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Forest solutions: Amazon combines tradition and science in the creation of natural products

The region is a place for manufacturing dressings from açaí, dental products with forest inputs and natural fiber floors for low-income houses

Cleo Soares and Daleth Oliveira / O Liberal - Translated by Eduardo Laviano / O Liberal

To invent something is to discover or create something new, whether this thing is an idea, a concept, a product or a service. However, not every invention is an innovation. To innovate is, in a way, to create solutions – whether to generate value to a certain product or to improve or facilitate the path to do something. And that by itself is not enough. To innovate, you need to attend effectively to a real need. For a novelty, a finding or a creation to be an innovation, it needs to have an application, a potential market or results that can even help entire communities to overcome challenges. While a finding is the discovery of something new, to innovate is to explore, successfully, this new idea.

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In front of the great potential of wealth generation that Amazon has, because of its natural aspects that includes the world’s biggest biodiversity, innovation became a keyword for the region. It is one of the must-have passwords to reach a new ground of economic development. A word that with its practice will be crucial to cross borders, breaking chains with a past attached to extractivism and poverty, towards a future with wider possibilities of income generation and sustainability to its population and its gargantuan territory.

That is the challenge embraced by the development effort of some products in knowledge institutions of the region. There, researchers dedicate their time to study how original raw materials and native vegetal species of the Amazon, such as andiroba, can transform into new goods and manners to assist both old and new demands. And this applies to the reusing of what could be thrown in the garbage, like the Açaí lumps, the fruit of the açaí palm tree.

(Everaldo Nascimento / O Liberal)

New seeds allow açaí harvest through the whole year

An example of innovation resides in a solution first searched after the increase of açaí demand, beginning with the 1990’s decade. The State of Pará was already the biggest world producer of the fruit, when, at that time, sales experienced an expressive boom. With the advance of the demand, both in national and international markets, to offer açaí all year long, and not only during the harvest months considering the natural cycle of the palm tree, became an economical urgency.

The açaí being a native fruit of lowlands, and of seasonal crop, the increase of the demand created the need for changes – and innovation. The expansion of the cultivation to new areas was necessary. However, the existing seed at the time had low productive potential.

Thanks to the studies of genetic improvement of açaí, that began in the 1980’s decade by researchers of Oriental Amazon Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa Amazônia Oriental), the açaí palm tree “BRS Pará” was created. Launched in 2005, he’s ever since used in the expansion of the species cultivation in new solid ground planted areas.

"It is important to invest in innovative technologies, and to produce in order to have a strong bioeconomy. And it is possible to achieve that, using already degraded areas and preserving the environment" - Walkymário Lemos, head general of Embrapa Amazônia Oriental.

Agronomic engineer Walkymário Lemos, who is a doctor, researcher and recently sworn in as general head of the institution, states that the Amazon has a huge innovative potential and several institutions are working on important researches, aiming forest products development targeting multiple audiences and needs.

At Embrapa Amazônia Oriental, says that the concept of innovation has been used openly in public-private partnerships, in various lines of research aimed at market needs. To him, this is a promising path. That’s because it makes the financial side of the research more fast paced and, at the same time, guarantees that the product will enter the market.

“To find a partner at the private initiative is very important, because Embrapa, just as any other public institutions, is not going to sell the product resulting from the research. So, as the resources are sadly scarce, this type of partnership helps the research and helps the market, once the product arrives to that market with the guarantee and the credibility of a serious institution", reflects Lemos.

In that term, however, the agronomic engineer avaluates that, even though the Amazon is considered a great barn, where the scientific effort can generate a lot to the market, the investments of the public power in research are still low - and being reduced each year.

Açaí stone charcoal (Sidney Oliveira / O Liberal)

This occurs even when it is demonstrated that the results are worth it, as in the case of Embrapa itself - where studies show that each R$1 of public investment becomes R$17 to the market. "Today, Embrapa has a return seventeen times bigger than the investment made. But that, sadly, is still way behind of what would be the ideal, besides the recurring cuts, that became even more drastic in these hard times we face because of the pandemic".

In this generation of lucrative examples, and that attend directly the market, produced by Embrapa researches, Walkymário Lemos highlights products from Agroforestry Systems (SAFS). These are foods, energy drinks, cereal bars and essences, with production chains keeping the forest standing.

