Scripta Varia

Engaging Traditional Populations and Indigenous Peoples in Biodiversity Conservation through Amazon Bioeconomy

Virgílio Viana[*]


The Amazon is fundamental to the future of the planet because of its role for biological conservation and the global climate. The Amazon houses the highest levels of biodiversity of several taxonomic groups in the world. The region is under a high level of threats to biodiversity due to human activities. After a period (2003-2013) during which deforestation rates were reduced from 27,000 to 4,000 square kilometers per year, rates of forest loss are now rising. Deforestation rates in 2018 reached almost 8,000 square kilometers per year.

Globally, biodiversity loss is at record level, with over 1 million species threatened by extinction (IPBES 2019). The Amazon holds 58.8% of the biome in Brazil, and this proportion varies among different countries (Table 18.1). Deforestation can push the biome past a tipping point, which may bring about a collapse of the hydrologic cycle and ecosystem dynamics and, ultimately, lead to species loss (Lovejoy and Nobre 2018).

Table 18.1 Total area, biome, and forest loss per Amazon country.


TOTAL AREA (million square km)










































French G.



































Source: SDSN-Amazonia at

The big question is how to keep the forest standing, thus reducing deforestation and securing the production of environmental services on which our common future depends. The most promising solution is to make forests worth more standing than cut. This concept, formulated as part of a set of state public policies in the Amazonas State in 2003, has received increasing support from those who seek ways to prevent the continued deforestation of the Amazon and an ecological collapse or tipping point. Increasing the value of standing forests has to be based on a strategy to promote the Amazon Bioeconomy.

A strategy to promote Amazon Bioeconomy has to engage local communities in the design and implementation of innovations. Participatory approaches can create bridges between traditional knowledge and conventional science and technology. The Sustainable Amazon Foundation (FAS) has valuable experience in translating this into practice (Viana 2010, Viana 2019).

This paper will focus on how to engage Amazon traditional populations and indigenous peoples in biodiversity conservation through bioeconomy. First, it will present some of the results of FAS regarding practical action to prevent biodiversity loss. Then, it will draw on the experience of FAS to propose a framework to support Amazon bioeconomy.

Results from practical action of FAS

The Sustainable Amazon Foundation (FAS) works with 581 communities of traditional riverine populations in an area of 11 million hectares. In addition, FAS supports grassroots organizations that defend the rights of indigenous peoples and poor urban populations in the Amazon. FAS works in partnership with the Government of the State of Amazonas to implement the Bolsa Floresta Program, a public policy to compensate forest dwellers that commit for zero deforestation of primary forest and practices to prevent forest fires.

The approach used by FAS is based on an innovative social technology, which is widely recognized both nationally[2] and internationally.[3] FAS social technology relies on a number of participatory methods for designing and implementing solutions for local sustainable development. These solutions encompass all 17 Sustainable Development Goals, ranging from breast-feeding and early childhood development to income generation based on sustainable management of natural resources.[4]

Deforestation rates have been reduced in the 16 protected areas that benefit from the social technology and investments of FAS, directly and indirectly associated with the Bolsa Floresta Program (Figure 18.1). Deforestation rates were reduced by 30% and 43% for two consecutive 5-year periods, 2008-2012 and 2013-2017, respectively.

Deforestation rates in protected areas with FAS activities had a reduction of 17% in the 2015-2017 period (Figure 18.2). In the same period, deforestation in other state-protected areas (without FAS activities) increased by 75% and was thus much higher than the average deforestation rate in the Brazilian Amazon (12%) and Amazonas State (41%).

Forest fires are increasing in the Amazon and this is one of the greatest threats to biodiversity conservation and climate change (Figure 18.3). The fires are possibly associated with climate-driven changes in precipitation patterns (Butt et al. 2011; Marengo et al. 2018). Protected areas with FAS activities, however, have had consistently less forest fires than other state protected areas.

