Pavan Sukhdev

"We still have a lot to learn about the nature of value and the value of nature"

The Two Rivers of the Amazon

Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state in Brazil, Manaus is located at the confluence of the Rio Negro and the Amazon. It is 1,450 km up the Amazon from the Atlantic Ocean, but the river here is no less than eight kilometres wide. A veritable sea of freshwater.

From Manaus, it takes six hours by boat to Tumbira, the field centre of an NGO, Fundacion Amazonas Sustentovel (FAS – Amazonas Sustainability Foundation). Tumbira is a small village with a school, a brand-new church, and a football field (the three institutions of rural Brazil) and even here the river is over a kilometres wide. All along the journey, dense rainforests line both sides. And in the distance, in one direction or other you can see vast grey curtains of rain floating gracefully down and creeping slowly along the horizon. Freshwater is everywhere, absolutely everywhere.

This is the greatest of all river systems on Earth, and by far its most majestic manifestation. This single system empties one-fifth of all the freshwater that flows into the world’s oceans.

But that’s not all. Above and beyond this visible river system is another, gigantic, invisible, “river” system. An estimated 20 billion tonnes of water vapour is released every day by the Amazon rainforests. Animated satellite pictures (Prof. Virgilio Viana, head FAS, has them on his laptop) show a constant global flow of airborne water vapour, which some scientists say is a source of rainfall not just for South America, but around the world.

It is impossible not to be filled with a sense of awe by a journey along the Amazon. If the Earth had lungs, they would be the Amazon rainforest. And if it had pulmonary arteries, they would be the Amazon river system and its many branches and tributaries.

But the Amazon river systems are at risk. Deforestation rates have picked up again, and a forest code amendment just enacted by the parliament is cause for concern. And a recent spate of unsolved murders of environmental activists and small farmers by what are most likely big logging and agricultural interests has shocked the world.

Hope stays alive – and  many persevere to find “win-win-win” solutions for three vital groups of stakeholders on whose doors lie blame for the problems of deforestation as well as solutions : local people, big business, & a beneficiaries worldwide for whom the waters of the Amazon are lifeblood. Big business ought not to need fiscal support (they may want it – that’s another story). And conserving benefit flows for the people of the world whilst so many in Brazil still need income support is a political non-starter. That leaves the weakest segment – local people – who clearly do need support. At the FAS centre in Tumbira, Prof. Virgilio Viana and his dedicated colleagues are busy implementing, growing and monitoring a scheme called “Bolsa Floresta” (or ‘forest fund’ loosely translated). The idea is elegant. It signs up and rewards forest dwelling communities for responsible, sustainable use of the rainforest. It is actually a large, privately funded “Payments for Ecosystem Services” (PES) scheme, which provides the average participating family with BRL 1,360 (about US$ 850) of value every year. About BRL 600 of that is a monthly cash payment to housewives, which is the most visible and appreciated component, but the other elements are more interesting from a medium-term perspective. On average about BRL 350 goes to promote sustainable harvesting for forest products – Brazil Nut being the best known. Another BRL 350 per family on average is spent on health and education for local communities. And a final BRL 60 is spent on building rudimentary business infrastructures so that forest communities may begin to think in terms of organized and sustainable business, a great way to give them income and profit opportunity.

So far, over 8,000 families have benefited from ‘Bolsa Floresta’. It can and should be scaled for several reasons. Firstly, it is ‘eco-development’ in its best sense – providing forest dependent communities a well-rounded package of business capacity building, financial support, employment, health and education benefits in order to make sustainable use of the Amazon rainforests. Secondly, it provides a good base for a future landscape-based and multi-benefit model for REDD+, as it already has most of the elements involved. If and when it adds biodiversity measurement and management to its income streams (an addition being explored right now by Prof Viana and Victor Salviati at FAS) it would truly become a societal model and anchor for a bottom-up, beneficiary-tiered, multi-service, successful REDD+ scheme for the future, which reaches the poor and is effective in carbon sequestration.

However, there is more to the threats facing Amazonas rainforest than the speed at which schemes such as ‘Bolsa Floresta’ can be replicated and scaled. The city economy of Manaus, dependent for long on its Free Trade Zone, may loose steam as its benefits gradually reduce or are matched by other states. The declining market share of IT goods (Amazonas had over 22% market share in 2004, but in 2010 it was down to 9%) is a case in point. Declining opportunities and competing subsidies may move money and entrepreneurship back to ‘old’ ways, seeking resource-extracting profits and jobs, which may well be unsustainable. Keeping the city economy of Manaus as diverse as possible, and building pools of human capital there to create competitive critical mass in different areas has to be a priority for the governments of both Amazonas and of Brazil. Employment follows investment, and investing in ‘new’ avenues is therefore essential. These should include areas such as bio-technology, REDD+ development, freshwater PES development, forestry management technology, and harvesting, processing and packaging sustainable forest produce to capture more of the value-chain of foods. These are all avenues in which public investment, incentives and tax breaks should be targeted – to solve tomorrow’s problems.

A sustainable future for the Amazonas state and conservation of its remarkable rainforest and river system is not only desirable and possible, it is essential. And it needs multiple efforts on multiple fronts. Not looking after Earth’s lungs and pulmonary arteries cannot be a good economic strategy for anyone – businesses, the state, the nation, or the world. ”


An abridged version of this article was initially published in the Guardian Sustainable Business blog on 28 June 2011.

June 28th, 2011 Posted by | no comments