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Endangered orangutans in Sumatra are severely threatened by deforestation.
Endangered orangutans in Sumatra are severely threatened by deforestation.

In Indonesia, where forests are being destroyed at the highest rates in the world, an untapped solution exists for balancing conservation with economic expansion.

Indonesia is the world’s fastest deforester—a dubious distinction that once belonged to Brazil. A recent report revealed that more than 2 million acres of primary forest are cleared each year, mostly due to palm oil plantations. Palm oil is found in half of all packaged products—from cookies to deodorant—and is a highly lucrative commodity, making it difficult for Indonesia to halt its production. But while Indonesia struggles to balance its economic needs with its role in climate change, indigenous communities are already modeling ways that strong economics can coexist with sustainable forest management.

While the United States and China are the largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world, Indonesia is the third largest. The majority of its emissions come from the destruction of forests and carbon-rich peatlands, which take thousands of years to form and store 20 times as much carbon as rainforests. Palm oil producers regularly clear vast tracts of these valuable carbon sinks by draining and setting peatlands on fire.

Indonesia is essentially sitting on a carbon time bomb—about 60 billion metric tons of carbon is stored in its peatlands. If all this carbon were released into the atmosphere, it would be the equivalent of burning 67% of all the oil reserves from Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Canada, Russia, and the United States combined.

In addition to accelerating climate change, forest fires present a massive health hazard—this summer’s fires on Sumatra prompted complaints all the way from Singapore about the choking smog, and people in Indonesia often say that the year has been shortened to 9 months, as it’s impossible to do anything during the 3-month fire season. Moreover, the deforestation is rapidly destroying habitats that once sheltered tremendous biological diversity and animals like the endangered orangutan.

Despite pay-for-performance agreements aimed to stop deforestation (such as the $1 billion REDD+ program funded by Norway) and recent pledges by several large companies to eliminate conflict palm oil from their supply chains, developers are still clearing forests at an alarming rate.

The activity is also a human rights concern, as indigenous communities are frequently displaced in the process. One report has estimated that nearly all of Indonesia’s palm oil concessions have been for land that is already inhabited. REDD+ officials have estimated that indigenous groups hold 45 million hectares of forest currently being misused for commercial concessions. But because indigenous communities have no legal land ownership rights, concessions are made by the government without their knowledge. Land tenure conflicts are common and have ended in violent clashes between protestors and hired security.

But excluding indigenous communities from land-use decisions results in a missed opportunity. Respecting indigenous rights isn’t just the right thing to do—it could be a powerful strategy for balancing economics with conservation, and for tapping an effective resource for sustainable land management.

“Indigenous communities, such as the Dayak Iban tribe in Kapuas Hulu of West Kalimantan, have strong land-use planning skills,” says Valentinus Heri, a social entrepreneur whose organization, Riak Bumi, works with indigenous groups to boost local economies and protect forests.

“They know the land well, and determine which areas have conditions that are most suitable for farming, and which forest areas should be protected for traditional hunting. They also define sacred areas, dwelling areas, and tembawang – agroforestry areas for fruits, rubber plants, bamboo, rattan, etc. usually located near the river. The Dayak Iban tribe has a crop rotation system, in which every 5 to 7 years the fields are left to rest and for the forest to grow.”

While indigenous communities have deep knowledge of responsible environmental stewardship, Riak Bumi provides added training, such as firefighting and forest fire prevention. The organization incentivizes conservation by helping indigenous groups develop an ecotourism industry and high-quality products, like sustainably harvested forest honey, high-end weavings, and a wild-crafted soap from a fruit called tengkawang.

“We increase the forest honey’s quality through sustainable harvesting techniques and hygienic processing – thus creating more value, increasing the price, and pushing the community to maintain the forest, the bee’s natural habitat,” said Heri. “No forest, no honey bees, no income – this creates the incentive and motivation.”

By organizing independent collectors into a forest honey association, Riak Bumi has been able to set market prices, ensure consistent quality, and give honey collectors a stronger voice in the ongoing debate about Indonesia’s conservation and land use policies. Riak Bumi projects that in 2015, its forest honey collectors will produce about 18 tons of honey per year. The organization’s entire network of honey collectors, artisans, and eco-tourism entrepreneurs will benefit more than 7,000 indigenous villagers across the country.

While the lack of legal standing for indigenous communities remains one of the biggest barriers to exploring the economic potential of sustainable livelihoods, progress is being made. Several government agencies have declared their support for indigenous rights, and a new bill is being drafted by lawmakers. Many are also hopeful that the newly elected President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo will help spur much needed policy changes in order to meet the country’s REDD+ commitments.