Monetary income in areas with FAS activity has increased by 124% in the 2009-2016 period (Figure 18.4). All areas had prohibitive increases in monetary income, which varied from 16% to 284%. Four of the eleven areas analyzed had an average income higher than the extreme poverty level. Subsistence economy is, however, not included in this analysis. Therefore, these figures underestimate the total income.

FAS activities are structured around the concept of making forest worth more standing than cut. These activities include (i) formal education, (ii) technical, graduate education and, (iii) support to entrepreneurship, (iv) development of multi-institutional alliances, and (v) contributions to public policies. The results of these activities are presented in detail elsewhere.[5]

Biodiversity conservation through Amazon Bioeconomy

Amazon Bioeconomy can be defined as all economic activities related to productive chains based on the management and cultivation of native Amazon biodiversity, with value added locally, while generating positive impacts for local and regional sustainable development. The Amazon Bioeconomy includes the production chains of bio-cosmetics, biopharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals, biopigments and other products derived from native biodiversity of the Amazon and associated ethnoecological knowledge.

There is a large number of research institutions, civil society organizations, government agencies, and companies investing in programs and projects focused on Amazon Bioeconomy – including FAS. This wealth of practical experiences allows us to propose the pillars of a strategy for the promotion of the Amazon Bioeconomy based on a holistic approach. Ten strategic pillars are proposed:

1.   Education and investment in local human capital related to knowledge on management and sustainable use of the native biodiversity of the Amazon. From primary, secondary and post-secondary school education up to the post-graduate level. From primary production to the commercialization of products, including logistics and industrial and artisanal processing of products.

2.   Science, technology, and innovation development associated with native Amazon biodiversity. From taxonomies to clinical trials, including ecology and chemistry – among others. Demand-driven research to solve bottlenecks of production chains as well as promotion of disruptive innovation.

3.   Improvements of current production systems associated with the native biodiversity of the Amazon. Identification of bottlenecks and solutions. Supporting knowledge exchange networks.

4.   Mapping and valuing the ethnobiological knowledge associated with native Amazon biodiversity. Valuing knowledge and reducing the process of cultural erosion. Improvement of benefit-sharing mechanisms linked to the use of traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples.

5.   Promotion of entrepreneurship in all stages of productive chains associated with the native biodiversity of the Amazon. Supporting entrepreneurs: from forests to industry; from micro and small businesses to large investors. From traditional products to startups based on disruptive innovations.

6.   Attracting private investment to Amazon Bioeconomy productive chains. From primary production to commercialization of products, including logistics and industrial and artisanal processing of products. From social impact investment to conventional investment.

7.   Development of innovative arrangements for hybrid financing mechanisms (blended finance), combining non-reimbursable resources (grants and public investment) with loans and private investment.

8.   Structural investments to promote sustainable development, to improve livelihoods of Amazon populations and overcome structural bottlenecks that increase production costs, limit product quality and access to markets. Basic investments in access to drinking water, electricity, logistics, communication, education and health – among others.

9.   Improvement of public policies in support of the Amazon Bioeconomy sustainable production chains. From reducing bureaucracy of legal licensing processes to proving economic incentives, including reduction of taxes for Amazon Bioeconomy. Develop new policies to compensate Amazon populations for the ecosystem services provided.

10.   Improvement of governance mechanisms of national, state and municipal programs to support development of Amazon Bioeconomy.

Two concrete examples point the way forward to Amazon Bioeconomy. The management of pirarucu (the world’s largest freshwater fish) was the subject of a technological development that allowed a recovery of the fish stocks associated with a growing and ecologically sustainable production. Investments in the production chain have resulted in large income increases for fishermen from marginalized populations living in remote areas at the heart of the Amazon. The technological development in the management and cultivation of açaí, associated with the investment in the processing industry, has given rise to a productive chain that already reaches 1.5 Billion per year, with a growing national and international market. There are other examples that deserve a greater space than the one available in this article.

It is worth remembering that the Amazon biodiversity includes over 2,500 fish species, 40,000 plants species, 70,000 insect species and 69,000 fungi species, among other forms of life. These numbers are underestimated, as researches are still far from reaching the appropriate sampling level to record all species living in the Amazon ecosystems.