"It is important to invest in innovative technologies, and to produce in order to have a strong bioeconomy. And it is possible to achieve that, using already degraded areas and preserving the environment", states the head general of Embrapa Amazônia Oriental.

Innovation and wealth: the intellectual property challenge

After researchers overcome the innovation stage, in front of the needs that succeed - whether, for example, of a vaccine to a new disease, such as covid-19, or a new cosmetic, anti aging for the skin, it is crucial to lean towards another field: the intellectual property one.

"We will see a researcher achieve amazing and never-seen-before results in a certain area of knowledge, and he knows that he needs to protect that with a patent" - Sheila Corrêa, Embrapa analyst  and a master of intellectual property and innovation by the National Institute of Industrial Property.

Although many times the academy members are a little distant to that field, because it is more related to the market, it is the intellectual property the guarantee of the right over that something new that was created, an strategic step to the research effort not only to succeed on its main goal, of improving reality, but also in wealth generation.

To Sheila Corrêa, Embrapa analyst  and a master of intellectual property and innovation by the National Institute of Industrial Property, when it comes to innovation, challenge is the word to describe it. "And there are lots of them: inside and outside an organization, understanding that we can work in innovation both in universities and companies", explains. 

She claims that, in this scenario, the register is fundamental to overcome the challenges and do not let any innovation only saved there, without getting off the paper. "We will see a researcher achieve amazing and never-seen-before results in a certain area of knowledge, and he knows that he needs to protect that with a patent, but without a flow of what will be made after the patent registration, that technology will just be there in the shell".

(Sidney Oliveira / O Liberal)

Sheila Corrêa cites the importance of prospecting in patent databases being a theme in all higher education courses, as there are patented products and processes that are not described in scientific articles.

"With this, we can avoid that a lot of time and money are directed towards reaching a scientific advance that already exists, for the simple fact that the researcher does not have the knowledge of how to seek patents in his area of research”, she warns.

The analyst says that even entrepreneurship in the Amazon gains from the valorization of patent registrations. “When thinking about entrepreneurship, the first thing we must remember is the brand, because a business that is small today can be big tomorrow, and what if it starts small using a third-party brand? When it gets big it will need to change and will have a big expense with advertising just to tell people its new name, whereas if it already starts as a small business with a registered trademark at INPI, it will be able to position himself better in the market", highlights Sheila, remembering that these are only a few of the numberless advantages of the register to a innovative creation.

Açaí: innovation evolution example

The introduction in the market, in 2005, of the Açaí BRS Pará, was made so the producers overcome the fruit's harvest obstacle. The use of the BRS technology, acronym to identify products originated in the genetical development program commanded by Embrapa, indeed resulted in many advances in the last 16 years, with the production of fruits earlier, with the first fruiting happening within three years, on average.

Studies show that the pulp yield varies from 15 to 25%, and the economic benefit generated by the technology is estimated at R$ 36.14 million, with 70% of this amount attributed to Embrapa and 30% to partners.

These indicators are surpassing by a lot the ones registered in the traditional system of açaí production, making everybody win: agricultural producers, agroindustries and consumers.

Studies estimate that the BRS Pará added more than 3,8 job positions with the adoption of technology throughout the productive chain, as well generating incomes, guaranteeing more safety and stability to the producers.  

Açaí wastes becames soap and filters

But, after going through the cultivation and harvesting, and arriving at the açaí beater points, what to do with the tons of seeds, the açaí reject after the pulp extraction?

Ingrid Teles é engenheira de produção (Sidney Oliveira / O Liberal)

The uneasiness about the amount of wastes with proper destinations made production engineer Ingrid Teles, in the year of 2015, started thinking about innovative solutions to solve the problem and generate income. After research showing that açaí can be useful for the manufacture of activated carbon, she developed an ecological water filter and a liquid facial soap based on the input.

“The filter was initially made to filter water in riverside communities, and it worked very well. The entire research was born from charcoal for this purpose, but later, with some changes in the processes, it was also possible to reach the one from which facial soap is made”, tells Ingrid.

