Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Visit with Sustainable Harvest International's Panama Office

Last weekend I had the pleasure of visiting, for the second time since moving to Panama, the folks of Sustainable Harvest International (SHI, or CSI, as the Spanish abbreviation of Cosecha Sostenible Internacional goes) and travel with them around the field in the Coclé province of Panama, to see how sustainable reforestation really happens.

When I first explained to some friends in Panama City that I am about to visit an organization working on reforestation with local communities in “El Interior” (Panamanian for “Boondocks”), to say they were skeptics would be an understatement. There is a reason for that of course. Slash & burn agriculture is widely practiced here and the humble day to day subsistence standard of living of many agricultural communities is regarded as a hindrance to seemingly lofty consideration of environmental impact and global warming. The work of Sustainable Harvest in Panama proved to me that change is possible, and is happening. All it takes is resolve and a lot of hard work. Sustainable Harvest has the dubious pleasure of never preaching to the choir, and making change happen where its most needed.

We first met with country director, Rodrigo Rodriguez, and field trainer Diomedes Arrocha at SHI's office in Penonomé, the regional capital. Since this time of the year the rains come down hard and heavy in the afternoon, we decided to head right out to the field and reserve the presentation about the recent activities to later. We started south on the Inter-American highway from Penonome and after about 5 minutes turned left towards the inland communities of Juan Diaz, San Juan de Dios and El Entradero.

Our first stop on the road was at the farm of Sebastian Arauz at the small community of El Chumical. Arauz planted with SHI's help 500 coffee plants and 500 guayacan trees in June. He was initially skeptic when SHI began working in the area two years ago, but the benefits demonstrated by his neighbors convinced him to give it a try. So what's the lure of reforestation? In a nutshell, by understanding the needs of the community and families, SHI is able to provide solutions, and while at it encourage sustainability, reforestation and organic farming. In this case for example, SHI is working with Sebastian Arauz on several levels. First of all they offer him free organic seeds of the shade loving coffee plant to create a commercially viable crop. They also provide him with the seeds of the beautiful native Guayacan that will provide the shade for the coffee plantation.

(Farmer Sebastian Arrauz (left) and Diomedes Arrocha of SHI (right)

However, it does not end here. In tropical Panama there are basically only two seasons. The rainy season and the dry season. In the area of El Chumical, where Arauz's farm is located, generations of unsustainable farming, burnings and tree cuttings along the rivers dwindled the natural water resources. Watering the plants during the dry season is not a trivial task, and SHI is helping with innovative manual pump designs, and know-how. The reforestation work being done upstream in other communities will eventually help Arauz and his farm as well.

For us at Eco-Libris it will be interesting to keep on following these coffee and Guayacan trees over the years and see them grow and transform the quite dreary landscape around them.

In the next blog installation I will tell more about SHI's organic farming and reforestation work in the communities of El Entradero, where they also introduced a more sustainable woodstove design that helped reduce the community's usage of firewood for cooking significantly.

To be continued...

Green Grades 2009 - which company earned top grade for paper policy and what was Amazon's score?

One of the most interesting reports was released few days ago by ForestEthics and Dogwood Alliance. The report, entitled "Green Grades 2009" looks at and grades the paper sourcing policies of 12 office retail, general retail and wholesale/distribution companies.

Among the evaluated companies you can find FedEx Office, Office Depot, Staples, Target, Costco and Amazon.com. The report evaluates the companies environmental performance in six crucial forest-related categories: Chain of Custody, Endangered Forests, Plantations and other controversial sources, responsible Forestry/FSC certification, recycling and education and
other leadership.

The companies were rated in accordance with their performance in these categories. The best scores were given in the office retail sector - FedEx Office got A- and Office Depot got B.

FedEx Office excelled especially in the categories of responsible Forestry/FSC certification and other leadership as the report details:

"The company was also the first with a solid preference for credibly-certified paper (i.e., FSC), and has just announced that most of the paper used in its copy centers will be from FSC sources in the US. FedEx Office has also done the most to encourage its suppliers and governments to manage their forests more sustainably."

Office Depot also got kudos from the report's authors:

"Office Depot does the best job of tracking its forest sources, has the most detailed paper policy, has been the most systematic about avoiding paper from Indonesian Endangered Forest logger Asia Pulp & Paper (APP), and does the best job of tracking its use of post-consumer recycled paper."

Two issues that got the authors attention were usage of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC), or other certification labels that according to the authors greenwash Endangered Forest logging and other controversial practices (examples for SFI users: OfficeMax, Xpedx), as well as sourcing paper from International Paper, which according to the report is involved with controversial Endangered Forest logging and has a role in converting forests to sterile tree plantations (examples for customers: Costco, WalMart/Sam's Club).

I was very interested in the scores of Amazon.com, which is the most related company among the companies evaluated to the book market. Unfortunately their scores were disastrous, or in other words their score was F. Here's what the authors had to say on Amazon.com:
"Amazon.com does not have a meaningful paper policy or other key paper- and forest-related sustainability measures, but appears to have no problem with buying and selling paper from Endangered Forests and other controversial sources in the Boreal, Southern US, and Indonesia. The giant online retailer ignored our survey, so questions remain about their paper sourcing practices."

Although I'm not sure how much paper Amazon purchases I have to say these results are disappointing and far from what one can expect from Amazon.com. I was especially disappointed from the fact they totally ignored the survey - that's not the way to treat stakeholders.

In all, though we get a mixed updates - some companies are better, some are worst - the bottom line is optimistic. The authors see the half full glass.

"Companies are using their purchasing power to benefit the environment. Most of the retailers are making large shifts away from controversial sources to Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified paper. Several companies took steps to avoid using paper from endangered caribou habitat, and to encourage Canadian governments and forestry companies to better protect caribou in the Boreal Forest."

It looks like there's still a lot to be done, especially when it comes to wholesalers, distributors and retailers. Still, my hope is that this report will follow the example of Greenpeace's Guide to Greener Electronics which gave the companies evaluated in it a real incentive to better their practices. We promise to follow it closely and report as soon as the fourth report will be released.

Thanks again to ForestEthics and Dogwood Alliance for this ongoing effort and for providing us with this important information.

You can find the repot at

Raz @ Eco-Libris

Eco-Libris: promoting sustainable reading!