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Forests or business - who wins when companies pay to protect trees?

by Jennifer Ann Thomas | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 20 June 2022 11:00 GMT

Acai farmers with Amazonbai, the first acai producer in the world to be certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), collect the berries in a forest in the Bailique archipelago, Brazil, December 1, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Jonne Roriz

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A rise in companies sponsoring small Amazon conservation projects has some climate experts warning about a wave of greenwashing

  • Ethical investing is one of the fastest growing areas of finance

  • Intensive acai farming can damage an area's biodiversity

  • Brazil's acai exports totaled more than 5,900 tons in 2020

By Jennifer Ann Thomas

BAILIQUE, Brazil, June 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Holding machetes in their hands and wearing protective boots with a length of fabric joining them at the heels, four men walked between the palm trees of the Bailique archipelago in the Brazilian Amazon, looking for acai berries.

Whenever one of them spotted the acai fruit, rich in antioxidants and hyped as a superfood, they quickly climbed the tree to cut the branches loaded with small black orbs, the fabric on their boots helping them grip the trunk.

The men are members of Amazonbai, a community cooperative in the northern state of Amapa and the first acai producer in the world to be certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), a globally recognized mark of sustainability.

The Bailique community earned the first of two FSC certifications in 2016 for its conservation work and forest-friendly acai production process - using no machinery, pesticides or fertilizers - on nearly 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres) of forest land.

Now those green practices are attracting foreign investment, with Italian cleaning products firm TTS and winery Azienda Agricola Cecchetto Giorgio giving the group nearly 4,900 euros ($5,100) to protect an 11-hectare plot for the next ten years.

The plan is to turn that patch of forest into a living laboratory for sustainable production, said Amiraldo Picanco, president of Amazonbai, a group of about 130 members created in 2017 to formalize the community's acai business and oversee its conservation efforts.

"We will keep a close eye on environmental and climate change impacts, animal migration and variations in vegetation," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"I believe it is possible to carry out a kind of development that preserves our forests."

Corporations worldwide are backing projects to plant or protect carbon-absorbing trees, as ethical investing - which weighs up a company's commitment to environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues - becomes one of the fastest-growing areas of finance.

An acai farmer with Amazonbai, the first acai producer in the world to be certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), collects the berries in a forest in the Bailique archipelago, Brazil, December 1, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Jonne Roriz

Some environmentalists, however, argue that such efforts are often just cases of "greenwashing" - a way for companies to look like they are taking action to curb climate change without actually cutting their own planet-heating emissions.

"Funding for communities is not bad, but that doesn't make up for the negative impact that the company may be having on the environment," said Gustavo Pinheiro, a coordinator at the Institute for Climate and Society, a Brazilian philanthropic organization.

Carla Zorzo, brand director for TTS, said the company, which operates in Brazil, was moved to put money into Amazonbai after seeing the devastation of the fires that swept through the Amazon in 2020.

She acknowledged its investment was fairly modest, but said the company hopes its sponsorship will encourage others to follow.

"On a small scale, we're trying to do something good," she said. "Companies are not governments. We don't have infinite resources."

BOOSTING BIODIVERSITY

Twenty years ago, the people of Bailique were cutting down their acai trees to sell for timber and harvest the palm hearts.

It was one of the few ways the population of about 10,000 could make money on the archipelago, a group of eight islands a 12-hour boat ride from the state's capital Macapa with only limited electricity and clean running water.

But it also added to rampant deforestation in Brazil, where, between January and March this year, tree loss in the Amazon rose 64% from a year ago to 941 sq km (363 square miles), data from national space research agency Inpe shows.

An rural worker in Bailique, where the community have increased their income by 50% since they started applying sustainable practices to their acai production, in Amapa state, Brazil. December 1, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Jonne Roriz

When global demand for acai started surging, the community in Bailique realized there was more money in keeping the forest standing so that they could farm and sell the berries.

Brazil's acai exports shot up from about 40 tons in 2011 to more than 5,900 tons in 2020, according to export federation FIEPA.

Over the past five years, the Bailique community has seen sales of its fresh berries jump by 50%, said Picanco, who attributes much of that growth to the FSC labeling.

As a condition of the certification, the cooperative educates the local community on the benefits of keeping the trees alive to make sure no felling takes place in the forest area, except when sick or old trees need to be removed.

The group also has to ensure the forest is managed in a way that protects its biodiversity, Picanco added.

With so many Brazilian farmers turning their land over to acai palms, other native tree species - such as samauma (silk-cotton), jatoba and cedar - are being squeezed out.

According to a study by researchers in Brazil, Mexico and Estonia, around 1% of the floodplain forests around the Amazon's estuaries are now devoted entirely to acai.

Amazonbai encourages the farmers it works with to keep other species in the forest growing alongside the acai.

"It takes a lot of dialogue with the producers," Picanco said. "If we leave only the acai, bees won't visit other plants and, eventually, pollinate the acai. Without the bees, there are no birds to eat beetles, which are a pest in our forest."

Boats are the main means of transportation in the Bailique archipelago, which is a 12-hour boat journey from the state capital Macapa, in Amapa state, Brazil. December 2, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Jonne Roriz

'CONCRETE ACTION'

The money Amazonbai got from the two Italian companies helps keep those conservation efforts going, said Picanco, noting the funds go toward covering costs for the sponsored patch of forest, such as salaries for forest managers and engineers, and  fuel for the boats they use to travel around the archipelago.

But the current ESG wave means many corporations are investing in forest protection as a way to buy external goodwill, instead of using the money to make internal changes to cut their carbon emissions, said Daniela Teston, Brazil's corporate engagement manager for green group WWF.

"Sometimes a company supports a specific project and communicates that investment to the public as if it were a part of its strategy in terms of social-environmental conservation," Teston said.

Instead, companies should take "a broader look at concrete actions that are not focused on small projects," she added.

Fabiola Zerbini, director of forests, land use and agriculture at the World Resources Institute-Brazil, said without government action, sponsorship agreements like the one between Amazonbai and the Italian firms are just a "Band-Aid" in the fight against climate change.

Real change, she said, will come once Brazil creates a regulated mandatory carbon market which obliges companies to keep their own emissions down instead of simply buying carbon credits to offset the emissions they generate.

A bill on regulating carbon markets is currently sitting in Brazil's National Congress waiting for a vote.

"It's great to have companies that are starting to experiment with the possible models we have available," Zerbini said. "But they are not enough and are far from the necessary scale."

($1 = 0.9572 euros)

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Planting trees cannot be our only solution for climate change

More net than zero: Do carbon-cutting promises add up for the climate?

Nature-based solutions in Brazil are key to reaching global climate targets

(Reporting by Jennifer Ann Thomas, Editing by Jumana Farouky and Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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