With more than 15 million species of plants and animals, the world’s tropical rainforests play a key role in sequestering and storing carbon, controlling diseases and facilitating pollination. Tropical forests provide important resources such as fruits, medicinal plants and herbs, making their survival critical for the income generation abilities of local communities.
Despite the importance of tropical forests to both animals, plants and humans, with the continued preeminence of harmful industries, they now only cover 6% of the earth’s land surface and continue to be depleted rapidly.
Most of the world’s tropical forests are destroyed because of the value of their timber both for large companies and small indigenous communities living in their midst. Here, chopping trees is a source of income for many rural communities, representing how families put food on the table. For these low-income communities, conservation is akin to taking away their livelihood. It is therefore essential to create a balance and discover innovations that not only conserve forests but also allow communities to make fair profits.
Entrepreneurs that work locally with these indigenous communities are well placed to address the issue of tropical forest conservation because of their experience in the sustainable exploitation of non-timber products such as seeds, herbs etc. However, often these innovative solutions cannot be scaled effectively due to barriers such as being relatively un-known globally, inaccessibility to trusted experts and lack of funding to name a few.
With this in mind, in 2012 WWF Switzerland launched the Tropical Forest Challenge – a global initiative to discover the best for-profit solutions that have a positive impact on tropical forest biodiversity.
Managed by Ennovent, an accelerator for innovations of sustainability in low-income markets this Challenge enabled the discovery of more than 77 sustainable businesses taking innovative approaches to address the issue of tropical forest conservation. The Challenge applicants demonstrate how business can be mixed with forestry stewardship to create fair profits and lasting positive impact.
The WWF Switzerland Tropical Forest Challenge aimed to discover solutions from established organisations as well as startups. To evaluate the applications for the challenge the applicants had to first garner the support of the public. Top applications were then judged by an expert pre-selection and jury panel comprising of 42 experts in the fields of forestry, development and business from organizations such as Thomson Reuters Foundation and the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship among others. In December 2012, two winners and four finalists in each category were selected.
Runa, was chosen as the winner within the company category. The company works with indigenous communities in the Ecuadorian Amazon that are caught in a cycle of poverty and environmental degradation due to subsistence farming.
Runa creates US markets for guayusa, a naturally caffeinated tea and manages a vertically integrated supply chain utilizing a Fair Trade mechanism whereby Runa purchases guayusa from farmers at a guaranteed minimum price. Since inception, Runa has generated over $100,000 of direct income for over 2,000 farming families – a per farmer increase of 30% over previous income levels.
In addition to Runa, there were four other finalists within the Company category that are also setting examples of innovative approaches to tropical forest conservation that can be implemented globally.
For example, Chicza is a consortium in Mexico that works to protect the forests through the harvesting, transformation and commercialization of Chicle gum. In contrast, Ecoplanet Bamboo addresses deforestation and rural poverty through the use of responsible capital to develop commercial bamboo plantations in Nicaragua and South Africa.
Other finalists in the Company category include Rainforest Expeditions and Wildlife Works. While Rainforest Expeditions is an ecotourism company that operates three lodges in Peru, Wildlife Works, which pioneered the use of REDD+ credits to finance large-scale tropical forest conservation programs in Africa.
Addressing the needs – such as income-generation – of communities living among tropical forests must be at the center of a business model to enable to sustainable management of the world’s natural resources. Planting Empowerment, the winner of the Startup category, demonstrates the importance of this idea through the development and management of sustainable agroforestry projects in Panama.
What makes Planting Empowerment different is that instead of purchasing land like the majority of forestry companies, they lease it from small landholders to encourage land tenure. Additionally the community receives hands-on forestry management skills and classroom knowledge from Planting Empowerment so that after the first lease is over, landholders have the capacity to manage their own agroforestry plots. Their great work has resulted in over 27,500 trees being planted and has ensured that farmers earn 45% more income as compared to previous levels.
The finalists of the Startup category in the WWF Switzerland Tropical Forest Challenge were also equally as impressive in their efforts to conserve tropical forests.
Eco-Fuel Africa, a Startup category finalist, trains Ugandan farmers to turn farm waste into clean burning fuel briquettes which are sold within the community by empowered women entrepreneurs. In addition, Maya Mountain Cacao sources premium cacao from farmers in Belize for specialty chocolate makers.
Ecotech Timber, a natural resources management and renewable energy development company in Sierra Leone as well as Floresta Holdings which designs, finances and develops two of the world’s largest forest carbon programs in Indonesia and Brazil were the two other finalists within this category.
These companies and startups set the bar for entrepreneurs that are looking for opportunities to address the pressing issue of tropical forest depletion and make an impact on people living in low-income markets. Not only are the winners and finalists of the WWF Switzerland Tropical Forest Challenge conserving the forests but also creating new – and in many cases more profitable – income streams for indigenous communities.
Learn more about the WWF Switzerland Tropical Forest Challenge winners and finalists by clicking here
Images Courtesy: WWF Switzerland, Runa & Planting Empowerment