Buying for the rainforest: good idea or farce?

The promise sounds tempting: not only buying a cool T-shirt, but protecting the rainforest at the same time. Can consumers really have a clear conscience in this business of good conscience?

A police officer inspects an illegally felled tree in Jamanxim National Park in Brazil (Photo: Reuters)

A police officer inspects an illegally felled tree in Jamanxim National Park in Brazil. The Amazon rainforest is increasingly being cleared – cleared for agriculture or through illegal logging for sale. Can consumers help stop this trend?

The promise in the supermarket sounds tempting: every case of beer, every bottle of water, every pound of coffee saves the rainforest. In fact, the world’s forests are in desperate need of our protection, because every year some 130.000 km² of forest worldwide – more than the area of Austria and Switzerland combined. Can our consumerism save the earth’s green lungs?

Thomas Murray believes in it. The man in his mid-fifties is one of the fathers of the lifestyle label "Cuipo," which was founded in 2008 and takes its name from a tree in the Amazon that, at up to 60 meters high, is so massive that it’s often the only plant left standing after a forest is cleared.

Advertising poster of Cuipo showing a young, lightly dressed woman holding a skateboard (Photo: © Cuipo)

Bare skin for rainforest conservation. The lifestyle label Cuipo wants to save the forests of South America with the purchasing power of its customers

"Every purchase of a Cuipo product saves 1 m² of rainforest", he says. Murray got the idea while flying over the Amazon in a helicopter. "I noticed an area that I first thought was a huge golf course", he recalls. "But then I realized that the empty patches are the result of deforestation. And then it was clear to me that I had to do something."

A wild product mix of skateboards, wristwatches, stylish T-shirts or refillable aluminum water bottles is already available online and in select stores across the U.S. But Cuipo is not yet profitable: the businessman is currently financing the forest purchase with sponsorship money. To change this, Murray wants to expand – not for profit, as he himself emphasizes, but to protect the forests: "I have the vision that one day no one will buy a product if they don’t automatically protect the rainforest with it."

Buy up forests before they fall into the "wrong" hands

Murray’s dream of consumption for the rainforest is not new: The forests are also to be saved with beer and coffee. The coffee beans, for example, which have been approved by the environmental protection organization Rainforest Alliance, are harvested by small to medium-sized farmers on plantations close to the forest. Large-scale clearing is taboo, co-existence with local flora and fauna is a prerequisite for certification. Existing tree stands are being used as trellises and shade structures.

Photo: Coffee beans on coffee grounds (Photo: ©HLPhoto)

As a product of the forest, sustainably grown coffee can directly contribute to rainforest conservation

In fact, coffee, with a global export value of nearly $20 billion (17.8 billion euros), is the economic backbone of the very countries in Asia, Africa and South America that contain the world’s great forests.

That a change of cultivation processes benefits the forest is obvious. But how can the sale of Cuipo products such as T-shirts, pacifiers or drinking bottles made of aluminum protect the forest?

Thomas Murray’s solution: he buys up the Amazon outright, and he does it "before the other guys get to it."By this he means the palm oil plantation operators, oil drilling companies and cattle ranchers for whose business the Amazon is cleared. The land comes from private owners – who often don’t care where the dollars come from: "If we offer them more money, they’re happy – super happy!"

The ideal: protected zones as a biological fence

There’s a strategic idea behind the change in ownership: "If it’s too expensive for a company to get access to a piece of forest, so if the investment exceeds the expected profit, then those companies just move on. That’s why we only buy large, contiguous areas of land." And these, in turn, act as a kind of biological fence for forest areas behind them, which are even harder and thus less profitable to reach.

This is how ever larger forest reserves are to be created, from which the logging companies almost voluntarily keep their hands off. Murray has already protected 100 square kilometers of Brazil’s and Panama’s forests in the last six years – equivalent to 0.002 percent of the total forest area of both countries. At least a start. But measured against the average 130.000 square kilometers of rainforest cleared around the world every year, a vanishingly small area that barely matters.