“By acknowledging their rights, indigenous groups can serve as strategic partners in the protection of forests,” said Heru Prasetyo, chairman of Indonesia’s REDD+ Management Agency. “[The] full participation of indigenous people will support Indonesia’s commitment in reducing greenhouse gas emissions — 26 percent by its own and 41 percent with international help by 2020.”

With new legal protections and initiatives like Riak Bumi helping to increase the economic value of protected ecosystems, indigenous communities could have a huge role to play in halting deforestation and climate change. Clearer skies may be on the horizon after all.

By Kristie Wang

This article originally appeared on Forbes.com. Image via: Patrick Barry

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A cashmob hits a bookstore in Spain.

“How do we find a way to reconnect communities with local businesses, local resources, but more importantly, with each other?” This question, posed byKen Banks at Pop!Tech, is being echoed by an innovative generation of problem-solvers who are looking to strengthen local economies while simultaneously tackling community issues.

Banks is perhaps most well known as the founder of Frontline SMS , a text-message-based communications platform that is driving solutions ranging from health to microfinance in over 150 countries today. His current initiative, Means of Exchange, is exploring ways that technology can unlock the potential of local economic systems, especially through strengthening sharing economies.

For example, during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Means of Exchange used social media to deploy its first “cash mob,” a group of people who agree to each spend a small amount of money at a local business on a given day.

In less than two hours, a bookshop in Hackney, London sold 100 books—whereas in that last two days, it had sold only two. “The buzz created by social media drove people to attend, partly out of excitement, partly out of curiosity, partly out of a desire to see something positive happen on their main shopping street,“ Banks wrote on the Means of Exchange blog.

Image credit: Ken Banks

Cash mobs have a multiplier effect. By tapping into people’s desire to commune socially and participate in a larger movement, tools like cash mobs boost local businesses, connect people to local resources, create a culture of cooperation, and strengthen the community fabric.

Like Banks, more social entrepreneurs around the world are creating hybrid solutions that turn around struggling local economies while taking aim at social issues. Solutions that help communities generate more income can be leveraged for addressing deeply entrenched social problems.

For example, a social entrepreneur named Masnu’ah, working in Indonesia, is increasing economic opportunities in fishing communities while tackling gender issues like domestic violence. Fishing is one of Indonesia’s largest industries, with 95% of the activities performed by artisanal fisherfolk, who often struggle to earn a living. Women perform a significant portion of the duties involved in fishing, but their contributions often remain unrecognized, due to patriarchal gender beliefs. With few resources, women often experience domestic violence and are unable to seek help.

In an effort to both empower fisherwomen and engage men as part of the solution, Masnu’ah launched Puspita Bahari, a cooperative that teaches men and women to generate additional family income through fish processing. Men are allowed to manage a donated fishing boat only if they agree to attend gender equality workshops and let their wives join the cooperative. And as women fisherfolk increase their earning power, they also become more socially empowered and able to speak out for their own rights.

As many experts have noted, economic empowerment and social empowerment are intertwined. Other social entrepreneurs like Majid El Jarroudi are tapping into this principle by helping marginalized communities build economic connections to mainstream markets, thus laying the foundation for more inclusive and accepting societies.

For El Jarroudi, the 2005 French riots underscored the multifaceted discrimination experienced by low-income, diverse communities. The son of a Moroccan immigrant who became one of France’s first professional boxers, El Jarroudi helps local entrepreneurs from marginalized communities in France access mainstream business opportunities and is working to make large companies more welcoming of diversity.

El Jarroudi created an online platform, Agency for Diversity in Entrepreneurship, that transforms the purchasing practices of large companies so that they do business with suppliers in underserved neighborhoods. The platform identifies and vets promising local entrepreneurs and helps them build the capacity to meet the needs of mainstream companies. At the same time, companies often save money by working with local businesses and a larger cultural shift towards inclusiveness is created.

As these initiatives are demonstrating, energizing community economies can also open doors to solving serious social problems. Similarly, giving communities the tools to nurture strong cultures of cooperation and support can make all the difference for local businesses to thrive.

A key next step for social entrepreneurs like Ken Banks, Masnu’ah, and Majid El Jourroudi will be to grow local solutions into movements and to accelerate change at the level of decision makers and policy makers.

This article originally appeared on Forbes.com. Top Image Credit: Miquel C 

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Three years after the devastating earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people in Haiti, many international aid organizations have left behind a dubious legacy. Only a fraction of the $9.3 billion that donor nations pledged actually reached the ground in Haiti, and very little of that money went to efforts to rebuild the nation.

A host of international aid organizations often did more harm than good, according to journalist Jonathan Katz. Haiti is still grappling with the first cholera outbreak ever recorded in the nation, which was brought in by United Nations troops and has killed 8,000 people and sickened 649,000 more.

