From the start of his presidency, Jair Bolsonaro has promised the Brazilian people free economic development in the Amazon rainforest. Half a year into his term, he was telling the world: “We preserve more [rainforest] than anyone. No country in the world has the moral right to talk about the Amazon. You destroyed your own ecosystems.”
Bolsonaro's decision to allow deforestation in the Amazon rainforest for ranching and agriculture is shortsighted, especially when you consider the climate consequences, as the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) outlines in an August brief. Even still, his popularity with Brazilians makes sense. Why wouldn’t a nation with plentiful natural resources want to make use of those resources and increase its gross domestic product?
According to the CFR, Brazil has become the world’s top exporter of beef and soy. Could Bolsonaro be right about unrestrained deforestation in the Amazon being the right economic decision for Brazil?
Or maybe the desire for economic development and the need for conservation don’t have to be at odds. In the United States, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is able to find a confluence between those goals through responsible forest management. That means the owners of forests in the U.S. are able to gain profits from the land while keeping ecosystems intact. Business activities like selective logging, hunting and recreation can make use of forests in a way that maintains them for generations to come, and they give landowners an incentive to keep forests the way they are. In a sense, forest management shows landowners the true value of trees.
In the Amazon rainforest, economic opportunities look more like acai berries and ecotourism. Acai palms grow natively in the rainforest, and the acai industry has benefited more than 500,000 families over the last 20 years, Carlos Nobre, a Brazilian earth system scientist and member of the Royal Society, said at this year’s United Nations Science Summit. Some acai farmers are reaching the middle class, Nobre said, having come from the depths of poverty.
Compared to conventional cattle and soy industries that require a transformation of the land, acai also provides an economic advantage. Annually, cattle provide $100 per hectare and soy $600, while a hectare of acai is valued at $1,000, Nobre explained.
The 15-foot piraracu fish, oils, pulps, butters, craftsmanship — these are all economic opportunities that Amazonians have only begun to explore, Nobre said. That’s not to mention the incredible potential for ecotourism. “Two streets here in New York have more companies than 6.5 million square kilometers [in the Amazon rainforest],” he said, emphasizing the economic possibilities. Investment in a bioeconomy would reap benefits across the triple bottom line — for indigenous people, biodiversity and climate, as well as profit.
But a lot of work will be required to achieve this goal. The Brazilian Amazon has already seen more fires this year than in all of 2021. Also this year, the nation set another record for deforestation. In April alone, the equivalent of 140,000 football fields were transformed. This is just months after Bolsonaro signed the COP26 pledge to end deforestation by 2030.
We’re just a month away from an election that may prove supportive of a bioeconomic approach, though. Former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is running, and he is pursuing a rainforest alliance with Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has the second-largest rainforest in the world, in the case that he is re-elected. It was under Lula’s presidency, from 2004 to 2012, that deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon decreased by over 80 percent. Rates have increased by 60 percent under Bolsonaro.
While many Brazilian Amazonians pursue sustainable and traditional industries, the environmentally lax approach of the current administration actively harms their initiative. Whoever wins their presidential bid should instead be anxious to get behind bioeconomic activities.
In an article for Forest Trends, Beto Borges states the economic potential teeming in the Brazilian Amazon: “As a prominent economic force and the world’s largest forest country, Brazil is strategically positioned to be a global leader in shaping and modeling a new way of doing business, a challenge and opportunity as countries slowly turn to post-pandemic recovery.”
Image credit: Jaime Spaniol/Unsplash
Roya Sabri is a writer and graphic designer based in Illinois. She writes about the circular economy, advancements in CSR, the environment and equity. As a freelancer, she has worked on communications for nonprofits and multinational organizations. Find her on LinkedIn.