Digitizing the Amazon: How to use the rainforest without ruining it
There is a lot of hope that the digital, material, and biological innovations of the Fourth Industrial Revolution will help us save the Amazon rainforest. However, the real impact of the new bio economy is yet to be revealed. Researchers from the IT University will study the outcome of Amazônia 4.0.
Rainforests are disappearing at alarming rates. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) nearly half of the world’s rainforests have been destroyed since the 1960’s. Despite many efforts to save the forests, the deforestation continues to threaten the survival of humanity, not only the 1.6 billion people whose livelihoods depend on forests, but all of us.
In recent years, however, researchers and industries have planted new hope by exploring new ways to extract value from the rainforest. At the forefront of the initiatives is one of Brazil’s best-known climate scientists, Carlos Nobre, a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. Nobre has introduced the concept Amazônia 4.0
, “which aims to add to the economic potential of the assets of the Amazon socio-biodiversity, the new technologies, and possibilities that emerge from the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or Industry 4.0.”
One of the ways this is done is by establishing laboratories in the Amazon where local community members and students work in partnership with teachers, researchers, startup entrepreneurs, small business and sustainable business development, and support specialists. One of the laboratories, for example, aims to explore how the communities can increase the value of Brazilian nuts, which are used for high value-added oil, flour, milk, paste, and other ready-to-eat products. Impact of technologies
At IT University of Copenhagen, Professor Steffen Dalsgaard, has followed the efforts to use new technologies to help transform natural resources into higher value-added products with great interest. He has previously analysed the outcome of climate initiatives such as carbon credits, and recently he and his research team were awarded a grant by Independent Research Fund Denmark to examine the impact of technological sustainability measures in the Amazon.
- The grant will allow us to get to work on a very exciting project about digital technologies and their imagined connection with a notion of economic growth as something that is possible without impacting the climate, says Steffen Dalsgaard.
The research project is the result of a collaborative effort between Steffen Dalsgaard, Assistant Professor Priscila Santos da Costa, and the team of Brazilian researchers who have launched the technological initiative Amazônia 4.0. Priscila Santos da Costa, who has been instrumental in drafting the project, will do most of the required fieldwork. She is excited to get the opportunity to follow a process that can potentially lead to big changes, not only in the Amazon but also for industry:
- The concept of bioeconomy that guides Amazônia 4.0 provides a new model for industry and for the production and use of resources. It opens the possibility of using technologies to tap into new knowledge about how nature works and to replicate its processes and components in a sustainable manner, for instance. In our research project, we aim to understand how the use of new technologies and the practice of bioeconomic principles can enable a sustainable and inclusive industrialization of the Amazon. Not just about trees
Priscila Santos da Costa, who is a native of Brazil, sees an opportunity to highlight that creating sustainable development in the rainforest is not only about saving the trees. According to her, even Brazilians, who live far away from the Amazon, tend to forget that there is a huge and complex population living in the Amazon.
- Those are some of the poorest regions in Brazil. We need to realize that the people living there also need to survive and to work, and it is important to not exclusively think of the Amazon as a place that we need to conserve, as if trees were the only thing to save. The populations in the Amazon need better access to services and to have a better quality of life. So, these human aspects are very important too, and our research project aims to study how Amazônia 4.0 includes this element in its initiative.
Priscila Santos da Costa says that she considers the diversity of the people in Amazon a big challenge that the research project would like to investigate. She explains that the inclusion of diversity is an important component in order to create sustainable development.
- There are not only indigenous communities. The forests are inhabited by very different people and groups; small scale entrepreneurs, large scale and small-scale loggers and miners, rural settlers, riverine populations and so on. There might be ambiguities and clashes of interests and claims. So, tackling the Amazon as a valuable resource also means understanding the social complexity, she says. Future framework
Steffen Dalsgaard hopes that the new project will broaden the understanding of sustainability in the Amazon, but he stresses that a holistic approach to sustainability is also needed to avoid forest clearings in other parts of the world.
- The Amazon has the largest forests, and the biggest complications but rainforests are being destroyed across the world. I'm curious about whether Amazônia 4.0 could be replicated elsewhere, say in Papua New Guinea, in Indonesia, or in other places where there's a huge logging lobby. It would be interesting to see if it’s manageable; if we can understand what kind of resources it takes to solve a problem or alleviate a problem in the Amazon and use them to say what kind of resources it would take in Indonesia, he says.
While Steffen Dalsgaard is optimistic about the future research value of his project, he is also realistic. Many other attempts to save the rainforests have had limited impact and while new technologies might lead us closer to sustainable rainforest environments, there are yet many barriers to overcome, among them the ownership of the forest, which is a question of political nature.
- To investigate how the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution can be mobilized, holistically, and to understand how the forest can be seen and managed differently is a small step forward. We also need to look at how it can be owned differently. I mean, the ownership of the forest is a big problem because it is frequently contested and often not easy to defend even when it is recognized in law, he ends.