The Amazon’s new industrial revolution
By Carlos Nobre and Juan Carlos Castilla-Rubio
The Amazon system exemplifies the global commons on which the health and stability of the planet depends. Its ecosystems harbour about 10-15% of the planet’s land biodiversity. Its abundant rainfall - averaging about 2.3 metres a year - makes the region an important heat source for the atmosphere, while generating an estimated 210,000-220,000 cubic meters of river discharge every second, approximately 15% of the world’s freshwater input into the oceans. It stores an estimated 150-200bn tonnes of carbon and has been functioning as a potent carbon sink removing over 2bn tonnes of CO2 a year. And it presents a mosaic of ethno and linguistic diversity.
Like other global commons, it is under threat from large-scale drivers of environmental change operating simultaneously and interacting non-linearly. These are dominated by land use change and climate changes - due to global warming and deforestation - which may, in turn, increase extreme climate events and fires, increasing the exposure and vulnerability of tropical forests. Earth system models predict that up to 60% of the Amazon forests could vanish by 2050, with most replaced by degraded cerrado-dry savannas with far fewer species, storing much less carbon.
There have been two dominant policy pathways in the Amazon. The first approach has focused on converting or degrading forests to produce either tropical timber or protein, such as meat and soya, or to build massive hydropower generation and extractive industry capacity: it has been responsible for massive deforestation, among other significant negative effects. The other has been a valuable nature conservation approach which has legally protected large swathes of territory from any economic and human activity, except by indigenous peoples. These now comprise 2.3m square kilometers, covering about 54% of Brazilian Amazon forest.
The prevailing model for rural development over the last half century - replacing forests with agriculture, cattle ranching and large scale hydropower generation - has long been outdated for a number of environmental, economic and social reasons. It has not resulted in wealth creation or a better quality of life for those living in the region. The challenge is to reconcile it with a new model of sustainable development of the Amazon.
Large reductions in the rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon - 80% between 2004 and 2014 - open up opportunities for an alternative model based on seeing the Amazon as a global public good of biological assets for creating high-value products and ecosystem services. The urgency of finding this, however, has become more evident through a recent reversal: the Brazilian Institute of Space Research reported in late November that deforestation rates have gone up from 5,000 in 2014 to nearly 8,000 square kilometers in 2016.
Biological systems in the Amazon are the result of million years of evolution. We are rapidly gaining understanding of how things are created in nature, how organisms sense their surroundings, how they move in their environment and how they behave and function. This is bringing within reach a third pathway where we aggressively research, develop, and scale up a new high-tech approach that sees the Amazon as a global public good of biological assets that can enable the creation of innovative high value products, services and platforms for current, and entirely new, markets.
In the short-term - and with a low-tech approach - it is quite feasible to develop a number of biodiversity-based value chains capable of reaching global markets. Already there are some pioneering examples, following in the wake of Brazil nuts and babassu. Production from the assai palm, for example, has already reached the multibillion-dollar scale. An alkaloid found in the leaves, branches and flowers of jambu is described in patents as appropriate for anesthetic, antiseptic, antiwrinkle, toothpaste, gynecological and anti-inflammatory uses. The bacuri fruit is in increasing demand for ice cream, candy and juice products, while the oil extracted from its seeds is used in the cosmetic industry and as an anti-inflammatory substance in traditional folk medicine.
Beyond such new developments, lies the potential for biomimicry in learning from - and then emulating - Amazonian natural forms, processes and ecosystems to create more sustainable designs and innovations. The Tungara frog species, for example, creates long-lived foams that have inspired new energy generation and carbon sequestration technologies. Plants have directly provoked potentially much cheaper solar cell designs, while photosynthesis, and the ways in which microorganisms generate their own energy, have given rise to innovations in advanced microbial fuel cells.
There is also significant innovation potential in learning from the Amazon through biomimcry-inspired nanoscience - reproducing complex biological systems on a nano-molecular scale, and developing new environmental friendly processes and technologies for preventing and remedying pollution, new bioinspired textile structures, new revolutionary energy production and carbon sequestration technologies, new robotic applications, and new autonomous vehicle artificial intelligence algorithms, to mention a few.
Our approach would both embrace and enhance the emerging Fourth Industrial Revolution, an accelerating confluence of technology breakthroughs covering such wide-ranging fields as artificial intelligence, robotics, the internet of things, blockchain distributed data ledger technologies, synthetic biology, DNA editing, nanotechnology, energy storage and quantum computing, as well as biomimicry.
This new economy has the potential to become much larger than the present one based on the unsustainable use of natural resources. Key to this would be to leverage artificial intelligence, internet of things and blockchain technologies to build a digital Amazonian “Library of Alexandria” to create an open and immutable registry of rights and obligations associated with all biological and biomimetic knowledge assets of the Amazon. This would both catalyze disruptive innovations and provide a needed mechanism to build trust.
Such system-level change in the Amazon cannot be executed single-handedly. We are in the process of setting up a coalition of the willing with leading public, private, academic and philanthropic actors, engaging indigenous peoples and uniting the best capabilities of R&D centres, universities, technology startups and visionary companies all over the world to set in motion the entrepreneurial revolution required.
If successful, this new development model could be applied to all tropical regions helping to preserve the vital global commons of the Earth’s great biological diversity.
More details can be found in a recently published article, Land-use and climate change risks in the Amazon and the need of a novel sustainable development paradigm in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science (PNAS).
Carlos Nobre is a member of the UN Scientific Advisory Board for Global Sustainability and Volvo Environment Prize laureate of 2016. Juan Carlos Castilla-Rubio is the chairman of Space Time Ventures and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Environment and Resource Security.