Drinking maqui juice and talking plantations

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Long meetings and animated discussions are usually fuelled by coffee. But at the New Generation Plantations (NGP) annual meeting in Santiago, Chile, most of us were drinking maqui juice.

Maqui berries grow wild in the forests of southern Chile. They’re so rich in antioxidants that they make other superfoods look positively ordinary. And, mixed with some ginseng and green tea, they’re a healthy and refreshing alternative to coffee.

Where am I going with this? Well, the maqui juice is produced by Arauco, one of the forestry companies that participates in NGP. Local people harvest the berries from the native forests that Arauco conserves alongside its tree plantations. That helps boost incomes in neighbouring communities and increases the economic value of the natural forest.

Local people benefit. So does the environment. So does the company.

And that’s what this meeting was all about. NGP wants plantations to be a force for positive social and environmental change, as well as an efficient way of producing the wood we need.

Monkey puzzle tree forest, Chile © Edward Parker / WWFMonkey puzzle tree forest, Chile © Edward Parker / WWF

Plantations often have a bad reputation, and in many cases, it’s fully deserved. There are still examples in Indonesia of pristine forests being cleared to make way for pulp plantations, or corporations establishing huge plantations with little consideration for or consultation with the communities living nearby.

But there is a growing number of examples of how plantations can be part of the solution. Native rainforest being restored and reconnected alongside plantations on degraded land. Fast-growing fuelwood plantations taking the pressure off natural forests. Plantation companies working alongside poor rural communities to increase food production and develop sustainable businesses.

Over the course of a week in Santiago, representatives from WWF offices, forestry companies, governments, indigenous communities, NGOs and academia from 24 countries came together to share such examples and ideas for the future.

Chile itself provided a wealth of lessons. In the past, there was mistrust and tension between the big plantation companies and civil society. Relationships with local communities were poor. The industry has also been implicated in deforestation, with swathes of the country’s unique temperate rainforests replaced by pine and eucalyptus.

Things look different today. Chile’s big three forestry companies – Arauco, CMPC and Masisa – are now all FSC-certified. As part of that process, they’ve begun restoring more than 35,000 hectares of native forest, as well as mapping out key areas for conservation.

There’s also been a transformation in the way companies engage with communities, including the indigenous Mapuche people. Companies have helped set up a range of community enterprises – berry orchards, beekeeping, handicrafts and furniture making, to name a few. Trust is growing and tensions are thawing.

That’s not to say that everything is perfect. Chile has been experiencing a long drought, and fast-growing plantations use a lot of water. Although companies have been restoring important watersheds, one Mapuche representative complained that they’re not doing enough to secure communities’ water supplies.

But the very fact that we can all sit down in the same room to discuss these issues and look for solutions is a positive sign. And I’ll raise a glass of maqui juice to that.

Read more: Plantations for People – 10 things we learned at the NGP annual meeting.

Luis Neves Silva manages the New Generation Plantations Platform.

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