Drawing on biodiversity and biomimetics, new innovation model proposes to use science, cutting-edge technology and indigenous knowledge to carve out new path for development in Amazon region
Latin American scientists and entrepreneurs on Friday published an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that would turn the biodiversity and biomimetic assets of the Amazon and the knowledge of its Indigenous Peoples into fuel for a “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” while simultaneously protecting the region from the economic pressures that are currently threatening to turn the world’s largest rainforest into a degraded savannah.
Led by renowned Brazilian scientist Carlos Nobre, an MIT-trained climatologist, the group includes Peruvian entrepreneur Juan Carlos Castilla-Rubio, chairman of Space Time Ventures and of Planetary Skin Institute; Brazil’s Space Research Institute-INPE researchers Gilvan Sampaio, Laura Borma and Manoel Cardoso; and José Silva, a post-graduate at University of Brasilia. The group argues that, in the short term, and using a low-tech approach, it is feasible to develop unique, biodiversity-based products, with high added value capable of reaching global markets.
“We hope to start a revolution,” said Nobre, noting that the multidisciplinary science and technology group he leads is driven by a sense of urgency. Its members seek to set up public-private partnerships among key actors in Brazil and other Amazonian countries, bringing together the finest research and development centres, universities, startups and visionary companies worldwide, guided by the need to involve Indigenous Peoples, while ensuring that social safeguards are in place to protect their rights and interests.
“In order to reach the 1.5 degrees Celsius global warming levels anticipated by the Paris Accord, we must move towards the de-carbonisation of the economy, and that includes a zero deforestation target for the world’s forests, which also implies zero deforestation for Brazil,” Nobre said.
Nobre notes as well that indigenous knowledge, the knowledge of the traditional communities about biomolecules and the forms and processes of ecosystems, has been accumulated through countless generations in the Amazon. “Respect for this knowledge and for inclusive development must serve as the foundation for innovation models for the future of the forest,” he asserts.
The proposal by the group envisions making economic use of the biodiversity and biomimetic assets of the Amazon, with its diversity of living plants, animals and insects, pairing them with advances in applied research in advanced biological, digital and material science technologies that are currently fueling a Fourth Industrial Revolution.
These include breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, robotics, blockchain, the Internet of Things, quantum computing, genomics, genetic editing, nanotechnologies and 3D printing, amongst many others. This new model provides a valid way to change the tragic and irreversible fate towards which the planet’s largest tropical forest seems to be headed. A huge opportunity will be lost if the region continues to be driven by a development model that threatens the forests, fuels climate change, and destroys Indigenous Peoples and the biodiversity they have protected for centuries and generations. They must be respected as holders of traditional knowledge and rights.
Characterised by high rates of deforestation and exposed to increased frequency of fires and long periods of drought and extreme weather, the Amazon under the current development model could well enter an irreversible process of “savannisation,” the authors warn.
The group predicts that, by 2050, half of the tropical forest may be replaced by degraded tropical savannah or seasonal forests. Drier and poorer, the region would face a point of no return for the survival of the world’s largest tropical forest, with catastrophic consequences for Indigenous Peoples, Brazil, South America and the world.
“If warming in Amazonia exceeds four degrees Celsius, or if more than 40 percent of the forest is cleared, we will reach the tipping point for the forest’s balance with the climate,” Nobre said. “The resulting savannisation process could become irreversible.”
Brazil’s success with reducing illegal deforestation by 80 percent in the last decade creates a bridge that could make possible a radical reversal of the current development model in the Amazon, serving as a springboard for exploiting the assets of biodiversity and biomimetics, according to Nobre and his colleagues.
The group cites, for example, the alkaloid spilanthol, found in the leaves, stems and flowers of the jambu – a plant common in Amazonian gardens and widely used in local cuisine. Spilanthol slightly numbs the tongue when ingested, as described in patents for anesthetics, antiseptics, anti-wrinkle preparations, toothpaste, gynecological medicines and anti-inflammatories. Another natural product, known as copaiba oil, is easily processed from start to finish in the Amazon, and could be used as an alternative source of fluorine-xylo for cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.
But the PNAS article proposes to delve even further into the research and development of innovations offered by the forest and its peoples. The researchers discuss using the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution to learn from and imitate the forest’s natural forms, as well as the processes, molecules, materials and ecosystems, all capable of inspiring invaluable innovations for multiple industries in Brazil and around the world.
“We are rapidly coming to understand how things are created in nature, and how organisms sense their environment using sophisticated sensors, how they interpret that information, how they move about in their environment using biomechanical and kinetic principles, processes that have taken millions of years to develop behave and function,” said Castilla-Rubio, one of the authors and a biochemical engineer from Cambridge University.
In addition, he says, the forest reproduces complex biological systems and biomimetic solutions to problems on a nano-molecular scale. These environmentally friendly processes can inspire technologies to prevent and remedy pollution, provide new insights for designing bio-textiles, and inform advanced applications of robotic behavior and cognition, which are in the initial phase of the innovation cycle.
“Leveraging the Amazon’s vast biomimetic and biodiversity assets, we can aspire to develop revolutionary innovations in multiple fields. For example, a long-lasting foam produced by a species of frog has inspired the creation of new technologies for capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,” said Castilla-Rubio.
The revolutionary plan the authors envision as capable of changing the course of the history of the Amazon cannot be implemented in a single step. Instead, an ambitious innovation initiative that would pool capabilities and resources from technology startups, visionary corporations, academia, government and leading philanthropic actors on a massive scale for navigating the long road ahead is needed. “We have an important choice to make,” Castilla-Rubio said. The future of the Amazon, and its impact on the planet, lies so clearly in the balance. Time is not on our side, but we can still choose the ‘third way’.”