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Buddhistdoor View: Brazil’s Bioeconomy – the Right Livelihood of the Future

This year’s general election in Brazil almost resembles the climax of a political drama show’s top-rated season. The first round took place on 2 October, and a second round on 30 October will decide the political fates of candidates Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (better known as Lula) and Jair Bolsonaro. It is no exaggeration to say that they are arch-rivals, with their head-to-head confrontation characterized as “a drama which has been years in the making.” (BBC News) They could not be more different in terms of ideology or disparate in their governing priorities. Bolsonaro, the incumbent, portrays himself as a nationalist and a populist, proclaiming the hard right motto “God, family, and country.” The central planks of his platform encompass freedom of religious practice and expression (as well as support for traditionalist strains of Christianity), the right to own firearms, and deregulated capitalism. Lula, on the other hand, has for decades been seen as a doyen of Brazilian leftist thought, and one of the most recognizable veterans of Latin American left-wing politics.

Lula. From

Of core concern to the candidates is the treatment and future of the Amazon rainforest, colloquially known as the Earth’s lungs. While Lula’s environmental policies during his presidential tenure from 2003–10 were a mixed record, he is still the preferred choice among climate activists, who warn that Bolsonaro’s re-election would mean further economic exploitation of the rainforest ecosystem. Lula has declared that he will bolster measures to protect the rainforests. Should he defeat Bolsonaro at the end of October and implement his campaign promises, the loss of 75,960 square kilometers of Amazon rainforest by 2030 could be avoided. In his first three years as president after assuming power in 2019, Bolsonaro wiped out 34,018 square kilometers of rainforest—an area larger than Belgium.

Bolsonaro. From

There is good reason to believe that it is possible to go beyond the increasingly tenuous dichotomy of preserving jobs versus protecting the environment. The perceived economic value of fossil fuel industries is accepted in mainstream economics as simple common sense. Yet the most powerful and long-lasting sources of energy are already known to us: wind, the sea, the Sun, and, of course, forest ecosystems. With sound management, they can provide near-endlessly renewable energy and retain the potential for economic growth. There are few rainforest systems that can match the Amazon, despite the continued deforestation, logging, and corporate-approved attacks on its indigenous stewards. 

Virgilio Viana, director general of the Foundation for Amazon Sustainability, suggests that a “bioeconomy” is not just an ideal, but a practical and beneficial model for Brazil and for the Amazon. A bioeconomy denotes a “set of economic activities related to productive chains based on the management and cultivation of native biodiversity. It includes the value chain of biocosmetics, biopharmaceuticals, biochemicals, fibres and other products.” (International Institute for Environmental Development) In this vision, the economy flourishes not in tension with preserving biodiversity, but because the economy itself is geared toward advancing biodiversity. While investment and innovation are always challenges, there are already concrete examples of an Amazonian bioeconomy, such as the sustainable management of Amazonian pirarucu fish, which has led to a 427 per cent recovery in fish stocks, or the management of açaí palm, which as injected annual revenue of US$1.5 billion into the Brazilian state of Pará.


Buddhism has accrued various traditions and customs that, taken together, make a good case that building a sustainable environment and economy represents Right Livelihood for the 21st century. Right Livelihood is that which minimizes harm to others and to the environment, and conversely, maximizes benefits and respect for others and the wider world. We have, in the Jatakas and in the Buddha’s traditional life story, glimpses of the Blessed One’s unique relationship with nature. We know that for centuries, even when the earliest rock-cut caves in India and along the Silk Road were carved for monks to shelter and worship in, the Buddhist order was completely mobile. Monks and nuns were constantly on the move, with a minimal environmental footprint, staying put only during the vassa (rains retreat) period. Further teachings that establish Buddhism as a pro-environment, pro-bioeconomy tradition include the idea of the buddha-nature (tathagathagarba) that manifests within all living beings, a philosophical appreciation of the world’s interconnectedness, and the notion that we are reborn as endless living beings. While the notion of stewardship of the Earth is more commonly mentioned in theistic faiths, the fact that we are almost always reborn as non-human beings, given the rarity of human rebirth, stewardship is not a far cry from what Buddhism advocates for the global environment.

There are deep potential affinities between Buddhist thought and an inclusive, green economy, of which the Amazonian bio-economy is but one part. The green economy’s philosophical and ethical underpinnings are based on the global Green Economy Coalition’s definition of an economy that “delivers prosperity for all within the planet’s ecological limits.” Such an economy:

1. Enables all people to create and enjoy prosperity;
2. Promotes equity between and within generations;
3. Safeguards, restores and invests in nature;
4. Supports sustainable consumption and production; and
5. Is guided by integrated, accountable, and resilient institutions.

(Green Economy Coalition)

From mapping productive systems and forming human capital for biodiversity to developing hybrid financing, governance mechanisms, and sustainable value chains through public policy—there is no shortage of challenges that must be met as the world seeks new ways of envisioning the future. There is no doubt that our global turmoil is in some way reflective of the dark path that humanity is careening toward when it comes to planetary ecology. Beyond Bolsonaro and Lula, beyond even Brazil, it seems critical that the world move toward an inclusive green economy, with bioeconomies established for not just the lungs of the Earth, but in as many local ecosystems around the world as possible. Rather than seeing the economy and environment as opposing forces, there has never been a more urgent time to see “planetary prosperity” as our world’s best hope.

See more

How Brazil’s elections could impact social and environmental rights (Fair Planet)
Brazil’s Lula and Bolsonaro face run-off after surprisingly tight result (BBC News)
Analysis: Bolsonaro election loss could cut Brazilian Amazon deforestation by 89% (Carbon Brief)
How the Amazon bioeconomy can catalyse an inclusive green economy (International Institute for Environmental Development)
Green Economy Coalition

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