Tackling Amazon deforestation through crowdfunding

Ben Whitford

Green-investment co-operative ArBolivia aims not only to preserve the Amazon ecosystem, but to use planting native trees to support local livelihoods and create a financially viable investment opportunity

In a remote region of Bolivia, where the Amazon rainforest meets the cloud forests of the Andes, a quiet revolution is growing: on hundreds of plots of land, scattered across an area the size of England, small-scale subsistence farmers are pushing back against rampant deforestation by planting hundreds of thousands of native hardwood trees.

This is ArBolivia, an innovative green-investment co-operative that’s using cash from western investors and a new crowdfunding initiative to fund profitable but sustainable community forestry programmes. The idea is to create a business model that will give farmers an enduring financial incentive to look beyond slash-and-burn agriculture, says John Fleetwood, co-founder of the group’s British fundraising wing.

“It offers something pretty unique — it’s a business solution to deforestation in South America that’s scalable in the long term,” he tells Positive News.

So far, ArBolivia has helped about 1,000 farmers cultivate more than 1,400 hectares of woodland, planting more than 1.5 million native trees in the process. Farmers are paid small stipends to tend the trees, and also receive 50 per cent of the profits from the harvested timber — an amount that’s expected to total between £49m and £82m over the next four decades.

“Typically, farmers say they’ll pass that money on to their children and grandchildren, to educate them and help them escape the cycle of poverty.”

It’s anticipated that in coming years participating farmers will earn an average of almost £58,000 apiece, a vast sum in a country where the average income is barely £1,600. “Typically, farmers say they’ll pass that money on to their children and grandchildren, to educate them and help them escape the cycle of poverty,” Fleetwood says.

There’s an added bonus: through careful plantation-based forestry on land that might otherwise have been clear-cut, the project will sequester about 621,000 tonnes of carbon over its lifetime, the equivalent of the annual carbon footprint of 30,000 British households. And unlike many deforestation programmes, which use non-native monocultures, ArBolivia’s farmers are growing mixed plots of native trees, helping to preserve the region’s biodiversity.

The catch, Fleetwood says, is that tropical trees take many years to grow to maturity, and while the project is already netting some revenues from early harvests, it won’t break even until 2021. In the meantime, operating costs remain high: the project employs about 40 Bolivian administrators and technical advisors, runs its own mobile sawmill, and is busy securing local and international buyers for the farmers’ timber.

While investors have already backed ArBolivia to the tune of almost £5 million, the project needs an additional £1 million to tide it over. That’s where the crowdfunding comes in: ArBolivia is now running a Crowdfunder campaign in the hope of raising around £250,000. Together with revenues from carbon-credit sales, grants, and other commercial revenue streams, that will keep the lights on until timber revenues begin to pour in, Fleetwood says.

The crowdfunding effort has raised more than £60,000 since it launched last month, and organisers hope the campaign will introduce ArBolivia to a new generation of young, web-savvy supporters. Small-scale backers will receive trinkets such as canvas prints and greetings cards in exchange for their support, but anyone giving more than £250 will receive ArBolivia shares equal to the value of their donation, giving them a stake in the project’s eventual profits, and an estimated 5% annual return on their investment.

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“People are taking quite a risk with their money, but there’s the potential to get it back, rather than just giving it away,” Fleetwood explains.

That’s key to the philosophy behind ArBolivia, he adds: rather than simply soliciting donations, the group’s organisers want to create a money-making, self-financing project capable of being replicated across Latin America, Africa, and other regions grappling with poverty and deforestation.

“This is potentially very sustainable and scalable project that could have a big impact not just here but also elsewhere in the world,” he says.

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Young trees planted by ArBolivia farmers © John Fleetwood

ArBolivia is a Brands of Inspiration partner of Positive News and supports our journalism. Unless stated otherwise, editorial coverage of our partners is created independently of them.

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