This story begins sometime in January 2024. A Boeing 737-300F from the city of Leticia, deep in the Colombian Amazon, lands on runway 13 left at El Dorado International Airport in Bogotá. The plane taxies up to the cargo terminal, and pallets of refrigerated crates that look as if they’re holding fragile handicrafts are moved quickly to the belly of a colossal jet operated by Dutch airline KLM.
The customs inspection only takes a few minutes. Agents scan the barcodes on the pallets and access the documentation for the shipments instantly, then authorize their departure from Colombia.
A day later, a customer in the fruit and vegetable aisle of a supermarket in Amsterdam stops at an eye-catching sign that reads: “Try a delicious super fruit: copoazú.”
She picks up a brochure that tells her more about this unique product, including its place of origin and the fact that it is grown by a community cooperative that mostly employs women entrepreneurs. She scans the QR code on the brochure with her cell phone and watches a short video that explains her more about what makes the fruit special: it is grown sustainably and comes from a protected area of the Amazon.
Is this just a faraway dream?
Opportunities for sustainable productive development
The Colombian Amazon is a region of incalculable natural, social, and cultural value that occupies nearly 40% of the country’s territory. The region has a rich historical past, and its bounty of natural treasures endows it with mystical beauty: the majestic tepuys (tabletop mountains) in the Chibiriquete National Park are the site of nearly 70,000 rock paintings and pictograms, some of which are over 20,000 years old.
However, the region is also one of profound contrasts and challenges. A large share of households in the country’s Amazonian departments (states) are below the poverty line. In terms of economic integration and development, many of these departments are not connected to the rest of the world or even to the rest of Colombia. They account for less than 1% of the country’s GDP, have notably high informality rates, and are targeted by illegal businesses that jeopardize the environment.
Aware of the complexity of the situation on the ground and the advance of the so-called arc of deforestation, the IDB’s Integration and Trade Sector (INT) partnered with the Alisos Organization to carry out a study to better understand the realities of life in this region and identify opportunities for sustainable, productive development through market access and export diversification.
The report found that there is potential to market Amazonian fruits such as chontaduro, sacha inchi, arazá, copoazú, and açaí, and other natural products like vegetable fats and oils, essential oils, vegetable juices and extracts, and natural colorants. It also found that there are possibilities for products already being exported by Colombian businesses, especially coffee, specialty cocoa products, fish, pepper, and palm hearts. From the trade point of view, the research estimated that international demand for the products it identified as having export potential was close to US$230 billion by the end of 2020.
The report also underlined that the Colombian Amazon’s export plan shouldn’t focus on commodities: the most significant opportunity for growth lies in sustainable, value-added products and those that target green markets. In other words, markets that trade in environmentally responsible products promote the conservation of natural ecosystems and cultural traditions.
Equally necessary are policies that improve the quality of life of the inhabitants of the Amazon within a sustainable development model.
What is missing?
Like the customer browsing the aisles of the supermarket in Amsterdam, people in many parts of the world are willing to pay more for products that preserve and protect natural capital and are grown under zero-deforestation agreements, incorporate traceability practices, and generate added value through on-site processing.
This requires a major coordinated public–private effort that includes civil society, academic establishments, and research centers, and places life’s realities on the ground front and center.
To achieve this, technical and financial support must be skillfully articulated with local human talent (microentrepreneurs, cooperatives, and small enterprises), so that the sustainability practices adopted include innovative features such as payments for environmental services. Projects also need to be developed based on the conservation of natural resources and the ecosystems that contain them, supported by institutional strengthening and territorial governance. Finally, fostering better physical connectivity (river and air transportation), digital connectivity (internet), and business connectivity is important.
A set of solid policies and good socio-environmental practices, combined with a clear role for the community, would enable the Colombian Amazon to develop roadmaps for exporting products identified with green growth.
This is an opportunity for products from the Colombian Amazon to establish a place for themselves on supermarket shelves around the globe.