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Recently we were in Northern Sulawesi visiting Willie Smits, an evangelist for sugar palm. I had seen his Ted talk and met him in Hong Kong on a previous visit and we wanted to see his work for ourselves.

We were keen to understand more about both sugar palm as a source of livelihoods for local populations and also his program of ecological restoration built around the trees, which are native to Sulawesi.

ADM Capital Foundation has been working with the Nantu conservation effort, also in Northern Sulawesi, and are looking at ways to help Nantu generate alternative local livelihoods. Clearly we can’t talk about forest conservation without working on the development/education piece for communities, as I have discussed in previous blogs.

Smits, a biologist/forester, has lived in Indonesia for three decades and is married to an Indonesian tribal princess who is also a local politician. Having worked previously for years for the ministry of forestry in Jakarta he has a good understanding of both Indonesia and its political/corruption challenges.

Over the past decade writing about, researching and working with sugar palm, Willie has built a unique store of data on everything about the tropical plant, as well as on deforestation, its causes and consequences.

He spends much of his time working through how to restore land for people and forest-dwelling animals alike, create livelihoods for local populations so they no longer must poach, log or otherwise log to support their families.

Understandably, Indonesia’s Forestry Ministry is focused not so much on conservation in Indonesia, but on how to support development that will sustain a rapidly growing population currently at around 230 million. This was made patently clear in a recent conversation with Jakarta MOF officials.

Understanding this, Willie Smits instead of talking about saving Orangutans from palm oil plantations, talks about community livelihoods, about Samboja Lestari, which is the restoration initiative discussed in his TED talk, about his sugar palm cooperative of 6,285 shareholders in Northern Sulawesi.

Although he now is not directly involved with Samboja, which is administered by the organization he founded but no longer leads, Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, Willie is still a board member of BOS. The principles around which Samboja was built stand regardless of its management: diversified secondary forest that includes sugar palm and at each layer provides income for communities as well as habitat for animals.

Secondary forest that produces income of course also takes the pressure off native forests.

To achieve this, Willie has developed a franchise process and system to sign up local holders of degraded land, provide the palms and training at a cost of approximately US$1000 per hectare.

The idea is that each cluster of about 150 farmers form a “Village Hub” or a cooperative that acts to build the social fabric, as a bank and to consolidate the product. The mini sugar processing plant, the core of the village hub, which is primarily solar driven, concentrates the raw sugar juice from about 20% to above 60% where it is nonreactive and easier to transport.

Each farmer has an account with the hub and this is credited with each container of juice brought in. They can then use the credit to buy goods and services in the village. This removes the use of actual money and the potential for corruption or theft.

The concentrate is delivered to a regional hub that processes the concentrate to various products, including raw sugar, rum, bio ethanol, among many others. Village Hubs are estimated to cost around 350,000 Euros.

Now to the numbers:

Willie claims to be able to plant 70 producing sugar palms per hectare in among other vegetation, with each tree producing 13 liters of sugar syrup, equivalent to 3 kilos of sugar per day. That’s roughly 36.5 tons of sugar or  19 tons of ethanol per hectare per year – according to Willie the equivalent of 82 barrels of oil per hectare per year.

Sugar palm, he says, requires little water, no chemical fertilizers or pesticides (they have their own built-in defenses), creates local jobs for tappers (trees must be tapped twice a day and this keep local people occupied and away from natural forest). They also enhance food security since sugar palms produce sago, sugar (better for you apparently than cane sugar) and fruit.

Sugar palm, Willie emphasizes, is not a crop but a forest and there are already an estimated 10 million existing sugar palms, many of these in Indonesia. Furthermore, there are tens of millions of hectares of grassland or wasteland that could be restored to include sugar palm that would provide local livelihoods, sequester carbon, while producing fuel and food. He is looking at where else in the world sugar palm might be used to generate income.

Some interesting concepts and hard to verify since most of the work around sugar palm has been done by Willie himself.

Certainly, we would be keen to be pointed in the direction of other numbers/thinking connected to community livelihoods and sugar palm.

The campaign against shark-fin soup is building in Hong Kong and perhaps this is a good moment to summarize some of the actions and challenges around educating consumers about this unsustainable dish.

Recently, Legislative Council member, Hon. Audrey Eu, requested the moribund Hong Kong government to clarify its position on serving shark-fin soup at official banquets and to release information about how often the dish was included at state functions.

