In an interview with DW, the Ecuadorian environment minister describes his country's achievements in protecting biodiversity — in the framework of developing a bioeconomy. Despite successes, plenty of challenges remain.
Bioeconomy promotes the use of biological renewable resources, leaving fossil fuels in the ground. Increasingly, countries around the world are investing in developing a bioeconomy, which combines economic progress with environmental protection.
Despite being a very small country, Ecuador is among the world's 17 "megadiverse" countries, and we can use that biodiversity in a sustainable way. Even a daily activity such as waste management can result in a sustainable business that helps get our people out of poverty. That is the most important thing.
How would a bioeconomy benefit the most disadvantaged people?
In Ecuador, people living in or around natural protected areas are the poorest due to restrictions around their use. We want to change that logic, and get those people to benefit from living in those places.
It is important to remember that we have 20 percent of our territory within protected areas. If we add other managed lands, we reach 30 percent. The business models the bioeconomy offers can really help the poorest to get out of those difficult situations.
Bioeconomy also includes elements such as biofuels, which can have negative effects on the environment and local communities. How do you see this conflict?
We cannot use areas that guarantee food security to make biofuels; that is a clear mistake. That's why, as another key point of our administration, we promote the implementation of effective land use planning. In order to have a beneficial development for all, we should set limits for different activities: how much banana cultivation takes place in the country, shrimp production, mining activities, and so on.
The wonderful world of wood
By when can we expect a full transition to a bio-based economic model?
This is not a short-term issue. We are just beginning to develop a structure for the bioeconomy to exist.
We have started by developing public policy on bioeconomy — a national strategy — talking with public and private banks to have incentives. We have launched a program of economic incentives for innovation, and we have already identified 400 to 500 bio-based businesses.
Now, we want to move from demonstrations to a commercial scale that allows, for example, exporting products. This is a medium- and long-term project. But within our national development plan we have already established that, before 2040, 20 percent of the industrial gross domestic product should come from the bioeconomy.
Could you provide some examples of bio-businesses in Ecuador?
There are two main trends within our bioeconomy: On the one hand, the direct use of biodiversity. For example, there is a small industry in the center of the country that develops dishes made from banana leaves. On the other hand, there is biotechnology, where several universities are working.
Turning over a new green leaf
As an example, the tagua palm, also known as ivory palm, is being used to develop microcellulose, a material similar to plastic that could be exported. Frog skins are also being studied for medicinal purposes.
But we must remember that not everything that is "bio" is sustainable; we must pay attention to make sure the cure isn't worse than the disease.
That leads to the topic of biopiracy. How would you protect against that?
There are always unscrupulous people who seek to do things illegally. But we have national and international frameworks that protect us. We have just ratified the Nagoya Protocol, which allows the traceability of genetic products and a certain control over the distribution of benefits. If one of our resources ends up in a medicine, for example, those profits should be distributed among the populations that found the plant or the animal producing the substance.
On the other hand, we are also counting on decision 391 of the Cartagena Agreement, the union of Andean countries, which also shields our country against the theft of genetic resources.
In February, Germany granted Ecuador with €18 million (about $22 million) to promote bioeconomy and protect the environment. What does that mean for you?
Germany has by far provided the most support for environmental issues in Ecuador. The country has not only helped to develop our bioeconomy, but has also improved our efforts on conservation of protected areas and biodiversity. Possibilities for collaboration between the two countries are now stronger than ever and will, hopefully, continue in the years to come.
Tarsicio Granizo has been the Minister for Environment of Ecuador since May 2017. A biologist, he has worked for more than 30 years in the field of conservation, both for governmental and non-governmental organizations across Latin America.
The interview was conducted by Irene Baños Ruiz at the 2nd Global Bioeconomy Summit in Berlin. Originally in Spanish, the text has been translated into English, and condensed and edited for clarity.