A Scientific and Technological Revolution for the Amazon


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    Photo © Yosef Hadar/World Bank
Most tropical countries have not reached full-fledged social and economic development, but all of them are endowed with plenty of natural resources. Today’s unprecedented global climate threat offers tropical countries a unique opportunity  to become ‘environmental powers’ by utilizing their natural resource base wisely to aid development, while significantly reducing environmental damage.

The Amazon basin harbours the largest contiguous tropical forest on the planet, spread over eight countries. Over the past four decades the Amazon has been subjected to deforestation, forest degradation, global warming, and vegetation fires. However, the model for development of the Amazon—which is based on replacing forests with agriculture and cattle ranches—can be criticized on more than just environmental grounds. It can be faulted on economic grounds too. For example, the gross agricultural product of the Brazilian Amazon represents less than 0.5% of the Brazilian GDP. Sadly, fifty years of deforestation have brought neither wealth nor quality of life for most Amazônidas.

Even recognizing that annual deforestation rates have declined in the Brazilian Amazon in the past four years, over 750,000 km2 of the Brazilian Amazon have already been clear-cut while an equal portion faces accelerated degradation. Over the last decade, land use and land cover change in the Amazon caused carbon dioxide emissions averaging between 150 and 200 million ton C/year, which corresponds roughly to 2% to 2.5% of global emissions of CO2 for that period.

Yet the present economic scenario continues to conspire against the Amazon by placing a higher premium on agricultural commodities such as soybeans and meat than on standing forests. The challenge, therefore, is to reconcile the maintenance of some degree of traditional agricultural activity – but with greatly increased efficiency – in areas already deforested, with a new vision of renewable natural resource utilization and valorisation of ecosystem services: biodiversity, water, renewable energy sources, carbon storage, and so on. “Agricultural efficiency” in this context can be defined like energy efficiency: to deliver the same outcome with (greatly) reduced emissions.

So, one angle of the question is to define agricultural efficiency as a requirement for avoiding emissions from deforestation. But that does not tell the whole story. Agricultural efficiency is a necessary condition to reach emissions reductions, but not sufficient to ensure a sustained reduction. What we really need is a scientific and technological revolution in the Amazon. New knowledge is essential to fully develop innovative, biodiversity-based value chains, and to value the environmental services of ecosystems. This revolution must become the central strategic priority for regional development policy. It may prove to be the greatest challenge to the scientific community dedicated to Amazonian issues over the next twenty years.

In practical terms, the scientific and technological revolution needed in the Amazon should ultimately “add value to the heart of the forest”, to borrow from Professor Bertha Becker of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. This demands the development of an innovative economy based on the forest and its terrestrial and aquatic resources, which explicitly recognizes and makes use of the economic value of its biodiversity.

    Photo © World Bank

Nowadays, very few value chains based on the Amazon’s natural products either reach global markets or bring benefits across social strata. Conceivably, it is feasible to develop 50-100 or more biodiversity-based product chains capable of reaching global markets. Within a decade or two this could give rise to a new forest and aquatic-resource based economy with intensive economic use of biodiversity and strong local value aggregation via industrialization. This new economy has the potential to become much larger than the present one that is based on destruction of the forest.


Among other general conditions, such as the improvement of basic education and health services, it is essential to create a network of new institutions for higher learning, basic and applied research, and advanced technological development with a specific focus on both forest and aquatic resources. These institutions should be created so as to radically decentralize science and technology throughout the vast Amazon, maximizing the diversity and the potential of its sub-regions.

An innovative network should include five or six new technological research institutions, grouping together between 500 and 600 faculty, researchers, engineers and technicians in each one, thereby multiplying the number of active researchers in the Amazon by three or four. In addition, these institutions—connected to a network of laboratories reaching every distant corner of the Amazon and linked electronically—would serve as regional poles for the new technological development model. This would seed an innovative ‘bio-industrial’ model for the region with regional ‘Amazon-tech’ clusters in mid-sized cities.