The engineer also works with two other professional colleagues. Together, they started a start-up to generate income from their ideas. However, to enter the market, they figured that another product was needed.

“We needed to produce and sell, but it was still difficult to start with water treatment, because of everything that was required and we still lacked capital. That's how we entered the skin care and hygiene market with our first soaps. Initially they were bar and exfoliating. Today we already have the liquid”, she explained.

And it is an efficient product that helps in the reducing of extra skin oil, and for them also has the function of investing in the production of filters, already tested and approved.

Besides the açaí, Ingrid also uses mango lumps that work the same function of the açaí lump to produce activated carbon to be used in the soon to be released filters.

Today, the start-up associated with the Guamá Science and Technology Park is reusing açaí from a partner beater from Belém. "We will soon close deals with other beaters to reuse these lumps. We believe that today it is possible to work with everything we already have, without the need to extract, helping to keep our forest standing", she says.

(Sidney Oliveira / O Liberal)

Many of these potential partners have no idea of the size of the use of these residues. Alberto Silva, an artisanal açaí beater for over 30 years, is unaware of all the possibilities of using the lump of the fruit.

"I've heard about the possibility of use in teeth treatment, but this use to develop activated carbon is a new one for me", he told, recalling that just at Ver-O-Peso, the largest outdoor market in Latin America, more than a ton of seeds are discarded a day, straight into the garbage. 

"We, unfortunately, do not have the habit of working the entire lump chain. So, after we beat the açaí, the wastes are sent to the garbage".

Açaí products to oral health

The "use in teeth treatment", cited by açaí beater Alberto Silva, is a result of the surgeon-dentist and professor Danielle Emi's research, from Federal University of Pará, alongside Embrapa researchers. 

"The main benefit of the plaque elicitors with açaí dye is its selectiveness on highlighting and the lack of collateral effects" - Danielle Emi, surgeon-dentist and professor.

The research earned the largest university in Northern Brazil the patent for a compound that reveals bacterial plaque based on the natural color of açaí.
It is a dental solution capable of revealing the existence of bacterial plaques that form on teeth and are responsible for the appearance of caries.

The research coordinator, carried between 2001 and 2006, states that the product is used to identify oral areas that need better brushing. "The main benefit of bacterial plaques highlighters is to orient the act of brushing, since the bacterial plaque is an unnoticeable microbial mass that gathers constantly in dental surfaces. And that is why it is hard to be removed efficiently. Having a substance that puts color to dental plaque makes it easier to locate and promote an efficient brushing", explained Danielle Emin.

The natural compound is 90% more effective than synthetic elicitors. "The main benefit of the plaque elicitors with açaí dye is its selectiveness on highlighting and the lack of collateral effects, since its made with raw materials extracted from a fruit with a big consumption as a food source, especially in the Amazon region", states the researcher. 

Although the patent application was made in 2002, it was only granted by the National Institute of Industrial Property in 2015. However, even with the delay in recognition, Danielle Emmi states that she does not lose heart to continue looking for new avenues of innovation in the Amazon.

Mouthwash and toothpaste with pupunha and tucumã oils

It's coming from that search that, in 2012, professor Danielle got back to innovating with a solution from the Amazon Rainforest. This time, with the creation of toothpaste and mouthwash with vegetal oils of pupunha and tucumã.

(Sidney Oliveira / O Liberal)

"Scientific evidence shows that fatty foods have a protective effect on teeth against tooth decay, and many ancient cultures use mouthwashes with oils to reduce oral microorganisms. So why not try the amazonian fruits, so well known and consumed in Pará?", details Danielle Emmi. 

Regarding what the market already offers, the differential of the products made by the researcher is the incorporation of antimicrobials, fluorides and desensitizers, which also give them a therapeutic function.

"The use of antimicrobials to complement the mechanical removal of dental plaque has been of great importance for the reduction of oral microorganisms and prevention of caries and periodontal disease", details the researcher. 

Preliminary clinical trials, carried out with 40 volunteers, showed that toothpaste with vegetable oils had similar efficacy to products sold with antimicrobials. In addition, tests indicate adequate abrasiveness and low cytotoxicity in the new UFPA developed products.