Why don’t we have tens or hundreds or thousands of Amazon species following the path of açaí and pirarucu? The answer is simple: Brazil has not yet developed a plan to invest seriously in the Amazon Bioeconomy. There are many specific initiatives of large or small scale, of great or no success, which have produced relevant results. We are not faced with a desert of ideas and projects. On the contrary.

A way forward

In order to move the Amazon Bioeconomy agenda forward, it is necessary that ongoing initiatives are scaled up and cease to be isolated, only addressing the interests of individual groups or institutions. A broad alliance is needed in favor of the Amazon Bioeconomy.

It is in this context that the Alliance for the Bioeconomy of the Amazon (ABio) emerged in 2018. It is an alliance that involves 12 institutions, including universities, civil society organizations, and state government agencies, with the purpose of promoting collaborative actions in favor of the Amazon Bioeconomy.[6] The objective is to develop collaborative programs to catalyze the production chains of bio-cosmetics, biopharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals, biopigments and others. The strategy is to develop technological innovations, train human capital, foster entrepreneurship, attract private investment, and improve public policies in support of the Amazon Bioeconomy sustainable production chains.

Brazil was able to invest tens of billions of dollars so that the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA) and public universities could develop technologies that radically increased Brazilian agricultural productivity, which grew more than 120% from 1975 to 2017. Soybean production grew 550%, with an increase of planted area of 160% in the 1975-2015 period. Similar – or greater – gains in productivity could be achieved for the Amazon Bioeconomy.

This task requires strategic planning, with a long-term vision and with strong support from society. This should be translated into long-term and not short-term policies. These policies need to be protected from changes in government that occur every four years.

A new partnership was established in May 2019 to prepare a Strategic Bioeconomy Plan for the Amazon. This initiative involves three civil society institutions and two governing agencies.[7] The goal is to create, by the end of 2019, a Strategic Plan for the period 2020-2030.

The elaboration process of the Strategic Plan for Bioeconomy will involve the contracting of studies on the main productive chains of bio-cosmetics, biopharmaceuticals, biopigments, and nutraceuticals. These studies will be the object of seminars and public debates with the objective of constructing a convergent vision of the different segments of society. At the end of this process, proposals for structuring programs and projects with a long-term vision should emerge. Based on this, new partnerships will be sought to enable the necessary investments.

The Amazon Bioeconomy can offer a bridge to a future of the Amazon that can reconcile the improvement of the quality of life of the local population with the maintenance of the essential environmental services for the future of Brazil and the planet. It is a challenging task around which Amazon institutions must unite and work in a collaborative and integrated manner. In addition, it is important to expand partnerships with institutions in other regions of Brazil and other countries. This is an essential matter for our future.

The challenge is gigantic, but it must be faced with a boldness compatible with the magnitude of the importance of the Amazon to Brazil and to the world. In other words, it is a challenge that has to be faced with broad thinking, both in the time horizon and in the magnitude of financial resources.


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Butt, N., Alfonso de Oliveira, P., Heil Costa, M. (2011). Evidence that deforestation affects the onset of the rainy season in Rondonia, Brazil. Journal of Geophysical Research, 116(D11120).
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Viana, V.M. (2020, forthcoming). Health, air pollution and forest fires in the Amazon. In Al-Delaimy, W., Ramanthan, W., Sánchez Sorondo, M. (eds.), Health of People, Health of Planet and Our Responsibility: Climate Change, Air Pollution and Health. Springer.
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[*] General Director of the Sustainable Amazon Foundation (FAS), Ph.D. (Harvard University), Former Secretary of State of Amazonas for Environment and Sustainable Development (2003-2008).
[6] Amazon Bioeconomics Alliance (ABIO, Portuguese acronym).
[7] Amazon Bioeconomics Alliance, ABIO; Secretary of State for the Environment, SEMA; Secretary of Planning, Development, Science, Technology and Innovation, SEPLANCTI; Manaus Economic, Sustainable and Strategic Development Council, CODESE and Sustainable Amazon Foundation, FAS.


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