Explore the Potential of the Amazon

The Amazon represents approximately 30% of all remaining tropical forests on the planet. It comprises several distinct ecosystems divided into flooded areas (forest of igapó, várzeas, and grassland) and “terra firme” (dense forests, “campinas”, “campinaranas”, savannas, mountain refuges, and pioneer formations). The Amazon Biome occupies an area of 7 million km2 and is distributed in nine countries (Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, Guyana, French Guyana, Suriname, and Colombia), with 60% of its total area in Brazilian territory.

According to scientific research and governmental organizations, it is estimated that, in Brazil, the Amazon Biome is home to approximately one-third of the world’s biodiversity among species of birds, fish, insects, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and flora. Just to exemplify, the number of insect species may exceed 30 million. It has the most diverse flora, with more than 50,000 species (about 20% of the world total). Brazil also has the greatest diversity of primates in the world, at least 10% of amphibians, and mammals and 17% of birds. In addition, it has an almost incalculable microbial diversity. The amount of forest, fruit, and fishing resources exploited by its 25 million inhabitants is very high and represents a good part of the products exported to other regions of the country and the world.

This megabiodiversity represents a huge genetic potential that has been attracting great interest from countries located in other parts of the world, anxious for new bioproducts of economic value. Besides the known forest and agronomic products, such as timber, fruit, medicinal and other products found in forests and rivers, the region has a collection of traditional knowledge about the millenium coexistence with different ecosystems. However, a large part of the existing species in the Amazon has not yet been studied.

Studies on the climate have shown that the Amazonian has great importance for the environmental stability of the planet, due to the high percentage of carbon sequestration present in the atmosphere. The amount of carbon fixed per year by the vegetation present in this biome is around one billion tons. This vegetal mass evaporates around seven trillion tons of water annually to the atmosphere, and its rivers represent around 20% of all the fresh water of the terrestrial globe. These springs have a hydroelectric potential of fundamental importance for the country, in addition to containing vast fishing resources that are the main source of protein for regional human consumption.

The region has substantial mineral resources, such as oil and natural gas from the Urucu region, municipality of Coari, Amazonas, tin, and nickel, in the municipality of Presidente Figueiredo, in Amazonas, manganese in Amapá, and gold in several regions, such as Serra dos Carajás in Pará, among others.

Regarding sociodiversity, the Amazon is home to an expressive group of indigenous peoples and traditional populations that include “quilombolas”, rubber tappers, chestnut trees, coconut breakers, and riverine people, among others, who give it prominence in terms of cultural diversity. This Brazilian socio-cultural heritage still maintains its original characteristics relatively well preserved in the interior of the forest. In this case, the existence of indigenous groups without contact with the surrounding society.

The Amazon is also the region with the largest number of protected areas in the country. More than one-third of its territory falls under a protection regime, in the form of conservation units, indigenous lands, “quilombola” lands, or military areas. The state of Roraima has the highest percentage of protected areas (more than 80%), while the state of Amazonas has the lowest percentage of deforestation (less than 5%), which is attributed to its economic development model based on the Industrial District of Manaus.

The immense genetic and environmental heritage of the Amazon is essential for the climate balance of our planet. However, it is constantly being threatened by the expansion of extensive cattle raising, soy monoculture, and itinerant agriculture with the use of burning and clandestine mining.

In this context, pressure from illegal loggers, land grabbing, cattle ranchers, gold diggers, and farmers has resulted in large expanses of deforested land, which today exceeds 65 million hectares, most of the time with the use of fire. These actions have serious consequences, including the disruption of the planet’s climate and the loss of unique biological species in thousands of ecological niches, with these negative impacts being felt worldwide. Deforestation destroys thousands of square kilometers of forest each year, which in addition to biological losses, results in soil erosion that is exacerbated by the intense effects of solar radiation and heavy tropical rainfall. As a result, large areas of land are now at different levels of environmental degradation. In addition, mining activities contaminate rivers, predatory fishing decreases fish stocks, and accelerated and disorderly urbanization generates serious sanitation problems, especially in the poorest sectors of cities.

A lack of understanding of the Amazon’s biodiversity is the source of these predatory processes. As our knowledge accumulates, the chance of conserving regional species increases, starting with their cultivation and resulting in the enrichment of the use of the Amazon genetic resources. The cupuaçu (Theobroma grandiflorum (Willd. ex Spreng.) K. Schum.), the pupunha (Bactris gasipaes Kunth), rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis (Willd. ex A. Juss.) Müll. Arg.), açaí (Euterpe oleracea Mart.), and guarana (Paullinia cupana Kunth) are typical examples of species that have a commercial market and are cultivated in various parts of the Amazon, the country, and sometimes in other regions of the planet, and are therefore not in danger of extinction. In addition, other species, such as the camu-camu (Myrciaria dubia (Kunth) McVaugh), the sapota (Manilkara zapota (L.) P. Royen), araçá-boi (Eugenia stipitata McVaugh), and araçá-pera (Psidium acutangulum DC.) are part of a group of emerging species, which have aroused interest for their commercial exploitation. On the other hand, some timber species, such as mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla King) and acariquara (Minquartia guianensis Aubl.), although known, are at risk of extinction in some areas of Amazonia because of the lack of interest in their plantations due to their need for long-term financial returns. Another example of this situation is the patauá palm (Oenocarpus bataua Mart.), where large extensions of natural populations of this species are destroyed every year, which despite having an oil very similar to olive oil, due to the lack of knowledge of its potential.

Finally, traditionally used and commercialized Amazonian medicinal species deserve special attention, due to the fact that the majority originate from extractivism, which can be considered a predatory practice. Moreover, these species, such as copaiba (Copaifera spp.), andiroba (Carapa guianensis Aubl.), and cat’s claw (Uncaria spp.), play a fundamental role in the healthcare of local populations, in addition to their economic potential. With the creation of the National Policy for Medicinal and Phytotherapeutic Plants (Brazil, 2006), whose premises are the respect for the principles of safety and efficacy in public health, the conciliation of socioeconomic development and environmental conservation, and the respect for regional and environmental diversities and particularities, scientific research – in all areas of knowledge – on Amazonian medicinal species, should be favored, encouraged, and expanded in the region.

One of the factors contributing to the scientific and technological backwardness of the Amazon is the reduced number of academics working in this region, which led to the creation of the BIONORTE Network. The main mission of this network is, in addition to participating in the training of academics, to integrate competencies for the development of research, development, and innovation projects focused on biodiversity and biotechnology, aiming to generate knowledge, processes, and products that contribute to the sustainable development of the Amazon.