Credit: Katie McCoy
My earliest memories of being captivated by the Amazon River and rainforest were through grainy videotapes shown to me in primary school by my suburban British schoolteacher attempting to engage our class on environmental issues. Decades later, after five years working on Partnerships for Forests (P4F), a program that catalyses investments in forests and sustainable land use, and one year as Team Leader, I finally had the great privilege to visit the State of Amazonas in Brazil for the first time with the P4F Latin America team.
I was both apprehensive and extremely excited to be getting out from behind my desk to travel to the home of the Brazilian Amazon after two long years of working from home. Sadly, the Amazon rainforest has been in the news very recently for all the wrong reasons, with the latest reports indicating that deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon is at record levels.
Sometimes, it can feel like not much has changed since my primary school days when it comes to the felling of the rainforest. However, to view the Amazon as only a place of pristine natural beauty or a degraded landscape would be incorrect, and what I experienced on my trip helped to reinforce that opinion.
The trip started in the City of Manaus, the capital of Amazonas State. Manaus sits on the banks of the River Negro and the River Solimões and where the waters meet, just east of the city, they become the Amazon River. The city is the major departure point for the Amazon Rainforest and even in the city itself, you’re not far from the forest – Manaus is home to the Aldolfo Ducke Nature Reserve, a 10,000 hectare protected area on the outskirts of the city.
The Reserve is one of the most important and long studied areas of rainforest in the world, partly because of the proximity to Manaus and also because it is relatively intact.
Before heading out on the river, I visited the Manaus Free Trade Zone (also known as the PIM area). Here, the State operates a system through the IT Law whereby 5% of a company’s annual revenue must be redirected towards Research and Development (R&D) initiatives to maintain their tax relief.
One option Brazilian companies have is to invest part of this percentage into Bioeconomy enterprises through the Bioeconomy Priority Program – enterprises such as Simbioze Amazonica, a cosmetic and skin care start-up that showcases the characteristics and seasonality of the 100% natural and Amazon forest-based ingredients in its products.
We met Co-Founder Danniel Pinheiro who explained that the company works to highlight the important role that local extractivism has in linking the forest to businesses. Working together with community cooperatives in the interior of the State, they provide training in Good Manufacturing Practices, safety at work, and waste management.
Armed with my newly purchased Açai facial cleanser, the following day we headed out on the water. The way of life on the river has adapted for massive changes between the wet and dry season (the depth of the river can vary up to 30 metres between the seasons!).
Specially adapted floating houses, or flutuantes, and shops serve the communities that live on the river, called ribeirinhos. Hoping to catch a glimpse of the fabled pink river dolphin, a few of us left at sunrise on a small boat and were rewarded with a sighting of the locally named boto that I will not forget. On that short early morning boat trip, we counted over 50 species of birds, just one indication of the vast biodiversity that the Amazon holds.
My trip reinforced three important things:
All is not lost (yet). There is continuous innovation and entrepreneurship which investment can unlock in the Bioeconomy. These kinds of approaches can work for the forest and everyone – especially local communities – in the value chain but we need to scale and replicate these kinds of approaches with urgency.
The forests should not be viewed as either pristine, or destroyed and degraded landscapes. There is a reality in the middle, where sustainable production systems show it is possible to obtain social, environmental, and economic benefits by preserving or restoring forest landscapes. Nature is beautiful, but it is also the source of livelihoods and new ideas, and there are many people globally trying to harness this in non-destructive ways.
Finally, Mosquito repellent bought in the UK (no matter how strong it claims to be) is no match whatsoever for Amazonian mosquitoes.