Latin America is full of contrasts. Great natural wealth and significant economic and social gaps are part of the daily disparities in the region. However, this contrast, which is more noticeable in rural areas, also forges positive connections between rural development and the conservation of biodiversity as an engine of sustainable development for the region.

The greatest biodiversity in the world is found in Latin America, particularly in countries such as Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela , with humid, dry and temperate tropical forests, páramos, savannahs and mangroves. This diversity of organisms, species, ecosystems and cultures that convene result in masterful scenic beauty and provide incalculable value to society, value that some have tried to monetize to draw the attention of governments and the private sector in order to avoid loss and degradation. The estimated economic value of some of the main ecosystem services in Latin America is approximately $15.3 billion. For reference, the GDP of the US is $21.4 trillion. This figure, although perhaps difficult to assimilate, demonstrates the region’s potential for sustainable development and the use of biodiversity to generate prosperity and well-being.

The agricultural sector generates more than half of all rural employment in Latin America and is the main source of income in rural areas. However, this sector has been recognized as one of the most intense engines of biodiversity loss over the years due to poor practices implemented in commercial agriculture and the progressive advance of the agricultural frontier in natural ecosystems. Similarly, this sector consumes 70% of the fresh water on the planet and benefits directly from fauna pollination.

In recent decades, interest and concern for sustainability and the limits of the earth have increased due to conventional development models . The discourse of competitive, sustainable and inclusive agribusiness and the bioeconomy proposing a leading role for biodiversity, science, technology and innovation has permeated public policies across the world and more recently in Latin America. It is exciting to see how these policies around sustainability transcend the environmental orbit and include the boundaries of multiple sectors (agriculture, commerce, industry, science, and education), overcoming dichotomous discourses centered on the environment or development.

In the coming years, growing demand for food is projected worldwide, so agricultural production needs to increase by 50% (with reference to 2012 levels), which will no doubt have an impact on the transformation of biodiversity and ecosystem services in Latin America. Taking advantage of this opportunity to generate employment and rural income, avoiding the loss of biodiversity requires establishing guidelines and sustainable production systems that do not put biodiversity or the services it provides to society at risk. It is also important to take advantage of the potential of biodiversity to generate new products and services with high added value that satisfy the demand for food, medicine and new consumption trends.

Field worker at CIAT carries out controlled pollination on a cassava flower, Palmira, Colombia

Field worker at CIAT carries out controlled pollination on a cassava flower, Palmira, Colombia.
Photo: Melissa Reichwage / CIAT/ Flickr .

How can we transform enthusiastic discourse into concrete actions that generate structural changes towards sustainable development?

  • Coordination of national, business, and technology policies at the national and regional (subnational) levels. The first step would be to generate coordinated intersectoral public policies that establish the rules for social, economic, and environmental sustainability and the generation of new biodiversity products and services based on science, technology, and innovation. It is essential to facilitate access to information and knowledge, stimulate research associated with the use of biodiversity and the investments it implies, reduce transaction costs for sustainable agribusiness and other biodiversity businesses and adapt technologies by generating incentives to facilitate behavioral changes in producers, entrepreneurs, industrialists, and consumers. To facilitate the transition of small producers to more sustainable agricultural production systems, it is necessary to promote gradual policies and incorporate nature-based solutions with incentives such as payment for environmental services.
  • Participation of private sector and civil society organizations. Entrepreneurs and organizations must also become involved and adapt. Convincing business owners to commit to the transition to the bioeconomy is a crucial issue highlighted in spaces such as the Global Bioeconomy Summit 2020. Similarly, the link to connect intentions with reality is to create an environment for entrepreneurship associated with sustainable agribusiness and biodiversity where there is capital and incentives to take risks, generate innovative products and services, open markets and innovate. In Latin America, micro, small and medium-sized companies are the largest generators of employment, representing 99% of companies and contributing 67% of employment in the region. It is, therefore, crucial to facilitate their participation and stimulate their transition to the bioeconomy.
  • Access to technology, science, knowledge, and innovation. This is a fundamental requirement of turning discourse into reality. Technological advances and knowledge based on more sustainable agricultural production systems that avoid the loss of biodiversity and promote climate action and productivity should be part of agricultural extension services provided to rural producers. Similarly, the generation and transfer of knowledge associated with the sustainable use of biodiversity is perhaps the missing link that will allow Latin America to benefit from the wealth across the region and generate well-being for its inhabitants.