Brazil: can technology help save the Amazon?


Especially in a country which still has so many people living in or near poverty. They view international concern about the Amazon as an ill-disguised effort to hold back Brazil’s development by rich countries which have already trashed much of their own natural habitats.

But the global furore over Mr Bolsonaro’s approach to the Amazon has also given oxygen to a very different view of how to manage the rainforest. It has focused attention on the disparate community of scientists, businesspeople and activists who believe that technological advances could be the key to promoting sustainable development and tackling deforestation.

For them, the key to sidelining the Amazon’s more nefarious actors is to show that the conservation of land can be both economically profitable and environmentally valuable. They see the Amazon as the world’s largest repository of biodiversity and the potential foundation of a multitrillion dollar bio-economy, if scientists have the chance to map and harness the genetic codes of its diverse wildlife.

The argument about sustainability has been running for the three decades since the fate of the Amazon last became a global issue, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But for many of these scientists, there is a new generation of tools, from genomic sequencing to satellite-tracked reforestation, that can be harnessed to help save the Amazon, an ecosystem that underpins weather patterns across the continent.

“What if we can map and sequence 100 per cent of complex life on the planet? We will unlock a gigantic amount of new innovations and new industries that we can’t even dream of imagining,” says Juan Carlos Castilla-rubio, chairman of Brazil-based Space Time Ventures, a technology company that works on biomass, energy and water risks. “This is what we call a new bio-economy.”

The stakes are much higher now. Some scientists fear the world’s largest rainforest, which plays a vital role in absorbing carbon dioxide emissions and keeping a lid on rising global temperatures, could be approaching a “tipping point”, past which it will not have enough trees to maintain its water-recycling ecosystem.

So far, some 17 per cent of the rainforest has been razed. Until recently, scientists believed that the tipping point would arrive when 40 per cent of the Amazon had been destroyed. But Tom Lovejoy of George Mason University and Carlos Nobre at World Resources Institute-brazil now believe the scales could start to tip when just 20-25 per cent of the rainforest has disappeared.

In an airy, open-plan office in a quiet suburb of São Paulo, Mr Castilla-rubio has assembled some of Brazil’s brightest minds, including AI researchers, big data experts and biochemists. They are motivated by the same concern — applying new technological advances to the defence of the rainforest and other threatened areas of Brazil.

“Given the physics involved and what we see in terms of action around the world, I’m afraid there will be runaway climate change leading to catastrophes like major crop failures, water scarcity and social unrest,” says Mr Castilla-rubio. “You can’t predict when or where it will hit the worst, but the signs are all in the same direction, which is irreversibility.”

Central to his group’s activities is the use of big data and satellites to help farmers improve the output of their land and reduce the need to expand their boundaries into protected rainforest. One such project involves using satellites to pinpoint and classify particular types of weeds, which can then be targeted in surgical strikes by herbicide-wielding autonomous drones.

“If you know precisely where and what the weeds are, you can use one 30th the input of herbicides. That means you pollute just one 30th of what you would have before,” he says.

Similar technologies are now being adapted across Brazil by farmers who are conscious both of environmental sensitivities and the importance of making farms more efficient and resilient to increasingly extreme weather.

“The point is we know we have to preserve. Everyone knows this. Farmers know this. We know we don’t have more earth to open,” says Edwin Montengro, a macadamia nut farmer, who is using bio-fertilisation techniques to improve the quality of his soil and crops.