Andean Nations Bet on Bio-Trade
Por Humberto Márquez
The extraordinary biological wealth of South America's Andean countries is beginning to pay off for those who take advantage of it, feeding the demands of the international market
Colombia is coffee, cut flowers, but also bamboo. Peru supplies minerals and fish for restaurants, but also ornamental fish for home aquariums. Venezuela is a leader in petroleum and aluminum, but also aloe.
Bio-trade is gaining ground among the long-standing commercial products that the Andean region puts on the international market.
Despite the ecological and economic importance of preserving biodiversity, the notion of leaving nature untouched is falling by the wayside. Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela are four of the 12 countries in the world with greatest biodiversity. They are Andean countries, but they also hold portions of the vast Amazon Basin.
''We are facing a new wave, marked by the possibility of a boom in the intelligent use of biodiversity, taking advantage of it in a sustainable way,'' Claudia Martínez, social and environmental vice-president of CAF, the development agency of the Andean Community of Nations, told Tierramérica.
This ''new wave'' is in keeping with the initiatives of the Global Environment Facility, an international funder of eco-projects, to manage biodiversity with a broad approach, involving lawmakers, officials and conservationists, but also businesses, rural communities and indigenous groups that want to take advantage of their natural resources.
In Peru, for the past 10 years the local company OAFA (Ornamental Amazon Fish Aquarium), an exporter of aquarium fish, has run a 250 million-dollar-a-year business, and aims to become the main supplier for Europe, manager Edgar Panduro told Tierramérica.
OAFA is working on setting up an office in Germany to avoid reliance on European importers, who currently earn up to 1,000 percent on the final sales.
Taking advantage of autochthonous resources for bio-trade entails identifying niche markets and even developing new forms of organization, as occurred in an agreement between the French supermarket chain Carrefour and the Colombian Environment Ministry, signed on Jul. 21, to promote ''green business''.
Carrefour will give preferential treatment to the exports of 1,316 small farmers from seven Colombian regions, organized in 14 associations. To obtain special treatment, the farmers have to certify that their crops were grown without synthetic pesticides or other chemicals.
Another success story is Bambú de Colombia, in business for more than 30 years, and employing hundreds of families in planting and prevention of deforestation, project leader Gregorio Restrepo told Tierramérica.
The Andean countries are trying to promote production for bio-trade, ''and in each one we face difficulties in obtaining financing, the lack of research, the lack of development of new products and a failure to consolidate what we have to offer,'' said Patricia Londoño, consultant to the ''green markets'' group in the Colombian Environment Ministry.
In the region, ''the issue has begun to come to the fore, pushed by the regulation frameworks and trade negotiations for products derived from biodiversity,'' said Martínez, adding that CAF has already earmarked 900,000 dollars for programs to fortify institutional, business and community development geared towards bio-trade.
Trade and organizing rural and indigenous communities to make the most of their natural resources are part of the first phase in the ''new wave'', before full sustainable exploitation of biodiversity, which requires financing and research, and the region is far from obtaining those, said CAF environment director Roberto López.
In Venezuela, the Aloeven company is working with dozens of aloe-vera growers in the arid plains of the central-western region, and processes around 80 tons of crystals and gel from this plant each month, mostly for food companies in Venezuela, Italy and the United States.
The potential uses of this plant ''in the pharmaceutical industry and in cosmetics are vast, but to convert those production programs into big scale projects requires financial, research and market resources that small and medium enterprises like ours don't have,'' Aloeven manager Sandra Linares said in a Tierramérica interview.
Officials from Japan's foreign trade agency have expressed interest in Venezuelan aloe, she said. Firms such as Aloeven and OAFA stood out during a recent forum in Lima of companies focused on bio-trade.
Bio-trade could be a boon to the Andean countries, which also hold part of the Amazon, as a platform to pursue development in biodiversity and gain access to hungry markets, according to studies that CAF entrusted to U.S. technology research centers.
As for the field of applied sciences in health and industry, in 2003, there were 370 biotechnology pharmaceuticals in development to treat more than 200 diseases.
In farming, ''the demand for products and resources is parallel to the growth of the world population, and agricultural biotechnology is key,'' says one of the U.S. studies to which Tierramérica had access.
In the animal health field, in 1999 alone the world's 20 leading companies reported international sales of biological products worth 550 million dollars, and spent 320 million dollars for research and development, says the study.
Another lucrative area is forestry. Lumber products represent a 400 billion dollar business annually and the field employs three million workers worldwide.
The Andean countries, according to recommendations received by CAF and the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, should step up value-added activities in taking advantage of their biodiversity, and intensify efforts to regulate and jointly negotiate their potential in integration and free trade agreements that are under way.
One of the key aspects of the free trade agreement that the United States is negotiating with Colombia, Ecuador and Peru refers to access to the biological wealth of the three South American nations.
* Humberto Márquez is an IPS correspondent. With reporting by Yadira Ferrer (Colombia) and Abraham Lama (Peru).