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.

Like what you’re reading? Get your Positive News subscription here

“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.


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.

Photo title: An ArBolivia tree farmer

Photo credit: © John Fleetwood

  • Simon

    NB: the UK co-operative was formerly called The Cochabamba Project Ltd. Not sure why they changed their name.

    I thought that people had realised years ago that planting trees was a very long-winded, ineffective, alternative to protecting mature forests, but here it still is.

    Keeping this positive: if you are considering investing in or dinating to this, I would recommend that you compare by looking at the work of forest protection charities like Cool Earth.

  • Maggie C

    I am proud to have been a small investor in Ar Bolivia since early on. I was fortunate to be able to visit Bolivia 3 years ago with a small group of fellow investors. We met some of the famers and support staff and visited some of the farms. It was encouraging and inspiring to see how involved everyone is at every level. The project is more than just about planting trees/preventing forest destruction. Training and supporting farmers to use their land effectively and sustainably, planting of cash corps between trees, which enrich the earth and provide income until trees are ready for cutting are integral. Neighbouring farmers begin to see the benefits of this way of working against the negative effects of the usual slash and burn methods. The advisors and support staff are recruited locally, creating further employment and development opportunities, and a greater sense of involvement and belonging. I have invested knowing it is a relatively high risk investment, but in the knowledge that my money is making a real difference to individuals whilst helping to change attitudes and understanding at ground level. (The name change is nothing sinister… just a response to the development of the project. I am sure you can read more about this on the website)

  • Pingback: BOLIVIE – Maintenir la forêt amazonienne devient rentable financièrement | Mindful News()

  • David Vincent


    You only needed to ask.

    When the society was established as “The Cochabamba Project” in 2009 its goal was to raise £250,000 to support one of the 8 project areas, which made up a bundle of “small scale reforestation” projects, to be certified as a “Clean Development Mechanism”. The area chosen was in the Cochabamba Tropics, since this are had already been validated – hence the name of the society. The project as a whole was known in Bolivia as ArBolivia – “ArBoles para Bolivia” (trees for Bolivia)

    However after the failure of COP15 in Copenhagen Bolivia withdrew its support for CDM and the 8 projects lost their CDM status and ArBolivia became unable sell carbon credits in the compulsory market. As a result ArBolivia also lost any chance of securing further funding until alternative certification had been achieved to allow credits to be sold in the voluntary market.

    Our society kept the whole project afloat over this period, paid for the necessary certification with Plan Vivo and, subsequently also with Gold Standard. It is now the official agent for ArBolivia’s carbon credits.

    When we set up the society we had no intention of being involved in selling carbon credits. However ArBolivia project had been certified as a CDM and had indeed already secured a contract with the Flemsih government for its credits. This provided more due diligence and financial security for our bold investors, than could possibly be achieved by any other forestry project with remotely similar social / environmental impacts.

    We have also had to develop our model in line with the changes introduced under the Co-Operative and Community Benefit Societies Act 2014, resulting in the society taking a controlling stake in the local project management organisation, which manages ArBolivia on the ground.

    So the use of the ArBolivia name is simply to give more emphasis to the project itself as opposed to the society which runs it. In fact it is not a change of name, simply the use of a trading style.

    Given that other co-ops are able to offer very substantial tax relief foir investment and a lower risk, with a ready made local supportyer base, we do not think we can rely solely on this source of financing going forward. We are thankfully now actually producing our first timber revenues and so we are hoping to be able to attract institutional investors to help us consolidate and upscale.

    You can find our strategic plan on the Crowdfunder page – but we are seeking $5mof investment, as opposed to the £100,000 cap on share in a society like ours. These institutions will be investing in ArBolivia, not “The Cochabamba Project”

    Secondly we need to place more focus on seelling our carbon credits. Again our credits are from ArBolivia not “The Cochabamba Project”

    – So, as Maggie kindly says above – nothing sinister, just an attempt to simplify and positition our business going forward

  • David Vincent

    On the comment about the effectiveness of planting trees, ArBolivia is not simply a “tree planting project”
    – and I would hope that this would be pretty clear from any of the wealth of materials provided on our website; http://www.arbolivia.org.uk or on the crowdfunder site; http://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/arbolivia

    We are not simply trying to “create a forest” but to provide a sustainable economic alternative to continuing deforestation. For every tree we plant countless standing trees will be saved – but we have refrained from making specific claims until we are actually able to substantiate them.

    You are correct that “tree planting” is” long term”, but do you think that over 1,000 poor subsistence farmers would be persuaded to maintain tree lots for 25 years if there were no other benefits to them in the interim? – and do you know of any charities prepared to give that long a commitment?

    Just to put some perspective on this, each family owns on average about 30 hectares of land. The average area planted as forest by each family is about 1.6 hectares. The area one family can actively manage at any one time, depends on a number if variables but is generally only 3 – 4 hectares. If we can contain them to the same 3 – 4 hectares rather than needing to slash and burn more land each year, we protect twice as big an area as the tree lot being managed EACH YEAR.

    Cool Earth and many other charities do a fantastic job, for which we have utmost respect – but they don’t work where we do. That is probably because thay are a charity – and a very good one – but the operational conditions and local circumstances for charities make our project area a less than ideal place to operate.

    ArBolivia is the result of a 5 year R & D programme funded by the FAO – and the project leader and senior team have remained with us. The conclusion of this was that an investment solution would be more effective than one based on charitable intervention – not least because of the failure of countless charitable interventions in the past. Ask any of our farmers what their experience of charities has been and you would understand why it would be difficult to propose yet another charity project.

    Our shared investment model is vital because it binds both parties to work together for the long term.

    We will put small donation to good effect but we would much prefer to have larger investments, which enable us to provide the wide range of interventions necessary to halt deforestation now, whilst also offering to chance for investors to recoup their outlay in the longer term, when our trees are providing an alternative, sustainable source of timber.

  • David Vincent

    Another point of course about being a self sustaining enterprise solution, is that we ourselves provide the catalyst for donor organisations. Please see our list of partners at the bottom of our Crowdfunder page.

    All of these partners have provided financial support for our work directly because of our own investment in the long term future of the project area. Every £ invested in developing our timber harvesting and processing unit for example, is matched by a £ from the Netherlands Enterprise Agency – as is each £ we are able to borrow from local development banks. etc etc.

  • David Vincent

    Hello Simon?….

Start typing and press Enter to search

Pin It on Pinterest