Biodiversity and business needn’t be mutually exclusive

Oleh Jaz Low

Sustainable trade in biodiversity products can help to protect Southeast Asia’s natural habitat, build community enterprises and satisfy commercial imperatives all at once. A project in Laos and another in Myanmar point a way forward.

From lush tropical forests and kaleidoscopic coral reefs to swamps and muddy mangroves, Southeast Asia is a renowned biodiversity hotspot. However, rapid economic growth, urbanisation and overexploitation of natural resources have laid siege to that ecological bounty.

Up to 42 per cent of the region’s species could be lost by the turn of the century, according to a report by Singapore state holding company Temasek, economics consultancy AlphaBeta and the World Economic Forum. As if that weren’t a sufficient wake-up call, around 140 million people depend on forests for their livelihoods, making biodiversity losses highly correlated with job losses, according to environmental law charity ClientEarth.

Swiss NGO Helvetas is hoping to offer some reprieve through its Biotrade project, which promotes the sustainable collection, production and commercialisation of biodiversity-based goods and services.

Helvetas says the project provides opportunities for countries such as Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, in particular, to tap high-end markets while safeguarding the future of our planet. It encourages the harvesting of local plant species to obtain natural ingredients with high monetary value and export potential, such as medicinal herbs turmeric and ginger, vegetable roots such as agarwood, and plants that are used as natural cosmetics like thanakha, a paste commonly applied to the face in Myanmar.

Thorny problem in Laos

Demand for the prickly ash tree, which grows in Laos and other parts of Southeast Asia, has grown as it has become a desirable ingredient in the European fragrance industry, creating an agricultural sustainability problem.

Laotian farmers typically grow prickly ash using rotational farming, in which land is cleared for cultivation and then left to regenerate for a few years. But Laos’ growing population and government policies have reduced the availability of habitable land, resulting in shorter agriculture cycles and declining soil fertility that prevents prickly ash from developing fully. The reduced yields have put farmers under pressure to seek alternative farming methods, and Helvetas thinks it has an answer.

Helvetas has advocated for forest areas dedicated primarily to growing prickly ash over an undisrupted period of about 15 years. “The prickly ash gardens are only established in areas designated as productive forests, which leave less of an environmental footprint as they concentrate harvesting activity in small areas,” says Jos van der Zanden, Regional Manager of the Biotrade Project.

To help exporters maximise sales, Helvetas recommends that farmers sell prickly ash only during the harvesting season, in September and October, allowing the plants to reach full maturity and fetch higher prices.

Helvetas hopes to set up local quality-testing facilities to eliminate the risk of bad batches. This would allow buyers to ensure that the plants meet their quality standards before they are shipped to Europe.

“Improving quality assurance will not only help prevent defects but also garner customer loyalty  and return business further drives farmers’ incomes,” van der Zanden says.

Myanmar date project bears fruit

Helvetas has also been working with Salay Shae Saung, a small business in Myanmar that sells jujube health supplements, to conserve biodiversity.

Its efforts are focused on exploring a range of commercial uses for the jujube tree – a tree that produces fruit also known as Chinese dates – increasing the value of its products. The aim is to discourage farmers from allocating land used for jujube farming to other uses, preserving the land rather than allowing it to become degraded by deforestation or clearcutting.

Before Helvetas appeared, Salay Shae Saung produced only jujube syrup, but now, it also sells seeds to traders after the juice extraction process, earning a small additional profit.

After traders have extracted biologically valuable components from the seed, Salay Shae Saung buys back the broken seed shells to use as a form of biofuel that’s much cleaner for the environment than fossil fuels to power jujube processing.

Jujube is socioeconomically important, as women play a major role in its production and marketing. “If jujube is no longer profitable, many farmers will pivot to other crops and many women will lose their jobs,” van der Zanden says. He explains that Helvetas is preventing this workforce attrition by making sure the sector continues to thrive.
Most people working in jujube plantations, factories and retail shops are women. Image: Zaw Min Oo/Helvetas

Shared gains

In addition to promoting sustainability, the Biotrade project aims to achieve equitable benefit-sharing among those involved in its initiatives, so that business operations, policies and practices respect the rights of all those in the supply chain and recognise their contributions.

The thinking is that if importers share the financial benefits of their business activities with people and communities in biologically diverse countries, those people will be incentivised to use their resources sustainably. For example, companies such as Salay Shae Saung can ensure that fair prices are paid to farmers who collect and gather natural ingredients.

Helvetas also recommends that all those involved in creating biodiversity products have a say when it comes to cost increases and price fluctuations. “Companies can establish price negotiation protocols to equip everyone with bargaining skills,” van der Zanden says.

He adds that before companies engage in new cultivation methods, they should consult with and gain consent from producers and agree appropriate rates of remuneration with them.

As consumer and industrial demand continues to erode the diversity of Southeast Asia’s flora and fauna, local success stories such as those fostered by NGOs like Helvetas and local communities in Laos and Myanmar are a humbling reminder that preserving the biodiversity underpinning the regional ecosystem’s integrity and underwriting people’s livelihoods often begins with small steps. As British economist and “intermediate technology” champion Ernst Schumacher said in the title of his renowned book on sustainability-centred development, small is beautiful.