Biodiversity, like the proverbial prophet, is not without honour save in its own country: it tends to be valued more highly abroad than at home. Brazil is now trying to become an exception to the rule by commercialising its native species on a large scale. Brazil's biodiversity reserves are the greatest in the world, but so far it has seen little hard cash in return for its natural resources. It leads the world in production or export volume of coffee, cane sugar, soya, orange juice and beef, but these are all exotic, rather than native, species.
Only a few of its native plants, not all of which are exclusive to this country, are marketed to any extent nationally and abroad: peanuts, cassava, cocoa and mahogany.
Some have been developed more successfully in far countries, such as the rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis), which was successfully cultivated in plantations in Malaysia, thus cutting short the prosperity boom in Brazil's Amazon region in the early 20th century, just as the automotive industry with its demand for natural rubber was taking off.
But a new attempt is under way to harness the economic potential of some of Brazil's biodiversity. Under an Environment Ministry initiative, research groups have selected 775 known species, many of them already exploited locally on a small scale, in order to encourage production and sell them in major markets.
Five books will be published this year, each dedicated to one of the five major regions of Brazil, containing the knowledge that has been accumulated about these "plants of the future". Seminars for the business community will be held to spread the word about the potential of these plants, which are ornamental or used to produce foods, beverages, medicines, oils and perfumes.
Environment Ministry coordinator of genetic resources Lídio Coradin, one of those responsible for the project, is particularly enthusiastic about the pupunha or peach-palm (Bactris gasipaes).
The pupunha is a fast-growing Amazonian palm tree which is also found in Central America, and is cultivated in other parts of Brazil for its heart-of-palm. Unlike other palm species which only grow a single stem, it has the advantage of producing multiple offshoots, and so yielding more heart-of-palm.
It also bears a reddish fruit about five centimetres in diameter which is rich in protein, can be used in various kind of foods and could supply oil, with a potential yield much greater than that of the African palm and soya, at present the world's main sources of vegetable oil, Coradin told IPS.
Charles Clements, an expert with the National Institute for Amazonian Research (INPA) who participated in the selection of native species, is also enthusiastic about the pupunha for making "tasty" fruit juices, which can be fermented to produce a beverage that could compete with beer.
The pupunha has many potential uses, but at present the best course would be to take advantage of the genetic improvements already carried out by indigenous people, who have selectively bred it for producing heart-of-palm and beverages, because developing it as a source of vegetable oil would be "a lengthy undertaking," Clements said.
Many Amazonian fruits are just waiting for entrepreneurs to take them to market, he said. For instance, the turu palm (Oenocarpus bacaba) fruit makes "good juice, with better flavour, and as much energy as the açaí (Euterpe oleracea)," which is highly popular in the Amazon region and is gaining ground throughout Brazil.
The turu palm has the advantage of small size and faster fruiting, but it must be cultivated, because extraction from naturally occurring trees would not support a business, as other Amazonian fruits do.
The need for plantation agriculture from the outset complicates commercial take-off, because more business links are required, Clements acknowledged.
But in his opinion the bottleneck in the process of unlocking the economic potential of some species is the lack of resources on the part of research and development institutes, which prevents them from responding quickly to the needs of people willing to start a business.
The Agriculture Ministry, for example, is not participating in this effort, which is not merely environmental, Clements complained.
Most of the 775 plant species selected from every region of Brazil are ornamental and medicinal, and are generally already used by the population, but lack formal commercial structures. "Many of them are undergoing rapid domestication," Coradin said.
The effort to systematise and spread information about the "plants of the future" arises from the need to "promote sustainable use of local biodiversity, as well as conserve and study it," Coradin said. This is important for the economy and also for the environment and food security, as it encourages agricultural diversity, which humanity has reduced to just a few species over recent centuries.
It is not a question of nationalism. Today, "no country can survive without genetic input from abroad," because interchanging plants and other genetic resources is essential, Coradin said. But Brazil, with its mega-diversity, "has to set an example by preserving its biological diversity, showing the importance of its species and adding value to them," he said.
The most recent example of a native species that has been taken up as an economic opportunity with more alacrity abroad than at home is the Brazilian guava (Acca sellowiana), a fruit from southern Brazil. It was introduced into New Zealand, where it serves as the raw material for over 20 products, including champagne, as well as preserves, juices and essential oils, Coradin said.
Meanwhile, in the south of Brazil, guavas are only beginning to be sold as fruit.
This country has an immense variety of flavours, aromas, cosmetics and natural foods with which to diversify and enrich its economy. "Putting these resources on the market will help society understand the importance of protecting biodiversity," Coradin concluded.