Brazil’s Amazon bioeconomy strategy: look to your neighbor!
Brazil’s bioeconomy history
The bioeconomy in Brazil has witnessed significant development over the years, driven by its abundant natural resources and agricultural prowess, with the classic example being the development of ethanol biofuel. As in Costa Rica, the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation (MCTI) leads the agenda, but the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food Supply (MAPA) with the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA) also is a significant institution in the area. From a public policy perspective, Brazil has tended to focus on the development of bioresources, biofuels and genetic modification of agricultural products through EMBRAPA. During the oil crises of the 1970s, public policies (e.g., Proalcool program) and EMBRAPA’s agricultural research led to the expansion of sugarcane in Brazil and the development of sugarcane based ethanol during the 1970s demonstrated the country’s leadership in this area.
In the early 2000s, interest in biofuels resurfaced with soaring oil prices. One crucial milestone in Brazil's bioeconomy history was the creation of the National Program for Biodiesel Production and Use (PNPB) in 2004. This program aimed to diversify the country's energy matrix, reduce dependence on fossil fuels, and provide economic opportunities for small farmers. The PNPB established targets for blending biodiesel with conventional diesel and implemented supportive policies, such as tax incentives and funding programs, to stimulate biofuel production. This policy framework has contributed to Brazil becoming one of the world's largest biodiesel producers.
The conceptions of the bioeconomy by MCTI and MAPA have tended to fall within the bioresource and biotechnology approaches. Brazil's approach to the bioeconomy has been characterized by a combination of regulatory frameworks, incentive programs, and strategic investments. The government has implemented measures to foster research and innovation, promote sustainable land use, support small-scale farmers, and encourage private sector engagement. These efforts have contributed to the growth of bio-based industries, job creation, and the establishment of sustainable value chains.
The end of 2022 saw a National Bioeconomy Policy proposal (bill 150/2022), which, is currently making its way through Congress. This bill would create the Bioeconomy Sectoral Council (CNBio), a governing body composed of relevant ministries and members of society to oversee the National Bioeconomy Strategy. If passed into law, this policy would help overcome the current silos in which different ministries act on this issue. However, challenges remain in Brazil's bioeconomy development. Issues such as deforestation, land conflicts, and regulatory complexity pose obstacles that need to be addressed. The government's ability to effectively enforce regulations and ensure sustainable practices across the value chain is crucial for the long-term success of the bioeconomy in Brazil.
Developments in Brazil’s Amazon bioeconomy strategy
Often presented as an expansive wilderness, the Brazilian Legal Amazon is home to 28 million Brazilians and 198 indigenous ethnic groups and it covers 60% of the total Amazon Basin. Development in the region has historically focused on the conversion of forest to other land uses (especially agricultural and livestock) for the production and export of low-value commodities. This development paradigm has resulted in approximately 23% of the original area being deforested and together with warmer temperatures caused by climate change is pushing the biome towards a ‘tipping point’ of degrading into a savannah, known as ‘savannahization’. The expansion of soybean cultivation and cattle ranching are the leading causes of deforestation in the region, a region that continues to be among the least developed in the country, using the human development index. Levels of deforestation fell dramatically in the first decade of the 21st Century from their highs in the 1990s only to rise again under the recent Bolsonaro Administration, which led to international outcry, bans on Brazilian products associated with deforestation, the freeze of the long-anticipated EU-Mercosur trade deal, and the isolation of Brazil on the international stage.
In this context, states in the Brazilian Amazon began to develop their own bioeconomy strategies in the absence of federal leadership. In 2021, the state of Amazonas released a technical note that offers guidance on the development of a state bioeconomy along 3 categories: socio-biodiversity, forest, and commodities. However, it does not offer operational policy guidance. The state of Pará developed its bioeconomy strategy in 2021 and subsequently a Bioeconomy Plan (PlanBio Pará). The strategy establishes nature-based solutions, and integrates traditional knowledge production systems, environmental conservation, research, and innovation for production based on biodiversity preservation, in order to support sustainable and low-carbon production chains. It focuses on 3 strategic axes: research, development, and innovation; cultural heritage and genetic heritage; and sustainable production chains and businesses. Its subsequent PlanBio Pará has designated funding and institutions to implement projects along these axes. Yet, Pará is also home to the highest levels of deforestation in the country.
Currently, the bioeconomy in the Amazon is nascent, characterized by small-scale operations. Yet, it has demonstrated promising results, with products such as Açai, Brazil nuts, cacao, and others being more profitable on a per hectare basis than soybean or cattle. The Açai berry has been the poster child of an Amazonian product gaining international fame, with the industry worth over $1 billion in 2023. The industry has provided jobs to over 300,000 producers in the Amazon. However, the regional bioeconomy struggles with a lack of supporting infrastructure and finance that could attract the necessary investors. Care must be taken to avoid the use of monocultures of these alternative crops, which would have similarly devastating effects on biodiversity and crucial ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration. Scaling, capacity-building, and finance should focus on the local solutions already under development that often combine traditional knowledge with novel technologies.
Brazil's Amazon bioeconomy strategy can learn several valuable lessons from Costa Rica's bioeconomy strategy. While Costa Rica and Brazil have different contexts and challenges, there are important principles and approaches that Brazil can adopt to enhance its Amazon bioeconomy strategy. As with other countries in the Global South, Brazil must emphasize sustainability. Costa Rica has successfully placed sustainability at the core of its bioeconomy strategy. Brazil can learn from this by prioritizing sustainable practices that ensure the long-term health and productivity of the Amazon rainforest. This includes promoting responsible land use, biodiversity conservation, and sustainable harvesting of forest resources.
Next, federal and state authorities in Brazil should engage local communities. Costa Rica has actively involved local communities in decision-making processes and shared benefits with them. Brazil can learn to prioritize the participation and empowerment of indigenous communities and traditional forest dwellers in shaping the bioeconomy strategy. By including their perspectives, knowledge, and sustainable practices, Brazil can build a more inclusive and equitable approach.
Third, value chains should be diversified. Costa Rica has diversified its bioeconomy beyond traditional sectors like agriculture and forestry. Brazil can take inspiration from this by exploring innovative and value-added uses of Amazon's natural resources. This could involve promoting sustainable tourism, supporting eco-friendly products with certification processes, and fostering bio-based industries. Costa Rica has invested significantly in education, research, and capacity building to support its bioeconomy. Brazil can enhance its Amazon bioeconomy strategy by prioritizing education and training programs that focus on sustainable resource management, conservation practices, and innovative uses of bioresources. Strengthening research institutions and promoting knowledge-sharing networks can also contribute to the development and implementation of effective strategies.
A crucial element discussed in this article is the need to foster policy coherence and long-term planning. Costa Rica has demonstrated the importance of coherent policies that align different sectors, such as agriculture, forestry, environment, and tourism, under a unified vision and over a long period of time that has provided institutional and regulatory stability. Brazil can learn from this by promoting policy coherence, establishing clear regulatory frameworks, and developing long-term plans that integrate social, economic, and environmental goals. Consistency in policy implementation will provide stability and encourage private sector investments. By drawing lessons from Costa Rica's successful bioeconomy strategy, Brazil can enhance its Amazon bioeconomy strategy and contribute to sustainable development, biodiversity conservation, and the well-being of local communities in the Amazon region.
illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.