Making sustainable development work in the Brazilian Amazon

by Dan Vermeer, Executive Director of EDGE

The Amazon Forest is one of the planet’s true marvels – this vast territory is home to 1 in 10 of all the world’s known species.  It is also under incredible pressure, as the forest’s natural resources – including timber, oil and gas, gold, copper, tin, nickel, bauxite, manganese, iron ore, gold, and hydropower – are increasingly valuable inputs to the global economy.  Billions of dollars are flowing into the region to extract these resources, with dramatic environmental and social consequences.

I recently returned from a trip to Belém,  the capital of the Brazilian state of Pará, and the gateway to the Amazon Forest.  After several intense days of meetings with government, private sector, and NGO actors, I am deeply impressed with both the challenge and the imperative to sustainably develop the Amazon region.  I also return with a profound sense of excitement about the role that Duke could play in supporting this effort.

The trip’s purpose was twofold: first, I was there to explore the potential for an academic partnership between Fuqua School of Business and CESUPA University (in Belém). Second, I hoped to recruit companies in the Amazon region to sponsor Duke student teams to conduct consulting projects on energy and environmental issues through the Fuqua Client Consulting Practicum (FCCP).

The positive response was overwhelming.  Several companies from across the Brazilian economy have committed to work with Duke on consulting projects on diverse topics such as palm oil production, low income housing, organic chocolate, landfill gas technology, and rural health care.

These projects will be staffed by Duke MBA students, who work for 6 months with the client organization to assess market opportunities, build business plans, assess return on investment, and other business analyses.  Student teams will also spend two weeks in Brazil this coming March doing in-field work, before completing the project deliverables in late April.

In addition to the interest in projects, we also had strong interest from some of the highest levels of government and industry in the state.  For example, the government of the state of Pará is in the early stages of creating a 30-year development plan.

In the next four years, Para expects over $60 billion of investment in the state, primarily from the mining, electricity, and agriculture sectors. However, they are concerned that the traditional development model has profound flaws. For example, over-reliance on natural resources brings in lots of cash short term, but leaves much environmental damage and poverty in its wake. Therefore, they are urgently seeking a development process that keeps more of the profits from natural resources in the state, supports the build-out of infrastructure and education, and protects the environment.

Finally, a big thanks to my host and translator, Eduardo Costa, a dynamic Duke alumnus working as an advisor to Pará’s Governor.  Eduardo was a great host and provided another example of the Duke community’s leadership and collaboration in solving the world’s most important problems.

In coming months, I look forward to building on these activities and contacts to identify new pathways toward sustainable development for Amazonia.  As these projects unfold, I look forward to sharing our learning in future EDGE Notes.  Stay tuned!

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