One of the greatest riches of Latin American countries is their biodiversity. Nevertheless, it rarely contributes to the economic development of the nations that make up the region.

In Brazil, according to official statistics, not one of the 10 main exports in 2016 had its origin in the country’s biodiversity. Instead, the emphasis has been on products that require transformation or even, and this is the worst scenario, the destruction of biodiversity itself. The result is of low cost products with little added value, such as monocultures, extensive cattle raising, and mining.

While we insist on this economic formula, the world marches on towards the Fourth Industrial Revolution, with its incredible developments in genetics and biology. Despite holding outstanding genetic materials, our countries are losing momentum and failing to capitalise on our natural riches. This is down to a lack of understanding that there is a need beyond saving those materials, which is not even being done effectively. We must use our biodiversity innovatively and sustainably. What is even better, we can do so by conserving our biodiversity and maintaining our ecosystems.

 What does Brazil export? (2016)
What does Brazil export? (2016)
Image: Observatory of Economic Complexity

To do so, however, we must urgently advance in the knowledge economy of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We may think this is not possible in our countries but, at least in Brazil, there have been examples that show that, when there is political will and adequate planning, the outcomes are positive.

This is the case of agriculture and ranching, which were modernised after the creation of EMBRAPA (a research-based agency). Another example is EMBRAER (Brazilian aeroplane manufacturers), which hires most of its professionals from ITA, a remarkable engineering school that has maintained high international standards ever since its founding. There are other good examples among paper and pulp producers, such as Fibria and others, which have partnered with the best Brazilian universities, resulting in exemplary advances that are respected worldwide.

Examples of what we should not be doing are abundant, such as holding on to the current model of development, which will only intensify social and natural losses. It is of no use building research centres if there are no high-level professionals or investments to leverage the quality of a given field. Some centres have expensive laboratories, but lack the team of professionals capable of conceptualising new ideas that favour the use of biodiversity that can result in social, economic and environmental gains.

There has been an overall lack of support for implementing daring economic models that would enable these countries to tap into the most dynamic economic sectors, such as those that depend on intensive use of knowledge — biotechnology, informatics, and communications. These sectors could accelerate growth and reduce the exploitation of natural resources.

It seems evident that to become developed in today’s world, society needs to be rich in knowledge. This, in turn, requires investment in human capital and the import and subsequent export of products that depend on knowledge and not just natural resources.

The implication for a development policy towards a more balanced and prosperous future is to adopt political arrangements that abandon the intensive use of natural resources; and combine education and research in new ways that allow economic gains through a new vision that respects nature and avoids the overexploitation of biodiversity.

Access to genetic resources must, of course, be regulated to protect the environment and assure social justice, and these goals require much more than just laws or treaties. They require a paradigm shift that includes a social contract that reflects consultative planning with clear goals and objectives that can be implemented in a continuous and long-term basis across all sectors of society.

By increasing the scientific capacity of developing countries and educating professionals who can move their countries towards knowledge-based development seems more important than protecting portions of land as reserves, or even transforming natural areas into agricultural monocultures, as has been the current trend.

Inter-institutional or even continental cooperation can certainly contribute to the knowledge needed to determine how biodiversity can become a source of wealth for a country, rather than be seen as something to be destroyed.

Only with this knowledge can our countries become exporters of natural resources in a way that no longer fosters the extinction of species and the destruction of biodiversity. A sound and rational knowledge-based use of biodiversity can lead to social justice and a respectful relationship with nature, which in turn can enhance its protection for current and future generations. This, in our view, seems an appropriate challenge for Latin America at the beginning of the 21st century.