She also asked the government whether or not it was educating the public about the ecological damage caused by excessive consumption of high-value shark fins, which are often hacked off the still-alive marine animals. The shark body is then discarded in a practice widely condemned for its wastage and banned in U.S. and other waters.

The predictable response from Secretary for the Environment, Edward Yau at a Legco meeting on January 12 was that because of budgetary constraints not much shark-fin soup was served at official functions but that detailed information on this was impossible to gather. “We do not think it is appropriate to lay down guidelines to regulate the kind of food to be consumed in official banquets and meals,” Yau said.

Further, Yau hid behind the traditional government line, which is that HK follows CITES, which allows the trade in all 468 shark species (Yau says there are 320), except the three listed in the CITES appendices, Great White, Basking and Whale Sharks. “At present the laws of Hong Kong regulate the trade in shark species in accordance with the CITES requirements,” he said.

CITES is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

The Hong Kong government showed once again that officials are more concerned with keeping an industry or trade body happy, in this case the Marine Products Association, than in any action against ecological damage or move toward encouraging sustainable fisheries.

Echoing this sentiment, in a recent letter to the SCMP, Robert Jenkins, identified as president of Species Management Specialists and apparently also a consultant to the Hong Kong Marine Products Association, wrote  “There are no valid reasons for Hong Kong’s Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation to condemn traditional Chinese cuisine simply to satisfy the views of persons and organisations ideologically opposed to human use of marine species for food.”

As justification for this he points again to CITES, which has 180 sovereign states as members and “for 25 years has been the premier international legal instrument identifying wild animals and plant species endangered by trade.” Even for the three listed shark species, Jenkins points out, CITES requires trade to be regulated, not stopped.

The reality is, however, that CITES is primarily a trade rather than a conservation body and as such is inherently political, motivated by issues beyond protection of species. CITES last year at its Doha meeting failed to include a severely threatened shark species, the Scalloped Hammerhead, among its appendices because member states with specific interests were  unable to reach agreement.  Even critically endangered Blue Fin Tuna is not listed by CITES.

Yet the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species, has classified 143 shark species as either critically endangered, endangered, vulnerable, or near threatened with the risk of extinction. That amounts to 30 percent of all shark species and many of the shark fins that we find in Hong Kong markets actually belong to these.

Still, action against the consumption of shark-fin soup is growing in Asia. Illustrating the reputational risk to companies ignoring the issue, shark conservation organizations were again successful in pressuring a Hong Kong bank to withdraw a shark fin soup promotion. Last summer, following similar pressure, Citibank Hong Kong withdrew a shark-fin soup promotion and asked its employees to avoid the delicacy during work events.

Working together, several marine conservation groups recently launched a campaign against Dah Sing Bank  for announcing it would offer a shark-fin soup banquet for 12 to new borrowers.

After a few days of intense adverse publicity, the bank withdrew the offer. Hopefully, other financial institutions locally will also recognize the reputational risk around promoting or even serving shark fin soup at banquets.

Just to recap the importance, shark populations worldwide are facing massive decline. Scientists estimate that the fins of tens millions of sharks are traded globally.   This is devastating to sharks, which are slow-growing, long-lived, late to reach sexual maturity and produce few young.

In other words, the human appetite for shark fin and other shark products simply cannot be sustained.  The consumption of shark-fin soup is a major factor in declining shark populations, with potentially disastrous impacts on the entire marine ecosystem.

Although shark fins are widely regarded as tasteless, shark fin soup is considered a delicacy mainly because of the high price of the fins.  People eat or serve it mostly as a measure of status and a bowl can cost as much as US$400 a bowl.

Shark fins fetch a high price , while shark meat does not. Fins sold in Hong Kong range from about 90 euros to 300 euros per kilogram while shark meat in European markets fetch 1 euro to 7 euros per kilo, according to a Jan 22 letter to the editor in the South China Morning Post written by Claire Garner, director of the Hong Kong Shark Foundation (www.hksharkfoundation.org).

That means the  wasteful practice of shark finning – the cutting off a live shark’s fins and then throwing the body back to the sea – is highly lucrative.

WWF and other conservation organizations in Hong Kong such as Bloom Association, the Hong Kong Shark Foundation, Green Sense, Greenpeace, Shark Savers and others are working in their own way to draw attention to the need to protect sharks.