Today in Port-au-Prince, the capital, 350,000 Haitians still live in tents, and fewer than 25 percent of Haitians in cities have access to adequate sanitation. In lieu of toilets, people must find other ways to dispose of waste—such as plastic bags, abandoned houses, or the ocean.

The 11,000 temporary toilets that were installed by aid groups after the quake are no longer being serviced. That means 11,000 very full reservoirs of human waste that pose a significant health hazard.

Despite the challenges, there are effective solutions at work in Haiti. SOIL, which stands for Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods, is working with communities to install a low-cost sanitation system that also supports local agriculture, the environment, and local economies.

SOIL’s ecological sanitation (EcoSan) toiletsnow serve more than 24,000 people across Haiti, and are virtually odor free. Unlike many international aid organizations that built toilets and stopped maintaining them when they left, SOIL’s model was grown from within the country and integrates maintenance services that also generate local jobs.

For a low monthly fee, SOIL workers maintain the toilets and collect the waste, delivering it to a composting facility (via SOIL’s Poopmobile), where it composts at high heat for six months. The process kills pathogens and creates a nutrient-rich fertilizer that is being sold to farms and used for tree planting.

Sasha Kramer, co-founder of SOIL, said that the work has gone through three phases since the organization’s launch in 2006—sanitation and toilets, developing composting facilities, and now linking the compost back to the agricultural and food sector. The organization focused first on making toilets accessible to the public, and learned some hard lessons along the way.

“When we first started, we were really interested in reaching the largest number of people possible,” Kramer says. “And we thought that the best way to do that was to build public toilets that were maintained by the community, and that everyone could have access to.

“People had advised us against this, and we were very naïve and didn’t listen. We did this for two or three years before we understood that the tragedy of the commons is very much a reality.

“If you build something that is accessible to everyone, but that no one is paid to maintain, then it won’t be maintained. I think that this lesson could be carried into other sectors as well.

“The initial enthusiasm will carry people through for a few months, but in the end, no one wants to clean up anyone else’s poop for free—and understandably so.”

For SOIL, the lesson learned was that, ultimately, sustainable livelihoods are the most pressing need for people, and the key to lasting change. “That’s why we’ve moved away from public toilets, and into setting up a household sanitation system where people pay a small monthly fee to have their toilet waste collected,” Kramer says.

“That fee then funds the people to do the service and maintenance of the toilets. I’m much more hopeful that this could be a long-term solution that could be picked up and replicated by the private sector, instead of a public toilet solution that was very dependent on ongoing funding from donors.”

Households, schools, clinics, and tourism cooperatives are welcoming the EcoSan toilets. In some parts of Haiti, groups of five families share a semi-private toilet and divide the cost of maintenance.

“The idea of being able to create a resource—fertilizer—here in Haiti, instead of having to import it, has been very appealing to many people,” says Kramer. “One of the real drivers of this appeal is the strong culture of independence and national pride in Haiti.”

Kramer first came to Haiti in 2004 with a group of human rights observers after a coup overthrew the elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. “I came to observe a demonstration, and I was just totally swept away by the courage and amazing resiliency I felt in the people here,” Kramer says.

Kramer, still an ecology graduate student at Stanford University in California, ended up returning 12 times over the course of two years. “I feel I was lucky, because I was able to come to Haiti without already having any preconceived notions,” Kramer says.

“I really had a chance to get to know the country and the very respected leaders in the communities where I was working. Had I not had those two years, it would have been very difficult to start an organization. When I did co-found SOIL, I had a good sense of who I could talk to in the community, and who was really trusted.”

Kramer’s relationships within local communities were instrumental to building SOIL’s founding team, which she credits as one of the organization’s key success factors.

“I feel like everything is learnable, except respect,” said Kramer. “And this is a group of people who are very respectful to their fellow Haitians, and who are also respected by the community. That made a huge difference for SOIL.”

Supporting livelihoods is the final step of the sanitation loop, where compost supports local agriculture and food production. Haiti’s agriculture sector has been struggling with heavily depleted soils and poor yields because of deforestation and environmental degradation.

Today, the nation still imports 50 percent of its food. By turning thousands of gallons of human waste into compost each week, SOIL has the potential to transform this problem dramatically—and now international investors are taking note.

The multinational beer company Heineken, which recently bought the Haitian beer brewery, Prestige, has pledged to invest $40 million in Haiti, and to work with 18,000 sorghum farmers so that it can source its sorghum locally.

“Heineken has said that they would like to purchase 50,000 gallons of compost this year, which they’ll be providing to sorghum farmers,” Kramer says.

“This is an example of how large international business can really support sustainable nutrient economies—and sustainable development in general—by making this type of investment. This creates a market demand for sustainable sanitation, and this partnership is something that could be replicable globally. It’s really exciting.”