The mouthwash tests show as well a product with low cytotoxicity, being less harmful to oral cells than the one in the market, corporatively tested. "This results enable, for the first time, the addition of pupunha and tucumã oils in the use of products to oral health", clais the professor, saying that even with all the advances with the in vitro and clinical trials, that went up to 2019, the research needed to be suspended in 2020, due to the coronavirus pandemic, considering the risks of contamination arising from the dental practice.

Biobandages with andiroba oil

It's in the Amazon Oils Laboratory  located in the Innovation Space of PCT Guamá, in Belém, that the Technological Development of Biopolymers and Biomaterials Amazon Group developed a innovative product to the treatment of wounds: the biobandage made with material of the vegetal species named andiroba, capable of the deflate and accelerate the skin healing process.

Marcele Passos is a specialist in biomaterials (Sidney Oliveira / O Liberal)

Coordinated by professor doctor Marcele Passos, specialist in biomaterials, the group founded in 2017 research biobandages with several other amazonian materials. "It was observed the need of developing low cost therapeutic products. So we surfed on that demand, to value the local biodiversity".

For the study to happen, the popular knowledge joined the equation, which has been using andiroba in treatments for many years, as merchant Carmelita Rocha well knows, working for over 50 years in a store in the Ver-o-Peso market, in Belém. She sells the seed and the vegetable oil, and affirms that the traditional knowledge supports the efficiency of the bandage developed by professor Marcele. "Andiroba is a great healing agent. The bottle that we make with the seed oil is good for everything. So surely this bandage is good", claims, categorical.

Researcher Marcele stated that the trials attest the capacity of fluid soaking, helping the healing and preventing the infection. Beyond that, there weren't any collateral effects of the body, but it still needs to attend clinical trials and demonstrate better efficiency, which according to the second study group, is unmatched in the market. 

(Sidney Oliveira / O Liberal)

"Our bio bandages are created with fiber and therefore have bigger porosity than the rest. These fibers facilitate even more the process of wound healing, added to the natural features of andiroba, which is our leap", says Marcele.

The oils used are, in part, produced in their own laboratory, but the team also buys vegetable oils from Pará's market. The group works to get the innovation patent. "We're focused on the patent of not only the product, but also the process. And we're developing other types of bio bandages, with other forest materials. And, when we have the patent, we hope to attract other eyes to promote the progress of the working technique", says Marcele, aware of the long road to travel. "Working with innovation is challenging, although having wide material, because of the biodiversity. But I remain standing and hope to improve the quality of life of the people, with accessibility to low cost therapeutic treatments. 

Accessibility to ecofloor with babaçu coconut 

Innovate to generate accessibility. This is the objective of the PhD professor in materials processing, Carmen Dias, from the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering at UFPA. Within the researchers she developed with undergraduate, masters and doctorate scholarship owners, she coordinated the production of an ecological floor made from coconut fibers from babçuu, a palm tree present in the Maranhão, Piauí, Tocantins and Pará states, in a convergence area between Cerrado (the Brazilian Middle-West Savannah), Caatinga (dry region similar to a desert) and Amazon Rainforest. 

(Sidney Oliveira / O Liberal)

The "ecofloor" also emerged from the concept of sustainability, driven by the desire to improve the lives of communities. “In 2006, a master's student wanted to help a community of babaçu gatherers in Pedreiras, Maranhão. Then we check what their needs are and what their local characteristics are. The living conditions of the families touched us, especially the floor, so that babies could crawl and walk".

The region's waster, according to Carmen, had mainly babaçu leaves. "We gathered science, technology and a spoon of caring. Bingo! It worked", she says, excited by the results since the beginning of the project. As a whole, the initiative already processed four tons of reused wastes, like fibers. And beyond the families in Pedreiras, a community in Colares, in Pará, is already benefited with the ecofloors.

Carmen Dias is a PhD professor in materials processing (Sidney Oliveira / O Liberal)

Between the plastic floors available in the market, the babaçu ones are the best, claims the researchers. "They substitute perfectly any plastic floor, with even a longer durability, because the babaçu fiber resistance is very elevated", explains.

Although the sustainable floor of babaçu coconut fiber came up in 2007, only this year it received the national patent. "It took quite a while to come, but it is one out of more than ten patents our laboratory possesses", the researchers says, excited.

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