This article originally appeared on Circulate News.
From the lush tropical rainforests of Costa Rica to the savannah-like Brazilian Cerrado to the glaciers of Patagonia, the region of Latin America and the Caribbean is rich and diverse in landscapes and natural resources. The region contains 40 percent of the world’s biodiversity and half of the world’s tropical forests, including its largest, the Amazon, home to one in 10 known species.
However, it also exhibits high rates of deforestation and intense exploitation of resources. Driven by demand for raw materials, Latin America has positioned itself over the years as a major exporter of primary resources. The resulting intensification of agriculture, expansion of agricultural land and increased mining activities were identified by the United Nations Environment Program as the main local drivers of deforestation, pollution and biodiversity loss.
This raises the question of whether and how it is possible to seize the economic opportunities of natural resources while having a positive impact on the environment in the region. The answer lies in the three principles of a circular economy: eliminating waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in service and regenerating natural systems.
Designers play a crucial role in putting these principles into practice. The choices made at the design stage help give more to ecosystems than they take from them. When designing products and business models using the circular design principles, designers create economic opportunities from local natural resources while preserving the health of ecosystems. Five stories from Latin America illustrate the range of these opportunities.
Food design can benefit local ecosystems and stimulate culinary innovation. All the decisions made until a food item ends up on a plate or supermarket shelf determine what and how crops are grown, what we eat and what is wasted. These decisions, taken by food designers, have a direct impact on the state of biodiversity. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 75 percent of our global diet is limited to just 12 crops and five animal species, despite the existence of hundreds of thousands of edible species. By applying the principles of the circular economy, food designers in Latin America are making the most of local biodiversity as a valuable source of culinary innovation, increasing demand for a wider range of native species and encouraging them. agricultural practices that benefit local ecosystems.
In Mexico City, award-winning Pujol chef Enrique Olvera first helped put the Mexican nopal cactus on the culinary map and now supports its production in the biodiversity-rich area of Xochimilco, where Aztec structures (“chinampas”) posed on protected wetlands bear organic polycultures and add to the fertility of the local ecosystem. Faced with urban sprawl, local chefs, including Olvera, include local ingredients in their menus to provide stable demand for Xochimilco farmers and help accelerate their adoption of agroecological practices (Spanish). This helps maintain a supply of diverse and deliciously healthy ingredients while protecting this key inner-city ecosystem.
This is also the case for the Corrutela restaurant in São Paulo. The starting point for Chef Cesar Costa’s rich ‘vegetable-centric dishes’ are fresh ingredients sourced from agroecological family farming in the town’s rural south, an area that contains remnants of Atlantic Forest vegetation. and important water sources that supply the Brazilian megalopolis. Supporting these peri-urban farmers and giving them the freedom to decide what to grow helps protect this rural portion of the city’s territory from the pressures of urban sprawl by keeping it productive and healthy.
Innovation in biomaterials can bring unique competitive advantages. Resources used for applications other than food also have a multitude of unique properties with economic value. Much of this potential has been used and preserved by traditional peoples. Now, large companies are also delving into this knowledge and working with communities to help scale these models and create products that are better for people and the environment.
This is the case of the Brazilian cosmetics company Natura, which, by combining cutting-edge research and traditional know-how of local Amazonian communities, reveals the precious cosmetic properties of different plant species. This has long been a key innovation driver for Natura, whose supply chain includes nearly 40 types of plant-based ingredients, obtained by working with 7,000 local families. With fruits and seeds integrated into cosmetics value chains, the forest generates more economic value for local communities when standing than deforested for wood products, which in turn encourages more regenerative practices.
Much like cowhide and synthetic leather, cactus leather can be used in the manufacture of clothing, shoes, bags and furniture, but without altering natural landscapes to support production.
Local species can also be a driver of disruptive innovation. Mexican designers Adrián López Velarde and Marte Cázerez, founders of Desserto, developed vegan leather made from the Mexican nopal cactus. Much like cowhide and synthetic leather, cactus leather can be used in the manufacture of clothing, shoes, bags and furniture, but without altering the natural landscapes to support production. The nopal cactus is native to the state of Zacatecas and has a symbiotic relationship with other local species, while also acting as a natural carbon sink. Desserto grows them without chemical inputs and in a perennial format, so only the mature leaves of the cactus are harvested each time. Part of the production becomes a line of vegan leather products developed with partner companies, such as H&M, and the rest is directed to the surrounding food industry for maximum use.
Native Mexican plants were the driving force behind another circular design innovation, the Totomoxtle, a veneer made from traditional colorful Mexican corn husks. Designer Fernando Laposse developed this material and uses it to create a range of furniture and fixtures in unique tones, providing a high value added application for this inedible by-product. But that’s only one side of the story. Due to global demand pressures for standard corn, Mexican native corn plantations are gradually being replaced by hybrid corn varieties to supply international markets. By reincorporating native corn husks into its furniture designs, Laposse encourages family farmers to reintroduce native seeds and make real profit from them. Totomoxtle is also helping to create more employment opportunities for local communities, as the transformation of envelopes into veneer material is done by local women.
Design with nature, for nature. One of Latin America’s strengths is its unprecedented biodiversity and natural resources, but examples such as those described in this article have not yet become the norm. There is a huge opportunity to harness the innovative potential of local biodiversity, through applications that also help maintain and restore healthy ecosystems. There is also a wealth of knowledge about valuable properties and production patterns that could be achieved through collaboration with local communities, creating more distributed and inclusive businesses. Applying circular economy principles at the design stage of products, businesses and value chains provides a useful framework for solutions that benefit businesses, society and nature.