Corporations need nature's regenerative service

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Montana de Siete Colores, or Rainbow Mountain, in Peru. Peru's wilderness and forest areas are in danger from logging and industry. 

We heard the chainsaws first, like the buzz of a bee on amphetamines, interspersed with the crash of falling giants, then the toiling drone of bulldozers. We were approaching the edge of the Salvación-Boca Manu-Colorado road. Our Matsigenka guide, Feliciano, from Pankotsi Lodge in the nearby village of Shipetiari, led us expertly through the forest. Suddenly, we emerged onto the road clearing, precisely at the spot where a Caterpillar was digging up the roots of a recently felled tree.

The foreman at the road front was at first jovial and friendly, but when he noticed we were taking pictures, he began a speech about tourism and conservation not creating enough local jobs. He went on to say that the local district council had recently secured a large cacao project, which the road would support. I asked where he was from.

He replied he was from the Andean highlands of Puno, but that he had lived for 20 years in Madre de Dios and that he was a selvatico, a jungle man. We spoke for over an hour, and he showed us another Caterpillar that had broken down as a result of the grueling work. He was a nice guy. But in my mind the fact remained: He was helping to build a road, with illegal loggers hot on his tracks, already extracting precious woods from Manu National Park’s border, one of Peru’s last great wilderness areas.

So I decided to ask him directly: Did he not feel bad about all the forest they were felling?

His answer was also direct: "No. El bosque no me da trabajo." No. The forest doesn’t give me a job.

And that is the problem: Many people do not perceive the value of wilderness areas, even though we receive life-sustaining services from them every day. These services include natural cycles that we take for granted such as climate regulation, water purification and maintaining biodiversity.

These services are, in theory, worth trillions of dollars to the world economy (PDF). But you cannot eat theory, and so we are losing millions of hectares of forests, countless animal and plant species, and many unique ecosystems every year, especially in the emerging economies of the developing world. The need for new tools and systems to make this loss and its value tangible to people long has been acknowledged, but successful models of how to do this are still thin on the ground.

At Nature Services Peru, the first B Certified company in Peru, we are developing financial and non-financial incentives for the collective management of wilderness areas, with an initial focus on the Peruvian Amazon. Through Regenera we work to create shared value from nature’s regenerative services by providing carbon footprint-management services, and by equitably sharing our income with rural and indigenous partners.

Now, don’t misunderstand my use of the word "management." The best way to sustain a healthy nature is, sometimes, to leave it alone, to give it space and allow natural regeneration processes. But we confront a huge challenge. As in 10 billion consumers on one planet huge. In a resource-hungry world, the decision and ability to give nature the space it needs requires creative collective action, protecting nature on a massive scale, and getting our shovels out to restore nature in those areas where it already has been significantly degraded.

The global B Corp movement: The next economy

At Nature Services Peru, we know that regenerative services will form an important sector of the "next" economy. In order to do so sustainably, we need to work with allies and clients with shared values, and this is the reason I got so excited when Baltazar Caravedo, from the Centre for Leadership at Peru’s prestigious Universidad del Pacifico, spoke to me about his ideas of establishing the B Corp movement in Peru. Together with visionary environmental lawyer Jorge Caillaux and a group of founding members, Sistema B Peru was born in February 2016.

Although Sistema B Peru is still in its early stages, Ian Sznak and his team have established a vibrant organization and grown the number of Peruvian B Corps to more than a dozen in less than two years. New B Corps such as Sustainable Fishery Trade, Hoseg and Sinba are working to create a more resource efficient, fair and exciting economy in Peru.

But we do not need a dozen or even 100 companies like our own. We need thousands of locally driven B Corps focusing on regenerative agriculture, wilderness restoration, sustainable urban design, nature-based education and myriad other opportunities. Only then will we rise to the challenge of rediscovering balance between society and nature in Peru, and elsewhere.

The role of impact investing

To scale, we also will need the impact-investing industry to embrace nature regeneration. Last year, I was at the Global Landscapes Forum Investment gathering in London. I presented a paper on the role of investors in financing landscape regeneration startups. The meeting was full of great people, ideas and projects. But on the whole, it left me worried. Worried about the growing disconnect between financiers promoting $100 million landscape-management projects, and the reality of needing to make a sustainable return from natural landscapes.

I am not questioning the need for fresh investment in landscape management; millions of landholders, communities and nonprofits all over the world wish to manage landscapes sustainably, and still lack sufficient capital and know-how to do so. Nor am I questioning the growing voices for more rigorous environmental and social safeguards in palm oil, soy, cattle, timber plantations and other agricultural commodities. But we know these can make money, and are therefore investable; they are not our key challenge.

Even the most patient investors (PDF) need to be paid back. How will the inhabitants and managers of wilderness areas be able to do that? Failed projects that generate debts may lead to the liquidation of natural assets, and that clearly must be avoided. Yet concrete examples of financial return from integrated management of wilderness areas are scarce. With an estimated $100 billion of institutional investment in the agriculture and forestry sectors and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) call for a further $200 billion annually by 2030 (PDF), a goal for investing 10 percent ($20 billion annually) in wilderness management should not be utopian.

To achieve this, and to keep it simple for illustrative purposes, it means that about 100 investment funds, each deploying $200 million annually, would be needed. The finance industry is large and mature and, I believe, could spin off the required 100 investment funds relatively quickly, if the opportunity for sustainable returns were there. But the opportunity will not arise — not in the near future at least — for a simple reason: Not enough companies (let alone B Corps) are dedicated to wilderness management in which to invest. The millions of NGOs and communities around the world fighting to sustain nature cannot do that; their charters and institutional logics prevent them from generating returns for third parties.

I am not saying there hasn’t been progress. Funds such as EcoEnterprises are breaking ground by investing in companies with multiple conservation, restoration and sustainable-production objectives, including great B Corps such as Runa. Newer investors are following suit. But several funds are unfortunately spending a considerable amount of their assets in companies and landscape management projects where 90 percent of the income is derived from traditional commodities, such as cacao and coffee, which, at least in Peru, are unfortunately responsible for a large proportion of Amazon deforestation.

Sustaining nature’s regeneration services

For some, it might seem a contradiction and for others unsurprising:

Creating shared value through the collective management of nature’s regenerative services is about inspiring and sustaining people and healthy communities. It is about improving the quality of life of people in wilderness areas and providing them job opportunities in nature conservation and restoration that do not involve migration to cities, and that do not involve deforestation for agricultural commodities.

It is about helping people in urban areas realize that they can become stewards of nature by managing their environmental footprint, and that protecting natural capital is even more important than protecting our financial capital.

We need to protect and restore nature’s regenerative services. It is not optional. It is a reality that has to sink in.

Fast.

A version of this article originally appeared on B the Change.