Consumers and Producers
Unite to Save Ecosystems
By Bennett Daviss
As a pilot ferrying missionaries through the Peruvian jungles in the late 1980s, Tim Eaton heard natives tout the medicinal properties of a particular vine's bark. Back in the United States, Eaton persuaded a few nutritionists to experiment with the substance, which the jungle denizens had dubbed "cat's claw." They, too, were impressed with the bark's healing powers.
It was the beginning of Peruvian Rainforest Botanicals, a nearly four year old Florida product line now showing a small profit. But that's not strictly what the venture is about, says vice-president Leo Abdella.
"The president of Peru's botanical society, who's become an adviser to us, says that countless numbers of the more than 20,000 plant species found in Peru's tropical jungles could help all kinds of ailments and disorders," Abdella said.
"That means that there are more than 20,000 reasons to preserve the forest and zero reasons to chop it down. We're creating an industry for the Peruvian people that will enable them to protect that resource."
Abdella's firm is one of a growing number of U.S.-based companies with a distinctly green mission: to unite the developed world's consumers directly with agricultural and forest producers in emerging nations, using commerce as a tool to preserve poor countries' environmental riches.
Throughout the developing world, desperately poor people are cashing in their natural legacies. Across the tropics, hardwood forests are being logged wholesale to generate quick income. Rainforests are razed -- currently at the rate of almost 250 acres a day, according to some estimates -- to exploit their thin soils as farmland to feed growing populations or as cattle pasture to supply cheap beef to First World consumers, or ripped up in search of gold or diamonds.
Now a new crop of green companies, supported by environmentally aware consumers, is giving the areas' residents a financial incentive to preserve, rather than destroy, the ecosystems that play key roles in protecting the planet's climatic balance and shielding its biodiversity.
Typically, the companies not only pay premium prices for crops grown to strict standards of environmental protection, but also use a portion of their revenues to fund social and ecological development in the regions in which they buy products.
Mimi Stephens, executive director of the Fair Trade Federation in Barre, Mass., says calls in the last year from merchants and consumers seeking such items is up by one-third. "Once consumers find out about this, they're very receptive," said Stephens, whose group monitors socially responsible businesses and products.
One entrepreneur who is working hard to educate consumers is Peter Alcorn, founder of six-year-old Wild Things Inc. in Gainesville, Fla.
Researching a master's thesis in tropical botany, Alcorn became an expert on chicle (CHEE-clay), a relative of the rubber tree. Once chicle became popular as a primary ingredient of chewing gum, demand escalated, leading to overtapping of chicle trees.
"You can't have a chicle plantation," Alcorn pointed out. "Chicle needs to be part of a healthy rainforest in order to reproduce. If we can protect chicle trees, we can go a long way toward protecting tropical ecosystems."
Alcorn's small company makes Jungle Gum, pure chicle seasoned with cinnamon, ginger and clove. The gum, sold in more than 200 stores in the United States and Central America, is made from sap purchased from the only Central American chicle reserve managed under a detailed plan for sustainability.
Alcorn pays a premium for the sap -- often 100% more than the market price of the moment -- giving chicleros a powerful reason to continue to manage the resource prudently.
Although the company is not yet profitable, Alcorn is beginning to work with harvesters in Mexico and Guatemala to institute similar environmental management plans.
"We're helping them design the most comprehensive method possible to track the health of their forests and we're giving them a practical reason to do so," Alcorn said.
Pueblo to People, a nonprofit Houston importer and national mail-order firm, has taken a similar hand in Honduras' cashew industry. In 1982, the young company helped six rural producer co-ops to perfect low-cost, low-impact methods to process the organically grown nuts, which Pueblo sells through its catalog.
As a result of the U.S. market Pueblo opened up for the groups, the Honduran government's plan to reforest the country's depleted Choluteca region with cashew trees is thriving. Pueblo now markets cashews from 13 co-ops, and brokers from other regions are buying the groups' raw nuts.
"Native peoples understand the need to respect their environment because they live off it," said Fran Sanders, Pueblo's executive director. "We help them make a living in a way that doesn't harm their land."
Like Pueblo to People, One World Projects Inc. in Batavia, N.Y., also sells handicrafts made from emerging nations' renewable natural bounty. The company imports about 500 products, which it resells to retailers, mail-order firms, and gift shops in zoos and museums. One of its staple items is nuts from the tropical tagua tree. The nuts, often as big as a fist, aren't edible but are carved into jewelry, figurines and ornaments by an Ecuadorian co-op from which One World owner Phil Smith buys directly.
Coffee has proved to have the power to stimulate environmental change. The California-based Thanksgiving Coffee Co., which has spent years advocating social and environmental responsibility including a return to shade-grown coffee, is marketing its Songbird Coffee blend through the 250-store Wild Birds Unlimited retail chain. The effort is a joint project with the American Birding Association.
Until the 1970s, all coffee was grown in the shade," explained Thanksgiving founder and CEO Paul Katzeff. "Shade-grown beans mature more slowly and have a richer, more complex flavor. But in the last two decades, millions of acres of trees in Central and South America were cleared so coffee could be grown in full sun to boost yields."
As a result, dozens of species of American songbirds lost their winter habitats and their numbers have been shrinking. A handful of U.S. coffee companies have tried to turn things around. Thanksgiving Coffee Co. began paying a premium for shade-grown beans, and Equal Exchange Coffee Co. in Canton., Mass., a "fair-trade" company that buys 95% of its beans direct from the grower, sells only shade-grown beans. Both are offering assistance to growers who want to switch to organic methods.
From Mexico to Colombia, growers have responded and so have U.S. consumers. Since 1994, Thanksgiving's sales of organic and shade-grown coffees have risen 316%, while those of nonorganic, nonshade blends are up only 17%.
"Through coffee, we've married the passion of 63 million U.S. birding enthusiasts to the movement to save the rainforest," Katzeff said.
For every pound of Songbird coffee sold, Thanksgiving donates 15 cents to the American Birding Association to help fund its Partners in Flight project, an international cooperative program working to conserve habitat and populations of migrating birds.
Consumers' enthusiasm has given Thanksgiving the revenues to do more than coax coffee into the shade. The company has helped to build schools in growers' communities, capitalized village microlending banks, and recently helped to finance the world's first two solar coffee-bean dryers in Costa Rica and Nicaragua.
"They're very effective, which now means that coffee can be dried without rainforest trees being cut for firewood," Katzeff said.
More than altruism, green business is good business, he adds.
"Songbird Coffee has been the greatest success in our 25 years in business," Katzeff said. In the past two months, the company has opened more than 250 new accounts.
In addition, he says, becoming involved in the lives and communities of growers secures his firm's source of supply when prices rise or harvests are smaller. It also gives meaning beyond just a paycheck to employees' work. And, that, according to the CEO, reduces turnover, boosts productivity and cuts costs.
"When you're involved in social and environmental projects, you also create a customer loyalty that's very powerful. You keep your customers, because they've become part of something that's meaningful to them personally," said Katzeff.
"When you show people from one end of the product chain to the other that business and environmental protection can help each other," Katzeff said, "everyone wants to be part of the solution."
Posted September 23, 1997
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