Stopping deforestation in the Amazon basin is not an ideal or an ideology for Makoto Nagasawa, president of Tokyo-based food and drink company Fruta Fruta Inc. It is just good business.
The company, which has just 21 employees and annual sales of 1 billion yen ($12.58 million), is featured beside some of Japanese industry’s biggest names at the Japanese pavilion on the sidelines of the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, to be held from June 20-22.
Nagasawa says Fruta Fruta’s single-minded pursuit of the bottom line, using a method of cultivating fruits called “agroforestry,” raises a serious prospect of a lasting future for the Amazon forest that more ideological approaches often do not.
“The uniqueness of agroforestry is that it is still a highly commercial form of agriculture that produces cash crops while reclaiming forest land,” says Nagasawa, 50. “Whereas ideological eco-business, such as conventional organic farming and fair-trade, has often been proven vulnerable to market competition, agroforestry is more competitive and lasting, because it is an efficient production method.”
The Rio+20 Japan Pavilion, which will be open from June 13 and 24, will feature presentations by Nagasawa at seminars hosted by the Japanese government.
Fruta Fruta, which was founded in 2002, markets drinks and supplementary foods using tropical fruits cultivated in the Amazon. The agroforestry method, which involves growing about 70 kinds of indigenous fruits, cacao peppers and other crops in a forest-like mixed eco-system, was invented and developed by Brazilians of Japanese descent over the past 50 years.
Nagasawa, formerly an executive of his family’s confectionary company, started visiting the Amazon Basin in 1995 in search of importable tropical fruits.
But, after seeing the reality of deforestation and meeting hostility from local environmentalist groups, he began to search for a more sustainable approach. In 2000, he met a group of Japanese-Brazilians in the Tome-Acu region of the Amazon who had developed one of the world’s few successful examples of commercial agroforestry.
The pioneers were not ecologists. Instead, they had developed the sustainable method after losing pepper plantations because of a blight in the 1960s. A total of 7,000-hectares of deforested land, including abandoned plantations, have now been turned into agroforests in the region.
“When they said that was their farm, I couldn’t believe it, because it looked no more than dense forest,” Nagasawa says. “I found salvation as a businessman in this agriculture that cultivates the forest, because I had grown frustrated at merely exploiting nature.”
Nagasawa also sees links between the approach and Japanese culture.
“This innovative agroforestry was born when Japanese immigrants were pushed to breaking point by the harsh and unfamiliar environment of the Amazon,” he says. “It was fateful that a Japanese businessman found it in the hinterland of the Amazon.”
Nagasawa’s epiphany prompted him to resign from his family’s company and establish Fruta Fruta with his retirement payment in 2002. Over the next seven years, the venture company struggled to sell drinks and other products using Acai palm and other tropical fruits unfamiliar to Japanese consumers.
A drink stand in Tokyo’s Otemachi business district and a new marketing approach that emphasized the drinks’ health benefit helped it turn the corner, and, on the back of a fitness boom, the company finally began making profits from 2009.
“What kept me on the track was that my sense of mission as a businessman. If we failed, it would have brought those farmers’ efforts to naught,” he says.
A key challenge was trying to find a market for more than one fruit so that the farmers could maintain the diverse ecosystem their agroforests needed.
“I learned an important lesson. The current economy of mass production inevitably encourages monoculture for the sake of efficiency, causing deforestation and other environmental problems,” he said.
Nagasawa believes that developing the biological diversity that will be a key theme of the Rio+20 conference will require the “entire economic process of production, marketing and consumption to respect and take advantage of diversity.”
But the social dividends of such a change could be far-reaching.
Agroforestry, he says, is an alternative to large-scale plantations and has potential to help address poverty, another theme of Rio+20, by helping small-scale farmers and those struggling with relatively unfertile soil produce value-added crops.
- « Prev
- Next »