In partnership with innovative entrepreneurs, these institutes should support the development of the entire value chain of dozens of products from the Amazon, working on everything from bio-prospecting and product development to commercialization and global marketing. Additionally, they should develop the scientific basis and monitoring technologies for payment of ecosystems services such as carbon storage to become a reality. Although it may seem a simple recipe for regional development, no tropical country has ever adopted it on a large scale. Cutting-edge technology would make it possible for some of the institutes to develop sophisticated, high-end research in biotechnology and nanoscience applied to biomimicry.

Recently the Brazilian Academy of Sciences launched a manifesto calling for such a scientific and technological revolution in the Amazon. The proposal contains most of the ideas discussed in this article.



Carlos A. Nobre

Senior Scientist, Brazilian National Space Research Institute

Join the Conversation

Guy Edwards
September 12, 2009

Cinematic Orchestra’s track featuring Roots Manuva, All Things to All Men, sums up the UN’s latest report on Amazonia in a Brazilian nutshell. It also blows away the misconception that Amazonia is a bunch of trees, a few tribes and some anthropologists and biologists bumping into it each other in the forest.

Be it a Mecca for conservationists, a cash-cow for ranchers and soya producers, the ancestral home for indigenous peoples, a massive logistical and governance challenge for local and national governments, or a crucial battleground in the fight against climate change, the Amazonian region spanning 8 South American countries is an area of incalculable value and importance to billions of people.

The report, GEO Amazonia, finds that the demand for the regions’ commodities – timber, hydrocarbons, minerals, agriculture and livestock – is the predominant driver of environmental degradation combined with associated road building and rapid urbanization.

By 2005, deforestation across Amazonia reached 857, 666 km², meaning 17% of the region’s total vegetation cover had been reduced. Factor in climate change which is causing higher than average temperature rises in the area and a vicious cycle emerges.

If the loss of forest reaches a certain tipping point, then rainfall will decrease rapidly turning the forest into a tinder box resulting in increased forest fires, carbon emissions and a further reduction in precipitation. By the end of the century a large chunk of Amazonia could be lost entirely (85%) or transformed into savannah effectively ending the region’s existence as an important carbon repository.

Organised crime, food and water insecurity and an increase in diseases such as malaria, exacerbated by environmental degradation, are also taking a heavy toll on the region’s increasingly vulnerable population of 33.5 million people.

Urbanisation is happening at breakneck speed as roughly 60 percent of Amazonia’s population now live in cities. A lack of basic services and adequate waste disposal, poor air quality and noise pollution adds to the misery.

The relentless extraction of natural resources continues to place huge pressures on the remaining indigenous groups and is causing the irreversible loss of a number of endangered species.

The report makes no bones that it will be impossible to maintain the integrity of the Amazonian ecosystems completely, but suggests that the trade-off between environmental degradation and socio-economic development need not be so stark.

Amazonian governments have made some progress in managing environmental problems. Brazil, for example, leads the pack on monitoring Amazonian deforestation with one of the world's most advanced real-time deforestation monitors.

However, the lack of financial resources and the overlapping of policy making at the various levels of government – both domestically and internationally - hinders faster and more effective action to curb the destruction.

The final chapter offers recommendations for a possible future Amazonia. Emphasis is placed on extending regional integration while promoting activities which place greater economic value on Amazonian environmental services such as watershed management than on the commodities being shipped out.

The region’s current development trajectory based on the unsustainable extraction of anything edible or usable may be the dominant paradigm in town. However, the future of Amazonia could be different if those in control accept that this model is representative of a world edging closer to the abyss.

Sergio Abranches
September 19, 2009

I strongly agree with the notion that only a scientific and technological revolution in the Amazon economy can save the rainforest. Wrote a paper on that subject, recently presented to the American Political Science Association Annual Meeting in Toronto.

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