Ecuador has grand plans to build out its bio-based economy

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.

Nature and Environment | 19.04.2018

Read more: Bioeconomy: A global trend?

Countries like Ecuador are also investing in efforts to move away from extractive activities, and instead promoting sustainable use of natural resources to help the country boost its economy.

Ecuadorian Environment Minister Tarsicio Granizo tells DW more.

Nature and Environment | 06.03.2018

DW: Bioeconomy is one of the pillars of your ministry. What is your understanding of this model, and what benefits could it bring to your country?

Tarsicio Granizo: Bioeconomy promotes the use of biodiversity for economic purposes, but in a sustainable way. It is time to start thinking of an economy separate from oil production and mining.

Read more: A slippery decision: Chevron oil pollution in Ecuador

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.

The Ecuadorian economy is still based on the oil industry, which represents a threat to nature

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.

Read more: Walnut trees for future generations

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.

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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.

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On the other hand, there is biotechnology, where several universities are working.

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.

Read more: Wood to build human body parts — and other bio-innovations

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.

Tarsicio Granizo was interviewed at the 2nd Global Bioeconomy Summit in Berlin

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.

Tortoise meets tourist on the Galapagos

Forged in fire

This aerial view of Isla Sombrero Chino reveals the Galapagos' geological origins. Up to 5 million years ago, magma bubbling up from a hot spot in the Earth's crust cooled and hardened into these remote islands. They lie nearly 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) off the Ecuadorian mainland in South America.

Tortoise meets tourist on the Galapagos

Perfectly adapted

Secluded by their distance from other lands, plants and animals on the islands evolved independently - meaning the Galapagos are rich in endemic species, or those that can be found nowhere else on earth. This lava cactus is one, perfectly adapted to thrive on inhospitable lava fields where very few other organisms survive.

Tortoise meets tourist on the Galapagos

Water-loving lizard

One of the most unusual of the archipelago's endemic speces is the marine iguana - the only lizard in the world that makes a life foraging in seawater. They graze on algae, and can dive up to 9 meters deep. But the marine iguana is at risk from human-introduced pathogens - as well as pigs, dogs and cats, which were brought to the islands by people and, given the chance, will feast on iguana eggs.

Tortoise meets tourist on the Galapagos

Depending on each other to survive

Red rock crabs are not found exclusively on the Galapagos Islands. But the local population has a unique adaptation: The crabs have been observed feeding on ticks from the islands' marine iguanas, in a symbiotic relationship thought to benefit both lizard and crustacean.

Tortoise meets tourist on the Galapagos

Marathon fliers

Frigatebirds are found across the tropics, favoring remote islands where they breed in colonies of up to 5,000 birds. A common sight on the Galapagos Islands, they can fly thousands of kilometers at a time. Yet one of the archipelago's two frigatebird species - the magnificent frigatebird - is now recognized as genetically distinct from relatives elsewhere.

Tortoise meets tourist on the Galapagos

Gentle giants

Giant tortoises survive only on two remote archipelagos, the Galapagos and Aldabra in the Indian Ocean. The lumbering reptiles can live for more than 100 years. Hunting reduced Galapagos tortoise numbers from around 250,000 in the 16th century to just 3,000 in the 1970s. Conservation efforts have seen populations rebound, and 20,000 now inhabit in the islands.

Tortoise meets tourist on the Galapagos

Land lightly

Hundreds of thousands of tourists visit the Galapagos each year. But careful steps are taken to minimize their impact on biodiversity. Cruise ships anchor offshore, and visitors can only get on to the islands by dinghy. They're not allowed to bring food, or touch local wildlife. Most Galapagos animals have no fear of humans, because they evolved without exposure to predators.

Tortoise meets tourist on the Galapagos

Playing to the crowd

Galapagos sea lions breed exclusively on the remote archipelago and on Isla de la Plata, just off the Ecuadorian mainland. Their loud bark, playful nature and agile grace in the water make these gregarious animals a favorite with tourists. They have little fear of humans - but once in the water must take care not to end up as lunch for sharks or orcas.

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