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The Small Business Solution to Saving the Amazon

Supporting indigenous people's projects could be more effective than trying to persuade the openly dismissive Brazilian government.

A woman opens cupuacu tree fruits in the Amana Sustainable Development Reserve (Evaristo Sa/AFP/Getty Images)

It was the Baniwa women who came up with the idea to sell the Jiquitaia chili peppers.

They had already planted and picked the peppers in their own gardens in their communities along the Rio Içana, a northern Amazon tributary of the Rio Negro that borders Colombia and Venezuela; it would be easy to produce enough to sell. The indigenous Brazilian women wanted economic independence. And traditional, sustainable cultivation of the organic peppers—which had protected them from evil spirits and purified their food for several millennia—would leave the rainforest where they live intact. Large swaths of trees wouldn’t need to be cut, whirring metal machines wouldn’t need to be brought in, and pesticides that could threaten people, animals, and plants in the region wouldn’t need to be used.

They expected to sell the small jars of the Jiquitaia blend—78 types of tiny chili peppers in a rainbow of colors, dried in the sun and in large ovens, then ground into a fine powder—in nearby towns reachable by boat. They were thrilled when the products made it all the way to shops and markets in distant Brazilian cities like São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Brasília in 2013. Local partnerships also turn the blend into chocolate bars and hot sauce, which along with the chili powder have made their way to some of the country’s most famous restaurants.

Then, at the end of last year, they got the news their product would be sold in the United States. It would also soon be sold in France, and an Irish brewery wanted to partner with them to create a beer called the Baniwa Chilli Saison. The Baniwa women were successful entrepreneurs. In their first five years as businesswomen, their sales jumped a whopping 1900 percent.

They also proved to those on the outside something the Baniwa had long known: The Amazon does indeed have rich land with insurmountable potential, but deforestation does not have to be a part of making it profitable. And if the international community wants to help preserve the rainforest, its best option might be to listen to and support its residents.

Deforestation has accelerated in the Amazon since Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro took office in January. Data from the country’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) shows that in the first seven months of the year, deforestation in the region went up 67.2 percent compared to the same period the year before. The worst month by far was July, with an astronomical 278 percent increase in deforestation as compared to July 2018. Deforestation of the Amazon, which produces about 20 percent of the world’s oxygen, is reaching an irreversible “tipping point,” and researchers say Bolsonaro is to blame.

When INPE released those numbers last month, Bolsonaro—who has long wanted to abolish indigenous territorial rights so that loggers, farmers, and miners could extract value from the land—made unfounded accusations that the government organization, which collects satellite image data, was harming the country’s image with lies. He also said its director, Ricardo Galvão, must be working for an nonprofit with an environmental agenda, an accusation that led to an explosive public debate between the two men on the veracity of the deforestation data. Galvão, who said he would never step down from his position, ended up being fired.

In the following weeks, both Germany and Norway suspended funding to Brazil for projects meant to slow deforestation. Norway pulled out of the Amazon Fund when Brazil’s minister of the environment, Ricardo Salles, got rid of the fund’s steering committee and handed control of distribution of funds to the executive branch, leaving NGOs and other members of civil society without a say.

Salles—who has criticized previous governments for creating conservation units and protecting indigenous territories in the region, despite specialists saying they had a significant impact on slowing deforestation in recent years—told BBC Brasil in an interview this month that the Amazon would only be preserved if “capitalist solutions” could be found, generating income for the 20 million Brazilians living in the area. The current administration’s position is that not enough funding comes from the international community to make up for the wealth Brazilians give up by not exploiting the Amazon.

The Bolsonaro administration is focused on mining, logging, and farming. But for the Baniwa women, the income they’ve earned from the Jiquitaia chili peppers they cultivate has made all the difference.

“With the income that comes in from the sale of the peppers, the women are, of course, benefited directly, and others in the surrounding communities are also benefited indirectly,” said André Baniwa, a Baniwa leader who also works with the Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA), an NGO in support of indigenous rights that helped the Baniwa women and several other indigenous groups get their sustainable economic projects off the ground, and supports a community tourism program run by indigenous groups in the wider Rio Negro region. “Goods that the women are able to buy with that income are also traded with those who don’t have that type of income in their own communities. It ends up helping all the Baniwa people, no matter which community they live in.”

Indigenous and traditional peoples in the Amazon are also supported by organizations like the Rainforest Action Network (RAN), a U.S.-based NGO that works in environmental preservation and human rights. It offers small grants of $5,000 to $10,000 as a part of its Protect-an-Acre program, which funds projects headed by indigenous and traditional peoples that are meant to keep rainforests like the Amazon standing.

The program depends on donations to be able to help grantees like the Munduruku people, who are trying to monitor the last large area of un-demarcated territory (i.e. longtime living area for which the government has not yet formally given them titles to) they have in the Tapajós Basin, which is threatened by plans to build three major dams. RAN believes that strengthening indigenous land rights will lead to better managed forests—a position echoed in the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report in August.

“We know that protecting tropical rainforests is one of the most important ways to mitigate the global impacts of climate change,” Ginger Cassady, RAN’s forest program director, told me. “What happens in the Amazon is affecting us all over the world. It’s a global emergency.”

Another initiative involves reforestation combined with shade-grown coffee farms as a profitable and sustainable way for small-scale Amazonian farmers to work the land. Café em Agrofloresta, a project run by the Institute for Conservation and Sustainable Development (IDESAM), produces the only sustainably shade-grown coffee in the Amazon. Sold across Brazil, Café Apuí Agroflorestal, named for the municipality where the project is run, is getting ready to send its first shipment of coffee to the Netherlands.

Of the 30 farmers it works with, 18 are already certified organic and twelve are awaiting certification. At first, Mariano Cenamo, a senior researcher and director of business development at IDESAM, told me, it was difficult to convince them that planting more trees would be beneficial to growing crops. But coffee is a species that naturally grows in the shade, and the nutrients the shade-giving trees provide to the soil keep soil-amending costs down. It’s worked so well that there’s now a waiting list to participate in Café em Agrofloresta. Last year alone they sold 300 bags at 300 reais each (roughly $75 at the current exchange rate). IDESAM hopes to expand the reach of the project soon.

These kinds of initiatives have special significance at a time when the international community seems to feel increasingly helpless in the face of growing deforestation. American foreign policy experts have wondered whether Brazil could be intimidated into preserving the Amazon or even invaded—a problematic proposal, given its whiff of Brazil’s colonial past, and the Brazilian military’s subsequent sensitivity on the subject of sovereignty. Shade-grown coffee and chili powder aren’t what Bolsonaro means when he insists on the importance of extracting wealth from the rainforest. But the potential in these initiatives, those working on them say, is to offer an alternative, more sustainable route to commercialization—one benefiting vulnerable populations instead of displacing them. “Whenever we buy a product like Café Apuí Agroflorestal,” Cenamo told me, “when we prioritize any product that was produced sustainably in the Amazon, we’re giving value to what the forest gives us and we’re giving back by protecting the forest itself and the people who live in it.”

For the international community, giving back might mean taking a back seat to those who live and know the Amazon, exchanging international conservation’s traditionally top-down focus for initiatives focused on sustainable small businesses. Supporting local people and projects could be far more productive for preserving the rainforest than any attempt to take it over.