The Future of Sustainable Development in the Amazon

By Alex Yale

The Amazon Rainforest is arguably the most important asset in the battle against climate change. So much so that the direct act of deforestation in the region accounts for around 30% of global carbon emissions, from the carbon sinks that are released by burning trees and disruption of the ecosystem. Economists argue that deforestation (especially the uptick in recent years) is just a symptom of the disease that has a range of identifiable causes. A key data point is that the average income of the 35 million residents of the region falls 40% below the national average. This can be partly attributed to the informal economy and lack of access to national and international markets. There are a range of methods and initiatives that are beginning to take traction to increase the potential of value-added economic activity that can mitigate some of the root causes of deforestation. Developers of forward-thinking carbon projects can help achieve substantial progress on this front. Combining the protection of the forest with investment into the local communities, supporting programs in areas like agroforestry, sustainable fishing, eco-tourism, and land ownership rights transfers. These are areas where outside support can drive a considerable amount of development with sustainability and protection of the rainforest being the foremost consideration.

The most successful rainforest protection programs involve a multi-faceted approach. One of the most important aspects is the involvement of local communities. Agroforestry ticks many of the boxes in this regard. It creates a value-added economic activity that improves the livelihoods of the communities. Whether it’s cassava for local consumption, or more valuable crops like cacao or acai for domestic or international markets. In the case of all three of those crops, they benefit from being grown in their natural environments amongst the trees of the Amazon. These agricultural activities can be promoted by the developers of rainforest protection projects as a way of ensuring the long-term sustainability of their projects and provide certifiable benefits that contribute to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that are highly valued in the carbon markets.

A similar approach to the fishing potential of the world’s largest river system is beginning to gain traction. One successful program involved the pirarucu fish. After being overfished to near extinction, their numbers have rebounded from 2,500 in the 1990s to over 160,000 today. This included education on the link between the water quality of the river and the health of the fish populations. Deforestation can be directly linked to increased siltation because of soil erosion coming from clear-cut land. Similarly, pollution from fertilizers, poor cattle waste containment, mining, and other effects from deforested land have a considerable effect on the fragile balance of the Amazon ecosystem. These existing programs funded by government agencies like this one by the Ministry of Science provide a template that can be replicated and adapted throughout the region and naturally benefit from further investment and support.

Any comprehensive plan for protecting the Amazon rainforest requires a certain level of top-down policy and demand-side mitigation. Unfortunately, multinational companies and the pressures of global markets create the conditions that drive the demand for the expanded cattle ranches, further mineral extraction, or hardwood lumber. Progress has been made on this front, educated consumers are increasingly aware of the provenance of the goods they purchase through programs like the Fair Trade certification. More importantly, companies are beginning to take increased self-accountability for their supply chains. For example, the three largest meat producers in the region have made pledges to cease procurement from suppliers connected to deforestation. The same can be said for the cosmetics and pharmaceuticals industries that have incentives to protect the biodiversity of the Amazon ecosystem instead of purchasing from companies that extract in an unsustainable manner.

The influence of these companies can provide a considerable contribution to the demand for rainforest protection or reforestation programs. Generating carbon credits will help move the needle of economic incentives towards compliance. Once the economic and commercial incentives support good action and fulfillment of both national and corporate level climate pledges, then the power of international markets will be able to drive major progress. Protecting the rainforest that remains and beginning to undo the damage from the past century of overexploitation.

Americas Quarterly, May 2021. “What an Ugly (But Delicious!) 450-Pound Fish Tells Us About Sustainable Development in the Amazon” Brian Winter, et al.