all Image: REUTERS/Nacho Doce

Keith Breene
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Watch 200,000 ants stream past without a single collision or moment of congestion and you see why researchers developing driverless cars wanted to learn from these insects.

Spot the deadly Jararaca viper, whose bite will reduce your blood pressure to zero in seconds and you understand why many of the world's blood pressure medications are based on its venom.

And look up at the iridescent blue of the morpho butterfly and marvel at the fact that its unique wing nanostructure has been copied and used in gas sensor technology throughout the world.

Image: Space Time Ventures

When you see all these things, you realize that the Amazon is teaming not just with life, but also with extraordinary ideas which can benefit us all. And scientists believe that by preserving the rainforest and learning from it at the same time, we can help mankind while generating trillions of dollars for local and international economies.

A new species every three days

“I truly believe we can change the game, because if we don’t change the game, the game is over.” This was the stark warning from Juan Carlos Castilla-Rubio, Chairman of Space Time Ventures, to the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting of the New Champions 2017 in Dalian, China.

Castilla-Rubio founded his first biotech start-up in the Amazon 30 years ago and he believes that the fight to protect the area’s natural resources is of the utmost importance in the race against climate change.

The Amazon has 25% of the world's land biodiversity and a new species is discovered in the region every three days. For this reason, Castilla-Rubio says, “It is reasonable to expect that the Amazon holds the secrets to many of the natural products that will help us in the future.”

What’s more, he believes that the value of intellectual property that can be unlocked in the Amazon is much larger than the economy currently operating there based on natural resources such as hydro power, beef and soya production and extraction of oil and gas.

Natural intellectual property
Image: Space Time Ventures

He says the fight against global warming means the world will need natural solutions all the more as they are so much more efficient than those developed by humans.

“The key insight is that biological solutions, in comparison with engineering solutions, use much less energy and much more information than their engineering counterparts and therefore by design they are much more sustainable.”

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One of the major challenges to this vision, Castilla-Rubio says, is the deeply embedded mistrust which exists in the Amazon region after centuries of biopiracy.

He gives the example of rubber production which was an important industry in Brazil until rubber plant seeds were taken to South East Asia, causing the local industry to collapse. There have been many similar examples throughout the centuries.

We need to find a way to resolve the radically different approach to knowledge that exists in the Amazon communities and the world of business, according to Castilla-Rubio. One sees knowledge as something owned by everyone and passed down the generations, the other as something to be developed, owned and sold.

The Amazonian Bank of Codes

Which is why the scientist is proposing a radical new approach, one he calls the ABC – the Amazonia Bank of Codes. Using this system, bio-life in the region would be mapped and intellectual property assets registered on a blockchain, ensuring those who live among and protect the assets receive part of any eventual profits.

The ABC would use the technologies that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is bringing to catalogue and preserve the Amazon whilst unlocking its secrets.

Image: Space Time Ventures

There is the potential for many of humankind’s problems to be solved in the Amazon. Underground, soil produces an enzyme that can transform waste into biogas.

There is an amphibian species called the Tungara frog that creates a long-lasting foam that has inspired new ideas for energy-generation and new technologies for carbon dioxide capture.

There are also plants that are influencing the development of new solar cells, potentially generating cheaper solutions in comparison to silicon-based photovoltaics solar cells.

The list, Castilla-Rubio says, is longer than we can ever imagine and the world must act before all that potential is lost to agriculture and other uses.

“We have been burning the knowledge of the Amazon and in its place we have been building a hypermarket to sell meat to the world. We need to reverse that.”

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