Brazilian geographer Bertha Becker referred to the Amazon region as the oldest periphery of the capitalist world system. Its colonial occupation, or 'frontier economy', is based on the continuous incorporation of available land and the exploitation of their resources – both of which are regarded as infinite. This perspective on the Amazon has existed for centuries and continues to loom large in Brazil today. To meet its growing demand for raw materials, the outside world assumed the rainforest to be of little value, discounting the services that it provides to humankind. This view encourages the rainforest’s destruction and is not sustainable. A model for the sustainable development of the Amazon region is feasible however and could play an important role in Brazil's post-pandemic economic recovery efforts.
This raises two questions: 1. What can be done to strengthen perspectives that acknowledge the intrinsic value of intact forested areas? 2. How can narratives that encompass new practices for green growth be strengthened?
A new approach is possible
According to data from Mapbiomas 47 million hectares (an area larger than Sweden) of Brazilian Amazon rainforest were lost between 1985 and 2018; 83% is now used for livestock grazing and 12% is occupied by plantations. 86% of this total area is under-utilized; usually due to unproductive livestock farming practices (grazing intensities of fewer than one cow per hectare). However, between 2002 and 2014 Brazil showed that growth can be uncoupled from deforestation: with Brazil's gross domestic product from agriculture rising even as the annual rate of deforestation dropped by 83% and more. This was made possible by increasing the productivity of previously settled land areas and restoring degraded forest areas. However, this growth did not translate into equivalent gains at the local level. Although the Amazon region experienced above-average economic growth between 1960 and 2015 (5.9% versus 4.1%), it remains Brazil's poorest region, with highly uneven income distribution.
A recent study by WRI Brasil and Coppe/UFRJ shows that green growth that succeeds in stimulating innovation in various sectors, including agriculture, can boost GDP by up to 2.8 billion Real and can help to mitigate the effects of climate change. In the following we will consider three aspects that must be reflected in the new development model: (1.) efforts to expand the production base and use of new technologies, (2.) payments for environmental services and (3.) climate change.
The large number of non-timber forest products that can be sourced from the Amazon offer opportunities to expand the region's economic base. A UFMG study shows that one hectare of land planted with açai palms (Euterpe oleracea) can generate an income of 26,800 Real (€4,288) – around 10 times that of soybean crops. Another example highlighted by Caetano Scannavino of Brazlian NGO Saúde & Alegria is the venom of the yellow scorpion, which can sell for as much as 371,000 Real per gram (just under €60,000). It is also important to consider the use of forest products in the development of medication. Used in the treatment of hypertension, Captopril, which was synthesized from the venom of the Brazilian pit viper (Jararaca) and patented in the USA, generates annual sales of around eight billion US dollars. Investments in science, technology and innovation can activate previously neglected business opportunities and create added value in foreign markets. The farming of crops such as açai requires a large workforce and the adoption of community production models that help to preserve the forest.
Forests make a significant contribution to agricultural production by providing 'ecosystem services' such as regulating the water cycle across the continent. A significant share of the water resources consumed by the Brazilian agricultural sector is supplied through systems known as "flying rivers", which are created and maintained by the intact forest. These "rivers" transport large quantities of water vapour in the atmosphere – the total volume is believed to be double that of the Amazon River – and irrigate agriculture across Brazil. The interdependent nature of forest conservation and water security is evident and should be acknowledged.
Brazil and the Amazon rainforest also feature prominently in the global debate on climate change. Brazil has been at the forefront of these discussions and the related issues of financial compensation and the reduction of emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries (REDD+). Parallel to this, Brazil has played a central multilateral leadership role in the global South, promoting multilateralism and international cooperation around environmental issues. Despite the availability of funding under various international agreements, the ecosystem services provided by forests are rarely acknowledged, which limits the reach of existing projects. Little progress has been made on this issue to date, largely due to irreconcilable differences in the various approaches to forest use.
The various options to generate income are not taken into account in the context of forest conservation. This includes options linked to regional and global discussions as well as others that are not even properly considered, let alone studied. Preserving intact forest requires the implementation of a variety of measures that could revitalize the Brazilian economy and reposition the country at the global level. An agreement in principle for the sustainable development of the Amazon rainforest is long overdue.
A new path for Brazil
Conservation and development are not mutually exclusive and their opposition fuels narratives that stifle the emergence of alternatives for innovation-driven and sustainable economic growth in Brazil. The expansion of agriculture must be guided by the need to protect forest areas and investment must target efforts to improve productivity. At the same time, a framework of political programmes and incentives is needed that set the development of the Amazon region on a new course. Among the cornerstones of this new approach are the diversification and strengthening of value chains through biodiversity, technological innovation, ecosystem services and efforts to combat climate change.
Given the urgency of efforts to stimulate economic growth, we believe that a Brazilian Green New Deal (Novo Acordo Verde Brasileiro) is needed that includes initiatives to strengthen protected areas, regulate land ownership, eliminate deforestation, and promote a more complex understanding of the forest. These ideas are also supported by the "Iniciativa Amazônia 4.0" model developed by Ismael and Carlos Nobre, which promotes engagement with biodiversity, technological development, and the knowledge of indigenous and traditional peoples and positions local populations as actors of transformation. In short: this model offers an Amazonian perspective on the Amazon region.
If successful, a national agreement on the future development of the Amazon region could serve as a model for better practice worldwide and reposition Brazil on the global environmental agenda. It would also strengthen our ability to approach and interact with the "other" with empathy and to imagine new possible realities.
A version of this article appeared in the journal Kommunikation und Aktion in der Krise - Wertewandel in Brasilien, Die Zeitschrift Brasilicum, (issue 258/259), published by KoBra– Kooperation Brasilien e.V..
This blog post in Portuguese: O urgente acordo sobra a Amazônia brasileira: O falso dilema entre preservar e desenvolver