SOIL was recently selected as an early entry prize winner in the Nutrients for All, an Ashoka Changemakers competition that is seeking solutions to ensure the availability of nutrients for healthy, natural ecosystems, farms, food, and people.

This story originally appeared on The Christian Science Monitor.

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Nashville, Tenn., boasts seven different farmers markets citywide, proving that urban residents have a strong appetite for locally sourced food.

But the mainstream food markets—like grocery stores, hospitals, schools, and restaurants—find it much easier to order from national distributors like Sysco, which trucks in produce from an average of 2,000 miles away.

Without access to larger food buyers, Nashville growers are struggling to succeed—a trend that has resulted in the decline of local food production. Today in Davidson County, only 0.36 percent of the farmland is being used to grow fruits and vegetables.

The good news is that one organization is working to change all that. Nashville Grown is a new food hub that enables large food purchasers to source produce from farms just outside the city—and even from backyard micro-farms within the city itself.
Farmers can become more profitable and focus more time on growing more food when they don’t have to worry about the legwork and infrastructure required to get their products to market.

Why have small farms been excluded from the supply chain?

The problem has to do with scale. Farms in and around urban areas tend to be small and usually can’t produce at the sustained volumes that institutions like schools or grocery chains require.

And without economies of scale, small farms aren’t able to shoulder the cost of delivery, storage, and marketing. On the market side, larger food purchasers require one-stop sourcing and don’t have the capacity to coordinate with multiple local farms.

“We have farms that are right next to the people they’d like to be serving,” says Sarah Johnson, founder and director of Nashville Grown. “But if there isn’t a food system set up to get the produce from small farms to the end consumer, it’s never going to work.”

Image: Denise Mattox
Image: Denise Mattox

Nashville Grown aggregates produce from many small farms, making it possible to fulfill the larger volume orders required by bigger food buyers like restaurants.

Aggregation also means that a small grower can still turn a profit if she specializes in producing a particular crop.

As a food hub, Nashville Grown provides storage, distribution, and marketing. Its online purchasing system posts what farmers have for sale, and buyers can go online and order produce for delivery the next day.

Ms. Johnson launched Nashville Grown last August and began “bootstrapping it,” with just an empty warehouse space and her personal vehicle, equipped with picnic coolers. The organization now helps 15 local farms and market gardens sell to restaurants and catering companies.

However, getting large grocery chains and institutions like schools to carry local produce is proving to be more challenging.

“Right now, our selling platform skews our buyers to higher-end restaurants that can create menu items and specials around what’s available from local farms during a given week,” Johnson says. “They’re flexible if something’s not available. But our current system isn’t as attractive to buyers like schools or other restaurants that may not have that flexibility in their menu planning. We’re trying to work on that.”

Another challenge involved in selling to chain grocery stores and institutions is that they tend to require Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification, and adherence to other food safety protocols that are costly and potentially impossible for small, diversified farms to comply with. GAP processes are designed for large, commodity farms, and enabling investigators to track sources of food-borne illness—for example, E-coli bacteria in spinach that has arrived from many large farms and has been mingled at a central processing facility.

“GAP isn’t required by the government,” Johnson says, “but it’s what these larger institutions are used to working with. One solution would be to have an external
party establish specific safety standards for small, local farms, because they have an entirely different set of risks compared to large farms.”

Many large buyers had established processes that simply couldn’t accommodate local food, Johnson also discovered. For example, Nashville Grown approached the Kroger supermarket chain, which expressed an interest in carrying local food.

“But nothing could go directly to the store, because their rules require that everything has to be shipped to their warehouse in Kentucky first,” Johnson says. “But the farm was just a couple miles away! So much of the food system was created without the desire to source food as locally and as freshly as possible. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done.”

Nashville Grown also helps farmers with marketing and promotion by sharing photographs and stories about farmers and their land. The stories appear on the Nashville Grown website, as well as on food packages and labels.

“A lot of the farmland here has an amazing history,” Johnson says. “People really want to know where their food comes from, and any city could have a powerful local brand that inspires consumer loyalty. There’s a huge amount of value that hasn’t yet been realized by restaurants and grocery stores.”

Despite the barriers to reaching larger institutions, the demand from restaurants alone is greater than Nashville Grown is currently able to fill. “My hope is that creating the means for existing farms to become more profitable and competitive will also enable new farmers to start,” Johnson says. “There is so much potential for food to be grown in cities, and so many small vacant plots available for farming in and around urban areas.”

Nashville Grown can serve as a model for other food systems confronting the challenges of making local food accessible beyond the farmers market. This organization was recently selected as an early entry prize winner in the Nutrients for All, an Ashoka Changemakers competition that is seeking solutions that will ensure the availability of nutrients for healthy, natural ecosystems, farms, food, and people.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on The Christian Science Monitor