The World Economic Forum promotes a “restoration economy” cluster in Amazonian Colombia to regenerate economy and ecology

Ecological restoration is an emerging industry in Amazonian countries that still have large tracts of native forests intact as well as deforested land where land use change has led to ecosystem degradation.

This combination is perfect for the development of a restorative bioeconomy (AKA restoration economy) cluster to:

  • Make responsible and sustainable use of existing forest biodiversity (e.g. harvesting of seeds, fungi and other microfauna) to generate restoration biofactories, such as community nurseries for native species.
  • Implement natural and active restoration projects (planting of native trees) through different forestry or agroforestry models to recover both soil health and biodiversity, generating economic alternatives for Amazonian communities.

For example, Colombia has a target to restore 753,000 hectares by 2026 through the development of forest and agroforestry economies, while Brazil has a restoration target of 12 million hectares by 2030. Despite those ambitions, the potential is 20 times higher in the Colombian case and 6 times higher in the Brazilian case.

However, at Amazonía Emprende-Banco Vivo de Semillas y Especies Forestales Nativas, we realized that there are still a number of enabling factors that need to be strengthened before large-scale restoration can take place in the Amazon:

  • A supply chain of inputs (seeds, fertilizers, organic supplements, etc.).
  • A value chain that not only presents market opportunities (such as carbon footprint offsetting), but also logistical mechanisms for accessing inputs and bringing restoration by-products (e.g. timber, agricultural products from native species such as cocoa, acai berries, among others) to markets.
  • Talent: people with the knowledge and skills to carry out all stages of the restoration work, from monitoring seed trees to seed collection, germination and planting, to monitoring tree growth and the return of biodiversity.

Developing large-scale bioeconomy ventures

Developing a well structured cluster is possible when norms are clear and conducive to the development of bioeconomy ventures. In the region, this would enable the achievement of ecological restoration goals in easier, faster and more efficient ways.

Our experience, doing it in our laboratory on a 30-hectare plot of land in the Colombian Amazon, has been relatively straightforward over the past three years. However, going from 30 hectares to 100,000 hectares is a complex challenge.

Several questions have emerged that policy-makers, businesses and academia can help address:

  • Are there enough seeds of native species to address the challenge of large-scale restoration? The answer is, yes, they exist in the forest, but which ones? Who are the owners of those trees? Is there a business model to generate a win-win relationship with them?
  • Is there technical-scientific knowledge available to apply for environmental permits from the authorities to use those seeds and trees?
  • Do we know the genetic information and health condition of the trees that provide seeds?

Planting any tree, anywhere, deteriorates biodiversity in the medium to long term. When we plant a native tree without knowing its provenance, we may be exposing the ecosystem to the following risks:

  • The native mother tree that generated the seeds may be diseased and therefore the seed and the future tree may grow diseased. This is not visible to the naked eye and is reflected in the medium term. Already at that point, the investment in seedlings, planting and monitoring would have been lost.
  • The seeds can come from the same mother tree and, by sowing them, we would be promoting inbreeding (reproduction between individuals with a common ancestry). This deteriorates the genetic quality generation after generation, making individuals vulnerable and increasing the risk of loss of the species in a population.
  • We do not know how much of the seeds generated by the native mother tree were extracted from each flowering season. For this reason, we cannot be sure whether or not a percentage of seeds were saved for the fauna, which could present a potential ecosystem disruption.
  • Is there enough compost to support tree planting and management at least in the first two years, when they need more human support to grow?

Case study: Colombia

With regard to the above, we share some data and insights on the potential of this industry in an Amazonian country like Colombia.

  • Are there enough nurseries in the regions to meet the demand for native trees? This question led to the creation of the Community Nurseries Network, led by the Colombian Ministry of Environment. Although the number of community tree nurseries is still incipient, state and private programmes such as Amazonía Emprende seek to strengthen the supply of this type of green business. In the case of our organization, the goal is to establish at least 150 community tree nurseries in the next seven years.
  • Is there enough organic fertilizer to support tree planting and management, at least in the first two years, when trees need more support from people to grow? According to the most recent data (Agronegocios, 2019), the country produces around 900,000 tonnes of fertilizer annually. However, this figure is insufficient to meet the demand required per hectare during the first two years. In our case, we have applied 360 kg of organic fertilizer per hectare when planting native trees, and we have repeated this exercise four times in the first year. As a result, we have used 1.4 tonnes per hectare. If we wanted to restore 1 million hectares in one swoop today, we would need 1,440 million tonnes of organic fertilizer, so we would be in deficit for that magnitude of hectares (3% of the country’s restoration potential).
  • Are there people qualified and passionate about ecosystem restoration? This is a question that needs to be answered in the light of the development of training programmes in partnerships between entities such as the National Learning Service (SENA) and public and private universities.
  • Of the millions of hectares with restoration potential in the Amazon, how many have title deeds and could be potential recipients of resources either to offset carbon footprints or to build carbon credit projects? It is estimated that approximately 34% of the land in this region have title deeds.
  • How much do we know about native species, their CO2 capture capacity, biodiversity benefits, etc.? The following Manual on Landscape Restoration in the Amazon of the Sinchi Institute includes studies for several forest species. However, the gap between what we have researched is far from the potential we have: more than 9,000 native species in our Amazon.

This is the ideal time to invest in the creation of a restoration cluster in the Amazon.

This represents a two-fold opportunity, first, to generate bioeconomy ventures that serve as enablers of restoration processes, and second, to ensure that the millions of dollars seeking to enter the Amazon region to develop carbon projects can do so with less risk and greater impact.

Photo of Amazonian village in Colombia is by Justus from Pixabay.

This article by Julio Andrés Rozo Grisales, Founder and Director, Amazonía Emprende-Escuela Bosque, originally appeared on the website of the World Economic Forum. Reprinted here (with minor edits) by permission.

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