Photo: People demonstrate with placards against the clearing of rainforests in Peru (Photo: 'Rettet den Regenwald e.V.')

Unsexy, but effective: The activists of the environmental organization "Save the Rainforest" rely on signature campaigns and demonstrations for forest protection

Klaus Schenck, forestry officer for the non-profit organization "Save the Rainforest e.V."He therefore prefers a different approach – he relies on political influence instead of advertising promises: "Forest protection is a state task that must be taken on by the governments, authorities and inhabitants of the rainforest countries. Not just any Western corporations, using it to burnish their image."

His strategy seems to be working – last year, according to his own statements, he was successful with legal means in Peru. There has been a halt to clearing in one project. It still applies.

Green promise: a zero-sum game in the environmental balance sheet?

Schenck welcomes the commitment of companies to environmental protection. But he also cautions, "Many of the raw materials for these companies’ products come from the rainforest." The forest expert admits that Cuipo’s refillable aluminum bottles, for example, are more environmentally friendly than the daily purchase of plastic bottles – after all, the coated aluminum lasts for many years with good care. But he also points out that bottles like Cuipo’s can destroy rainforest: "The aluminum raw material bauxite is mined in the middle of the Amazon rainforest."

According to Schenck’s organization, one square kilometer of forest is cleared every year for "Porto Trombetas" alone, one of the largest open-pit bauxite mines in the middle of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest. Murray would have to sell around one million Cuipo products – products that use valuable resources such as crude oil, cotton or, in the case of the aluminum bottles, bauxite – just to compensate for the loss of forest caused by this mine.

Photo: Aerial view of a hydroelectric dam on Brazil's Teles Pires River, feeder to the Amazon (Photo: Reuters)

A construction site from the air: in 2013, construction began on a dam on the Teles Pires River, one of the largest tributaries to the Amazon in Brazil. "Aluminum refineries devour enormous amounts of electrical energy. Huge hydroelectric power plants are being built in the rainforest rivers in Brazil to generate this energy," says Klaus Schenck (Rettet den Regenwald e.V.)

Cuipo’s aluminum bottles are indeed reusable and even fully recyclable at the end of their multi-year lifespan. But recycled aluminum can currently only meet about one-third of global demand. Even if all Cuipo bottles were recycled, bauxite would still have to be mined at great expense.

Regardless of whether Cuipo’s aluminum bottle contains bauxite from the Brazilian Amazon or not, anyone who buys the bottle cannot be one hundred percent certain that the environmental impact will not be negative in the end.

Ownership does not protect against illegal clearing

Schenck also says that buying rainforest to protect the land is not so simple: "From a Western perspective, it may seem logical: I buy a piece of forest, it then belongs to me, no one comes in to cut it down. But in many countries of the South, things are different, with unresolved ownership, little control or corruption."That is why forests are often cleared – illegally.

Proving it is often not easy, as Schenck learned during a campaign in Peru: NASA satellite imagery could be used to prove the timing and extent of deforestation. "But once the trees are down, it’s already too late."

To prevent this from happening in the first place, the "Save the Rainforest" association is relying on cooperation: "It’s important to have people on the ground who can support us. Especially those who live with and in the forest anyway have to be involved."

Murray handles criticism of the sustainability of his products or the effectiveness of his conservation efforts as calmly as he handles the hole in his budget; a black zero is not expected to appear on Cuipo’s balance sheet until 2016. Until then, investors will continue to finance rainforest protection: "We’re not perfect yet – but we’re working hard on it."

Murray wants to raise one to two million U.S. dollars to invest even more in marketing and hire new employees. Local rangers, for example, who will protect the purchased forest plots; regular aerial surveys for monitoring are also planned.

But until that happens, the promise to protect one square meter of rainforest with every Cuipo product must be accepted with healthy skepticism. Whether one actually needs the product in question or only buys it out of supposed forest protection should be well considered – for example, over a cup of sustainably produced coffee from the rainforest.

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