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Conserving rainforest by supporting local communities

Founders of the nonprofit organization Amanatari discussed their efforts to facilitate new businesses in the Amazon basin that generate income for local communities without destroying rainforest.

Aerial view of rainforest and river with boat
An aerial view of the Amazon rainforest in Peru. (Image credit: Getty Images)

Nearly 20% of the Amazon rainforest has been leveled over the past 50 years as people have cleared forest for lumber, farming, cattle ranching, mining, and other land-intensive businesses. A new model of collaboration among researchers, technology developers, and local Amazon communities could help protect the forest that remains, leaders of the Peru-based conservation group Amanatari said during a recent discussion at Stanford University.

“We are convinced that with the right conditions, the standing forest can pay the bill for its own conservation,” said Amanatari executive director and co-founder Bernardo Sambra during the event, which the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability hosted on May 15 as part of its Dean’s Lecture series.

Discover and protect

The name Amanatari is a neologism of words borrowed from two indigenous Amazon basin languages meaning “to discover” and “that which you are given to protect.” That spirit of responsibility and purpose was in sharp focus throughout the discussion about efforts to identify valuable goods and products that can generate revenue without deforestation. Amanatari facilitates relationships between local communities and governments, businesses, investors, academia, and other organizations around the world to encourage sustainable economic development.

Dean Arun Majumdar described Sambra and Amanatari’s Alexia Hochschild and Patrick Venail as innovators and entrepreneurs. “Their work is defined in a key principle: They believe in the people who live in the Amazon and that the communities that live in the Amazon forest are those who can best care for it,” Majumdar said.

Three pillars

A woman wearing a rust-colored jacket with a geometric pattern gestures as she speaks into a microphone at a podium
Amanatari co-founder Alexia Hochschild spoke at an event in the Dean’s Lecture series, which brings together scholars and thought leaders to discuss the frontiers of research, education, practice, and impact related to an area in sustainability. The series aims to inspire audiences and deepen understanding of the topic. (Image credit: Steve Castillo)

Hochschild described three strategies in Amanatari’s approach to conservation. First, the organization works to develop new “bio-businesses” based on resources available only in the Amazon, like aguaje fruit, fiber from a plant known as punga, and the honey of a stingless bee known for its medicinal properties. Second, Amanatari aims to help local communities place an economic value on ecosystem services provided by intact rainforest, such as carbon storage and biodiversity, and to develop income streams for the communities based on those services. Finally, the organization works to secure access to water, energy, and land rights for local communities that manage forests sustainably. 

Amanatari’s vision for incentivizing sustainable economic growth in the Amazon basin faces technical and logistical challenges. Venail described the aguaje harvest in the small, remote community of Parinari as an example. Until recently, people harvested aguaje from the rainforest canopy in Parinari by cutting down the trees, he said. Now, portable escalators allow them to rise into the canopy to cut the fruit and leave trees standing. But it’s not simple to get the 90-pound escalators delivered to Parinari, which requires a more than six-hour journey by plane, bus, and boat from Peru’s capital, Lima. And the community does not yet have reliable access to the clean water and energy needed to process the fruit for shipment.

“This is why we need your help,” Venail said to the audience of Stanford students, faculty, alumni, and staff, “to complete the cycle of technical skills, engineering, [and] science.” Stanford’s sustainability expertise, he said, would complement Amanatari’s local management capacities and knowledge necessary to provide communities with a standard of living that changes the calculus of deforestation. If successful in Peru, the model could be rolled out in Brazil, Colombia, Bolivia, and beyond, Venail said: “The invitation is here.”

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