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How Amazonian Countries can Sustainably Develop

The Amazon rainforest is the largest globally, producing approximately 9% of the world's oxygen and being home to an estimated 10% of known species worldwide. Unfortunately, the expanding meat and lumber industries have destroyed over 20% of the biome. Deforestation harms local and indigenous communities, the environment, and the rainforest's many undiscovered resources. Countries can achieve a balance between economic development and environmental protection through policy reforms. Amazonian nations can shift their political and economic landscape to refocus industries to be far more sustainable while still reaping economic benefits. Additionally, more sustainable cash crops can provide alternative livelihoods to Amazonian businesses.

The root of this issue is the tendency for Amazonian nations to prioritize economic development through unsustainable policies. In Brazil, home to 64% of the Amazon and the world's largest meat producer, President Jair Bolsonaro has abandoned many policies geared towards preserving the rainforest. Bolsonaro ran on a platform promoting the logging, ranching, and mining industries, viewing conservation efforts as a barrier to economic growth. Brazil's part of the Amazon has lost 39% more forest cover in his first term compared to the same period last year.

Brazil is not the only Amazonian country scaling back conservation efforts. Bolivia's recent agricultural expansion to export beef to China in 2019 is contributing to deforestation as well. Deforestation rates have tripled compared since Bolivia signed the deal. In the absence of national policy to protect the rainforest and its local communities, multinational meat companies in the Amazon will inevitably continue to expand. The federal governments can construct policies that preserve the environment and protect its many indigenous inhabitants.

There is evidence that shifting to more sustainable development policies provides ample economic and environmental benefits. In contrast to the meat and lumber industry lobbies' stance, sustainable policies stands to benefit Amazonian farmers. Brazil implemented conservation policies that incentivized farmers and ranchers to clear less land from 2004 to 2014. The government both increased penalties for deforestation and offered subsidies and low interest-financing for farmers who adopted sustainable practices. During this period, deforestation rates dropped significantly without any significant economic consequences.

Specifically, the "green town program" in the Brazilian state of Para fostered collaboration between the federal government, local mayors, businesses, and public banks. The program developed "green scores" that measured the environmental impact of beef suppliers. The local government calculated the scores by measuring forest cover and riparian vegetation after each property was geofenced and registered in an agricultural land registry. This system allowed the state to track herds, monitor farm expansion, and quantify the environmental impact, which held weight in influencing competition on exports.

In addition to mitigating deforestation, sustainable farming practices can also lead to more efficiency in agribusiness. Brazil's Agricultural Research Agency found that reducing pasture areas and implementing more innovative farming methods significantly increases yields. For example, some ranchers more than quadrupled their beef output by adding more crops to pasture areas. These results illustrate how a focus on sustainable practices can do more than preserve the rainforest.

Indonesia can provide a model for effective forest conservation that Amazonian states can implement. In 2016, the Indonesian government adopted policies that would end the issuing of licensing on certain forest lands that are especially susceptible to environmental degradation. The program compensates companies through a land-swap program that allows companies to expand in government-provided areas that could ecologically accommodate the operations. The government additionally allocated 12.7 million hectares of land to indigenous groups. The implementation process has been slow, and work remains to assign property rights securely, but the program could achieve its goals of balancing economic development with environmental protection while simultaneously recognizing indigenous rights.

Developing new avenues for high-value activity is also vital towards creating more sustainable economic development in the Amazon. One promising trend is the increased global demand for Amazonian superfoods such as acai, passion fruit, camu fruit, and guarana. Acai farming is relatively more forest-friendly than other crops since acai grows on trees abundant throughout the Amazon. The existing industry is already lucrative for farmers, producing more than 200,000 tons of açaí fruit a year and supporting more than 350,000 people in the state of Para alone. The incomes of acai farm workers are also significantly higher than that of workers in livestock or logging. The acai industry's growth is expected to continue, with the market projected to sell over a million tons and gross over $2 billion in revenue by 2026.

The Amazon's unrivaled biodiversity is but one reason to promote more sustainable farming practices. The forest's potential is still untapped: scientists have studied less than 0.5% of Amazonian plant species for medicinal purposes. "Business as usual" would threaten the valuable resources yet to be discovered and the forest's inhabitants' long-term economic livelihoods. Preserving the Amazon is necessary and beneficial for the environment, global food security, local communities, and the region's future economies. Amazonian governments can craft policies that give weight to the threat of deforestation while encouraging sustainable economic development.

Nate Coffin is a Research Analyst at the Center for Industrial Development

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