By investing in forests, ForestFinance is demonstrating how sustainable economies look in practice. We spoke with founder Harry Assenmacher about innovations in forestry and ForestFinance’s social responsibility.
Worldwide, there are strong clashes on the topic of forests as commodity pools. Thousands of trees are felled daily to seize the coveted raw material wood and make space for agricultural land. In areas where logging is administered, monocultures featuring “turbo” trees are usually the norm. ForestFinance follows an alternative model. For more than 20 years, the organisation has been championing ecological and sustainable forest management. Through forest investments, ForestFinance aims to develop a forest management system that benefits all stakeholders. Since the mid ‘90s, ForestFinance has been reforesting ecologically mixed forests in Panama, and for the last few years in Vietnam, Columbia and Peru, transforming the value of certified sustainable forests into economic and ecological investment products.
In our interview with Harry Assenmacher, the founder of ForestFinance, we spoke about what modern, sustainable forest management looks like; the label RootProof; and collaboration with people on the ground.
RESET: Mr. Assenmacher, you point out that a financial investment from ForestFinance is not “just” an investment in wood but in forests. What value do your forests have for the ecosystem? How do you ensure this?
HA: We make forests, that is, site-specific forests. Our product is not just wood but also forests and all the value they offer. Forests are the foundation of biodiversity, they save water and CO2 and protect soil from erosion. Forests also produce wood and other raw materials such as cocoa. Value that arises during their lifetime will not disappear with a final harvest because we selectively harvest individual trees or other forest products without destroying the system itself. That is the most important difference to monocultures, which aim to maximise yields and are not about the development of the forest. All our forest investment products rely upon sustainable forest management and the basic idea that investments with high ecological standards for all parties involved – nature and man – can be profitable and have a positive effect.
We test these effects by working closely with many international research institutions. The positive effects of our forests on biodiversity have be proven in studies conducted by the Technical University in Munich as well as the University of Panama among others. Over 20 per cent of our forests are protection forests that we have taken out of cultivation altogether.
Beyond that, we have our project areas regularly tested and validated by independent third party organisations. For this we resort to three internationally-recognised quality standards for forest projects: Forest Steward Council (FSC) Standard, UTZ Certified and Gold Standard.
What does modern, sustainable forest management by ForestFinance look like? What kind of innovative technologies do you work with?
Progressive and sustainable forest management is the focus of ForestFinance. This begins with work safety training as well as the use of protective gear and devices and stretches out to using innovative tools to efficiently harvest and handle wood. Our forest engineers work remotely with mobile data processing systems that allow for exact data collection. In our project areas, we work with digital cards and aerial recordings to monitor and document the progress of our reforestation activities. Among the techinical forestry innvovations that we’ve introduced are: digital monitoring via satellite images; permanent plots in forest monitoring; mixed forest structure in small-scale mosaic systems; reproduction of private planting material from nurseries to ensure new sources for the provision of native seedlings for the local market; a timber drying process and safeguard for the felled wood; introduction of agroforestry components in commercial plantations (cocoa, crop, cashew, etc.); conversion of monocultures to mixed cultures with higher biodiversity and stability.
We also cooperate closely with universities that are particularly active in the field of forest management (Technical University in Munich, the University of Hamburg as well as the University of Applied Sciences in Rosenheim) and organisations like GIZ.
We try to continually develop and bring ourselves up-to-date. We also often serve as forestry partners of other organisations and partners. For example: in Egypt, we are currently developing a project in cooperation with the Technical University in Munich and the local universities on the use of wastewater in the management of fallow land and desert regions.
You promise ethically-produced goods with proof of origin. How do you make this transparent?
Transparency is a central topic for us. To this end, we regularly prepare reports and inform our customers and interested parties about progress, with the help of lots of media.
And of course we don’t just know where the raw materials in our products come from, we also know the stories of the people that work in the respective project and we know the conditions under which the wood was sourced or the cocoa dried. This knowledge is something we can pass on. If a honey spoon made from Acacia wood in our TreeShop is sold, we can tell the customer exactly where the wood comes from and how the spoon was produced. We signal this via the RootProof logo and detail a product’s history on our website. With this label, we guarantee that the raw materials and product have been sustainably and ethically created.
How do you work with people who are on site? Is knowledge about improving existing plantations or their structure passed on?
We work very closely with local populations. In Las Lajas – our first forestry area in Panama – ForestFinance is one of the biggest employers. In Panama alone, we currently employ 150 people in reforestation projects – many of them are members of the local indigenous population (Ngöbe-Buglé).
But the ‘how’ of this collaboration is important to us. That’s why we support an open cooperation, not just in Germany, but in all our project countries, to build the motivation and participation of every single employee. Our employees are the basis of our success and also our products. It’s for this reason that we continuously invest in their training and education and endeavour to create a positive work environment.
To see our philosophy all the way through, we put a strong focus on sustainable development on a localised level and permanent exchange of knowledge among all countries. It’s not just about passing on information to workers in our reforestation areas, it’s also about profiting from their knowledge given they know the on-site conditions best. Other key points are the responsible search for and use of land. Only by working in close collaboration with local populations is it possible to successfully develop real forests with ecological value on a long-term basis and not just quick profit-making plantations.
We are also strongly convinced that rainforest conservation is only really effective when local populations are included from the beginning. For us this means that we are committed from the start to various activities in local schools that are framed around environmental education so that even the youngest members of the population can become familiar with the topics of nature and environmental protection. In Las Lajas, for example, we have opened a public nature trail leading through the species-rich mixed forest in one of the oldest reforestation projects.
TIMES Pieces is an ongoing editorial series on RESET.org where we speak with people who are employing TIMES principles (Telecommunications, IT, Mobile, E-Commerce, Service Provider) for social and environmental good. Read more in the series: TIMES Pieces