In Brazil's Amazon, Pará bets on bioeconomy to beat deforestation
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The Amazon state of Pará plans to use its natural resources - from rubber to an aphrodisiac plant - to build a sustainable local economy, hoping its efforts to help communities grow out of poverty will also tackle rainforest loss and climate change
Rubber tapper Manoel Magno, 71, walks through the jungle surrounding his house on the river island of Cotijuba in the Amazon, inspecting the trees like a father might his children.
Using knowledge passed down through the generations, he has sown dozens of rubber trees and cultivated more robust hybrid varieties over the past several decades.
Every day Magno treks through the hot and humid rainforest alone, selecting trees and making shallow cuts on their bark to bleed out latex, which he collects in small buckets.
Rubber tappers in Pará first learned their trade more than a century ago, when the state was a supplier for Europe's Industrial Revolution. Magno, however, caters to a more modern industry: fashion.
Magno's latex is made into rubber thread by his daughter Corina and other women in Cotijuba. The thread is then sold to local start-up Da Tribu and turned into accessories like rings and necklaces, or sent to international fashion designers who use biodegradable material in their clothing.
Da Tribu's first order made about R$3,000 ($580) for the Magno family, over twice the monthly minimum wage.
"They came with their academic knowledge, and combined that with our ... knowledge of the forest," said Corina, 38. "I never expected to get R$3,000 for something in my backyard."
Pará is betting big on tiny businesses like Magno's, which form part of the state's fledging "bioeconomy".
In a race to stop the destruction of the native forests and vegetation that cover about 78% of its territory, Pará is implementing an ambitious bioeconomy plan, called PlanBio.
The aim is to generate jobs and preserve the environment by increasing support for local sustainable businesses.
Presented last November at the COP27 climate summit by Pará governor Helder Barbalho, PlanBio is estimated to cost at least R$1.2 billion ($232 million) over the next five years, funded from state and federal government coffers and external sources.
The plan is central to turning Pará - now Brazil's main emitter of planet-heating carbon dioxide (CO2) - into a carbon-neutral state, through what Camille Bemerguy, Pará's director of climate change, environmental services and bioeconomy, calls a "reconciliation" between its environmental and socio-economic challenges.
Developed over two years, PlanBio aims to incentivize environmental research, development and innovation.
It wants to foster businesses that harness local biodiversity sustainably, and add value to practices like Magno's, derived from traditional and indigenous knowledge.
In January, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva stood beside Barbalho to announce a bid for Belém, Pará's capital, to host the COP30 U.N. climate summit in 2025.
The bid is more than just a political nod to Pará, where Lula won the election by a comfortable margin. While not a member of Lula's Workers Party (PT), Barbalho is an ally - and his brother, Jader Barbalho Filho, is a minister in Lula's cabinet.
If Belém wins COP30, Pará would have the chance to showcase its bioeconomy to the world. But that would also mean a deadline of less than three years to meet some of PlanBio's promises.
"Three years is not a lot," conceded Bemerguy.
Pará is Brazil's second-largest state, and the Amazon region's most populous one, with about 8.7 million people.
It was responsible for almost a fifth of all climate-warming carbon emissions in Brazil in 2020, according to data gathered by the Climate Observatory, a Brazilian non-profit.
Despite a 21% drop from the year before, in 2022 about 4,141 sq km (1,599 square miles) of forest were lost in Pará - more than anywhere else in Brazil, government data shows. Trees release CO2 when they are cut down and rot or are burned.
In early February, Barbalho issued an "environmental emergency" decree for 15 cities where about three-quarters of all deforestation in the state took place between 2019 and 2021.
Brazil's former far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, in office from 2019 to 2022, was accused of weakening government environmental agencies and incentivizing illegal logging and mining in protected areas.
With the advent of Lula's new leftist administration, however, there is an expectation that Brazil will strengthen its fight against deforestation.
In January, just a few days into Lula's presidency, federal environmental agency Ibama launched its first raid to catch illegal loggers in Pará state.
While removing illegal loggers and miners from protected areas is necessary to curb tree loss, Bemerguy said that in the longer term, hope for Pará's forests rests on making money from them while keeping them standing.
According to a study from U.S.-based non-profit The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Pará's bioeconomy grew an average of 8.2% per year from 2006-2019 - and could increase 30 times by 2040, generating R$170 billion ($32.9 billion) in annual revenue.
That would almost double the state's current gross domestic product, noted Bemerguy.
The key to success is making activities that preserve the forest more profitable than illegal logging and mining, said Juliana Simões, deputy manager of strategy for indigenous and traditional communities at TNC Brazil.
"It will be necessary for the federal government to do its part," said Simões, who helped design PlanBio.
That means punishing illegal loggers and miners, and creating incentives for businesses that keep the forest standing while removing them for those that destroy it, she added.
Still, developing a thriving bioeconomy is a challenge in a poor state where about 5% of residents still lack access to electric power and 47% have no clean water at home, according to government data cited in PlanBio.
"Life was hard," remembered Dilma Lopes, the daughter of a leader at Campo Limpo, a rural community without electricity until 2008.
Back in 2002, Natura & Co, one of Brazil's largest cosmetics companies, was looking for suppliers of priprioca, an aromatic herb traditionally found in the Amazon region.
Lopes' father and other community members organized themselves into a co-operative called Aprocamp and struck a deal with Natura to plant priprioca - now their main moneymaker.
Lopes grew up in a makeshift house made of wood, like many in her community. But with priprioca, that has changed.
"Now, thank God, everyone has their own little brick houses," said Lopes, who is Aprocamp's president.
Over time, locals who had migrated out of the community for work returned, and Aprocamp grew from 20 families into a co-operative of 75.
Fostering community businesses is one of PlanBio's aims.
