Eco Farm Asia: the Business of Making Reforestation Profitable
Along with the Indo-Burmese region, New Caledonia and the Sundaland basin of Australia and South East Asia, the archipelago of the Philippines is home to one of the most endangered ecosystems on the planet. A 2011 report by Conservation International accounted that only seven percent of the country’s forests remained intact and had not experienced a form of man-made deforestation. This is a staggering decline from the 70% of Filipino forests that were in a ‘preserved and natural state’ at the beginning of the 20th century.
Accelerated deforestation is leaving long lasting scars in the country’s history. Extremely vulnerable to typhoons and tsunamis due to its geographic location at the eastern edge of the South China Sea, the area of the Philippines has been hardest hit in recent years by meteorological catastrophes such as Yolanda (also known as Typhoon Haiyan) and Pablo (Typhoon Bopha).
The loss of the mangrove forests native to the islands is seldom analysed in current affairs reports. Yet the role of trees and forests in strengthening the structure of soils and preventing deadly landslides during natural catastrophes is widely known and has been the source of numerous studies by think tanks such as FAO, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and the World Resources Institute (WRI). Many reports elaborated on how the existence of deeply rooted trees and shrubs are known to reduce the occurrence of rapidly moving landslides in episodes of earthquakes and super storms. They strengthen soil layers, improving drainage and serving as ‘anchors’. Forests also play a role of physical barrier by blocking debris and rocks from reaching inhabited areas located further inland.
“There are many and often complex causes of landslides, acting over time scales of minutes to millennia. Landslides are often associated with regions experiencing intense geological uplift, weathering and water-related erosion. The occurrence of a landslide is usually a direct response to one or more ‘trigger factors’ or external events that cause the slope to fail. Rainfall and earthquakes are the most common.”
With deforestation at an all time high in the Philippines, effective reforestation policies are very much needed to protect the country’s diverse ecosystem. Global Forest Watch accounted that the South East Asian archipelago lost over 600,000 hectares of forests between 2001 and 2013. That is equivalent to losing forests the sizes of Luxemburg, Mauritius and Cape Verde combined over a twelve-year period. Much of this deforestation has been attributed to the historically weak enforcement of forestry laws, mismanagement and corruption. A 2011 report by the UN Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD) analysed the Filipino legal framework in relation to upland, lowland and coastal zones.
Inherited from the former Spanish colonial legislation, it establishes the ‘responsibility of the state to conserve natural resources for the benefit of present and future generations’. It does not however apply direct accountability to government actors where negative effects of resource exploitation are born by residents and communities. Legislation directives are also at times in conflict with customary laws in rural areas where land is often viewed as ‘owned by the gods and spirits’ and human beings, its stewards.
“Throughout Asia, intense and prolonged storms and rainfall frequently trigger landslides though they also occur in drier regions as a result of earthquakes. It is likely that changes in climate or weather will exacerbate many of these problems. Changes in land use that involve soil excavation or loss of forest cover make slopes susceptible to failure. For example, 80 percent of landslides in China result from human activities, with dam-building and road construction being the most significant causes.”
The last two decades have seen the Philippines move away from a ‘state property regime’ in forestry management towards decentralised tenure arrangements and community-based approaches. This was observed as a welcome departure from the previous system characterised by over-centralisation of decision-making and a bias towards large-scale industrial utilisation.
We recently spoke to Jose De La Cruz, founder of Eco Farm Asia Limited (Eco Farm). Eco Farm is an ethical tree farming venture, which aims at promoting sustainable teak and coffee farming, encouraging reforestation and providing long-term employment options to rural dwellers. Eco Farm’s ambitious goal is to “plant three million trees and generate profits for the company, its partners and local communities”. De La Cruz’s initiative is one of a growing number of community-based approaches planning change at a semi-systemic level by leveraging economic means to facilitate technology and knowledge transfers for the benefit of rural farmers.
Eco Farm operates two streams of activities:
- Investment planting: Using a mixture of proprietary funds and investor money, Eco Farm searches for arable and available land to purchase, preferably in areas that are suffering from the effects of deforestation such as denuded hills, old pastures, woodland developments or mountain land. Plans are then drawn to convert the area into micro plantations with a blend of native crops, teak or coffee trees. All plants are grown according to organic and environmentally friendly principles. Eco Farm trains the farm hands it employs in forgoing the use of harsh chemicals and pesticides and adopting more natural farming techniques. The resulting crops can thus be sold at a premium to the agro food and furniture industries.
A growing part of Eco Farm’s current investment capital originates from Filipino migrants based in the Middle East or in the United States and who are keen to tie their resources in a land investment in the Philippines. Eco Farm is liable to provide them with a monthly return on the proceeds of crop sales yielded by the land.
- Landowner partnerships: Eco Farm partners with rural farmers and helps them reincorporate natural farming techniques in their daily practices. Farmers are encouraged to share their findings with one another and discuss the issues, whether practical or regulatory, impacting their farmlands. The community is also a fertile ground for Eco Farm to facilitate discussions and educate resident farmers and local partners on the benefits of reforestation for them, their villages and their children.
On a day-to-day basis, deforestation often happens due to a lack of knowledge on the consequences of familiar activities such as wood logging for cooking, small bush fires – often started to burn household waste – or the washing water spilled in the nearby forest which alters the chemical makeup of neighbouring soils. Adopting practices that blend community awareness and meaningful financial investments is a positive step towards addressing some of the damage done to the archipelago’s ecosystem.
“We need to demonstrate that planting trees can be a profitable business. People will follow our lead if we demonstrate that there is money to be made in planting trees and maintaining them. Reforestation yields more riches in the long run than cutting all the trees and depleting our nature.”
– Jose De La Cruz