• The Amazon is home to more species of plants and animals than any other terrestrial ecosystem.
  • However, deforestation threatens the very survival of the Amazon ecosystems.
  • Promising eco-enterprises are emerging to connect remote areas of the Amazon to sustainable markets.
  • Ecopreneurship models that preserve the forest and restore landscapes represent innovative solutions to slow down and reverse deforestation.
  • As part of these efforts, Uplink and 1t.org are launching the Trillion Trees: Amazon Bioeconomy Challenge with an alliance of the major actors to strengthen the ecopreneurship ecosystem.

The Amazon basin has become a main feature of daily news, with increasing deforestation, wildfires, business and political agendas confronting the efforts to conserve the rainforest.

The basin is home to the largest rainforest on Earth, accounting for 54% of the world’s primary forest cover. Roughly the size of the US, the basin includes parts of eight South American countries and is home to more species of plants and animals than any other terrestrial ecosystem on the planet including 40,000 plant species and 16,000 tree species.

Deforestation of the Amazon basin has taken on dire consequences. The trees of the Amazon rainforest have been considered the lungs of the planet - by absorbing carbon dioxide and producing 20% of the earth's oxygen - but a recent study published in Nature Climate Change revealed that the Brazilian Amazon released nearly 20% more carbon dioxide in the past 10 years than it absorbed.

Shanantina is a social enterprise that works exclusively with indigenous communities to cultivate sacha inchi, a nut that is native to the Peruvian Amazon
Shanantina is a social enterprise that works exclusively with indigenous communities to cultivate sacha inchi, a nut that is native to the Peruvian Amazon.
Image: Shanantina / NESsT

If it continues at this rate, combined with climate change, the Amazon forest could die within our lifetime. The causes of deforestation in the Amazon are complex, and include poverty as land grabbers and small-scale farmers try to improve their livelihoods; cattle ranching; commercial farming of traditional commodities such as soy, sugar and palm oil; and lax government policies and enforcement. The coronavirus pandemic has further exacerbated the situation.

The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration provides the needed sense of urgency to support bold actions that can address, collaboratively and on a massive scale, forest conservation and land restoration in the Amazon basin. We need bold, ecopreneurial ideas to contribute to this effort, which is why Uplink and 1t.org are launching the Trillion Trees: Amazon Bioeconomy Challenge.

What are the challenges and opportunities?

An increasing number of efforts have emerged to support sustainable development of the Amazon basin. They represent an encouraging movement to innovate using business and investment approaches, combined with a focus on livelihood improvements, to achieve forest conservation.

NESsT’s own experience supporting entrepreneurship in the Amazon basin points to a number of opportunities and challenges.

Opportunities for ecopreneurship:

  • Business models based on new products that rely on local knowledge (and not on traditional forest-destroying commodities) where economic incentives encourage land restoration and conservation.
  • Integration of culture and worldview of local, traditional communities who are some of the main raw material suppliers and with whom we need to build trust to achieve improvements in product quality and conservation outcomes.
  • Network solutions, such as collective brands or trademarks, under which products from several eco-enterprises are marketed in order to reach scale; and operators that build new sustainable and eco-friendly logistics and distribution chains to move products from remote areas of the Amazon to markets.
  • Innovative technology to tackle deforestation in the Amazon. Many promising and sustainable value chains – such as superfoods, forest products, as well as deforestation-free cacao and coffee – lack technology solutions to improve yields, generate value-added products, monitor forest conservation, boost agroforestry, or address transport and storage barriers.

Challenges for ecopreneurship

  • Lack of investment readiness among eco-enterprises, especially in the areas of financial management, and a lack of client diversification. For most ecopreneurs located in remote areas of the Amazon basin, access to markets remains the primary challenge.
  • Alignment of community needs and investor priorities. Amazon basin communities build their livelihoods around many products, including agriculture and forest products, which provide income all year around and are more environmentally sustainable. But “we,” impact investors, see that as lack of focus and scale.
  • Demand for newer products from the Amazon Basin is still very immature with high price fluctuations. For example, pirarucu, one of the largest fresh-water fish in the world, which has been overexploited to date, presents many viable commercial opportunities for slowing down deforestation and improving land restoration, if managed properly through community-based management systems. Yet the product is largely unknown to consumers and has not reached commercial scale.
  • Programs such as organic, fair trade or rainforest preservation certifications are often prohibitively expensive for eco-enterprises.
  • Service providers located close to ecopreneurs, such as notaries, accountants, insurance providers, lawyers, and value chain experts, need to expand their services to meet the needs of a growing number of market-savvy entrepreneurs and impact investors.

The importance of traditional communities

Traditional communities - either indigenous, riverine, or Afro-Brazilians - have been the traditional custodians of the Amazon rainforest. Today they share the forests with a growing number of settlers who seek to tap into the Amazon's considerable natural resources. While traditional communities represent a small proportion of the Amazon’s population (for example, the indigenous population is at 9%), they remain important stakeholders in the fight against deforestation because of their knowledge of the rainforest and methods to subsist from it, as well as the vast territories they manage under reserves and conservation units.

The UN Decade’s strategy seeks to build the capacity of indigenous and traditional peoples - as well as other marginalized groups such as women and youth - that stand to lose most from the continued destruction of local ecosystems. Their participation is paramount to the sustainable economic development of the Amazon by encouraging a new brand of entrepreneurship rooted in preserving biodiversity, fighting poverty, and generating the necessary resources to invest in local monitoring and surveillance efforts of territories and reserves.

We are seeing promising indigenous enterprises emerging to connect remote areas of the Amazon to sustainable markets, including in coffee and cacao, eco-tourism, nuts, seeds, plants for medicinal or cosmetic uses (such as andiroba, muru muru, as well as ucuuba), and fisheries. While they may not yet meet the traditional standards of investment-readiness and commercial viability, these early-stage indigenous eco-enterprises need to be nurtured to improve living conditions and conservation in the Amazon basin.

How can we harness innovation and ecopreneurship to save the Amazon basin?

The Trillion Trees: Amazon Bioeconomy Challenge brings the convening power of the World Economic Forum and 1t.org umbrella into an alliance of the major actors supporting ecopreneurship in the Amazon basin. The challenge removes traditional silos to co-design an initiative that strengthens the ecopreneurship ecosystem, addresses gaps among existing programs, and catalyzes knowledge sharing. Importantly, for ecopreneurs, the challenge provides a new unique opportunity for resources and visibility that will turn into long-term success.