To do that, Pará - famous for açaí, a purple berry consumed around the world as a "super food" - wants to develop agro-industries involving small-scale producers, increasing their profits by adding value to what they grow, such as cocoa beans.
In some parts of the state, such activities are starting to take root.
At Campo Limpo, Natura has set up a factory to extract oil from priprioca, used to make perfume. Locals are being trained to run it and will own the plant once it is operational.
"We expect everyone's life to improve - a lot," said Ronelson Ribamar, an Aprocamp member being trained to work at the facility.
The factory will bring in a steadier income, said Ribamar, who plans to keep planting priprioca and vegetables on his own plot of land, and even hire someone to help him.
Meanwhile, Da Tribu is setting up a workshop in Cotijuba to automate rubber thread-making.
The idea is to train village women to run it, allowing them to produce more in a fraction of the time, said Tainah Fagundes, Da Tribu's co-founder.
At Cofruta, another co-operative that supplies Natura, a fruit-processing factory is giving opportunities to a new generation.
Manoel Rodrigues, 28, a farmer's son, started working in the fields at 13. Two years later he bagged a job at Cofruta's factory, allowing him to finish high school.
Now he has great hopes for his 5-year-old daughter, Alice, who wants to become a vet or a firefighter when she grows up.
"I plan for her to go to college, because I didn't get to go," said Rodrigues.
To develop new technologies and uses for Amazon rainforest produce, Pará state plans to open up a research center by 2025, as well as offering funding for researchers in the field.
Cosmetics company Natura pioneered such research in the Amazon when it started there more than 20 years ago. Now it plays an outsized role in the local bioeconomy, buying produce in bulk from 46 Amazon communities, half of them based in Pará.
The firm's industrial park in Benevides, a town about 34 km from Belém, produces 90% of the soap Natura sells worldwide and has an innovation center to find new uses for Amazon resources.
The company sometimes buys fruits and herbs not knowing what it can do with them until they reach the lab, executives said.
Last year Natura filed 43 patents, but the firm does not provide a breakdown of how many relate to Amazon-based products.
Smaller businesses are also investing in technology.
Tatiana Lima, a Belém-based chemist, has developed jambu - a plant known for causing a tingling sensation in the mouth when eaten – into an aphrodisiac spray. Her company, Sinimbu, also makes pickled jambu and cachaça, a Brazilian spirit, infused with jambu.
To design its bioeconomy plan, Pará's government held seminars across the state to speak with indigenous and traditional peoples, businesses and non-profit groups, to find out about their problems and how the state could help.
Local business officials said in interviews with Context they find it easier to ship produce for processing in richer southeastern states like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro rather than adding value in Pará, as the state wants.
They cited local hurdles including a lack of financing, an unfriendly business environment, high state taxes, logistical issues, and difficulty in hiring skilled workers.
That could change with PlanBio, under which state-owned regional bank Banpará will offer a special credit line linked to bioeconomy initiatives and local companies will be introduced to potential investors.
A few companies, like Manioca, a firm that sells Amazonian products in supermarkets across Brazil, are ahead of the game.
Manioca ships bottles from São Paulo to Belém, fills them with tucupi, a yellow sauce made from herbs and fermented manioc juice, and transports them back to São Paulo for distribution, keeping jobs and profits in Pará.
It could cut its costs by processing and bottling tucupi sauce, its main product, in São Paulo, where taxes are lower and business incentives higher - and Manioca would be nearer to major distribution centers.
But "this is something we don't want to do," said Paulo Reis, a partner at Manioca.
Reis is part of a group of executives who have organized to improve the Amazon bioeconomy and were consulted on PlanBio.
While Reis thinks the bioeconomy strategy is good on paper, he worries about how effective it will be in practice. He believes the state governor will need support from the federal government, especially to lower deforestation rates.
He worries that Barbalho's initiative could be discredited if forest losses surge before PlanBio can take effect.
Fernanda Stefani, CEO of 100% Amazonia, a Pará-based firm that ships Amazon produce to 60 countries, is also backing the local economy.
Her firm struggled for two and a half years before finally obtaining credit from Banpará to build a high-tech factory to extract the pulp of Amazonian fruits like açaí.
With the high cost of doing business in Pará, Stefani estimates it would have been 20% cheaper to set up the processing facility in São Paulo - but ethically indefensible.
"Today most companies that really earn a lot of money with the forest are all outside the Amazon," she said. "We need to change this dynamic."
The economic situation of communities at the bottom of the supply chain on which Manioca, 100% Amazonia, Natura and others rely remains fragile.
Of the 46 communities Natura buys from, only about 10 do not depend on it for most of their income, executives said.
About 80% of Aprocamp's revenue comes from Natura, noted Lopes, who tries to diversify by selling to smaller buyers like Manioca, which sources a type of chicory from the co-operative.
If Natura stops buying, the community will not be able to sustain itself, she admitted.
At the same time, if communities fail to deliver produce, or if deforestation becomes rampant, Natura's supply chain would collapse, said its global sustainability director, Denise Hills.
"If the Amazon isn't standing, there's no Natura, no bio-ingredients - there's nothing," she said.
While Pará state is clearly dedicated to developing its bioeconomy, the process needs to be accelerated, she added.
On Cotijuba island, Corina Magno feels the same. She sees her community as still reliant on government aid, despite Da Tribu's efforts to develop a sustainable rubber-tapping business.
Many of her peers have abandoned the island's forests to work on plantations in southern Brazil, but if the local economy were to improve, they would come back home, she believes.
"We have the will," she said. "What we lack is support."
($1 = 5.1674 reais)
Reporting: Fábio Teixeira
Photography: Cícero Pedrosa Neto
Editing: Megan Rowling and Laurie Goering
Producer: Amber Milne
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