WWF has managed to persuade many corporations in Hong Kong such as HSBC, the Hong Kong and China Gas Company, Hang Seng Bank, Swire Properties, University of Hong Kong, Canon Hong Kong to adopt a no-shark-fin dining policy ( http://bit.ly/dtkHA1 ).  Hong Kong Observatory, and 180 primary and secondary schools also have made a similar pledge.

So what can the average person do to promote awareness around the damage shark finning causes our marine ecology? Beyond not consuming shark fin soup yourself, please do ask your companies and trading partners about their own policies.

It is urgent we act against waste and move consumption toward sustainable fisheries before it’s too late!

Greenpeace last week released the results of its third-annual green electronics survey – a look at how leading electronics manufacturers companies are doing. All but Apple and Phillips of the 21 companies contacted agreed to be ranked on three criteria; removing toxic substances, responsible take-back of their end-of-life products and energy efficiency.

The survey was motivated by the fact that throughout a product’s lifecycle – from material extraction to production, and from consumer use to disposal – electronic products have the potential to impact human health and the environment through the release of dangerous substances and energy consumption.

China is the world center for processing IT products and that country’s environment is paying the price. Printed Circuit Board and battery power production especially create heavy metal pollution.

Part of the problem is consumer demand for cheap products that don’t reflect the true cost of production – they don’t reflect the toll on the environment, on public and worker health.

Furthermore, IT companies continue to produce goods that have obsolescence built in, which means we consume endlessly looking for the newest or better product, boosting company revenues but at huge environmental and social cost, that, again, is not reflected in the price we pay.

The Greenpeace survey found a general improvement in green features compared to the previous two surveys in 2008 and 2007, including a significant decrease in use of hazardous chemicals and almost all products met or exceeded energy efficiency standards.

But lifecycle management was still the weakest point, with very little use of recycled plastic, varying take-back practices and few marketing efforts to prevent fast obsolescence of products.

Generally, also, Greenpeace found that electronics companies were becoming more transparent in the amount and type of product information provided to customers, often listing product’s chemical make-up and performance details.

Apple and Philips, however, once again refused to disclose any information to Greenpeace. Of course this reluctance to provide information is disappointing and not limited to probing by Greenpeace.

Beijing-based IPE, led by environmental activist Ma Jun, has also over the past year focused on the IT sector for its significant contribution to environmental degradation in China.

IPE has also contacted electronics companies about environmental violations and Apple is among those refusing to address questions about noxious emissions by factories producing its products.

Writing in a Guardian blog earlier last year, Ma Jun said 34 Chinese environmental organizations, including Friends of Nature, the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, and Green Beagle, questioned heavy metal pollution produced by companies in Apple’s supply chain in a letter sent to CEO Steve Jobs. Last week Ma Jun said that the only response from Apple has been a demand for proof that the polluting factories are producing electronics for Apple.

“The links between these companies and Apple are clearly established,” Ma Jun said last week. “We are working now to provide the company with hard evidence. Their unwillingness to release information about their production processes reminds me of Nike in the 1990s,”

By contrast, in an interview with Asia Water Project last year Ma Jun praised Hewlett Packard and Samsung for duck disclosure and movement toward greener products. Indeed, HP and Samsung were among the companies singled out in the Greenpeace survey for the producing some of the greenest products.

Why single out Apple, as IPE has done? Does a company with a solid reputation for being on top of its game, for producing innovative, quality and well-designed products, have a responsibility to manufacture without excessive environmental and social cost? Shouldn’t Apple be a leader also in its production processes and not a laggard?  Should we as consumers not demand more from the companies that sell us our products?

Fortunately, consumers ARE beginning to taking note. Companies that fail to adapt are poised to suffer huge reputational and revenue losses as a consequence.  A game-changing opportunity awaits those companies that choose to meet this challenge.

 

The world’s problems are too vast for philanthropy or governments alone to solve. The US$300 billion spent by U.S. philanthropists last year is just not enough to make a significant dent, while foreign aid represents less than 1 percent of global gross domestic product.

The reality is that only by harnessing the markets, large-scale private and institutional capital, will we even begin to meet the challenges posed by massive population growth, meet our many needs, address issues around water scarcity, our depleted resources as well as our polluted air and water.

Philanthropy can help spur innovation, it can be used as risk capital, to develop models for social benefit that can then be scaled. Governments can help take that innovation to scale but they can’t do it all. Only markets have the potential to bring about real change at the scale and speed we need that to happen.

In other words, we urgently need to take social investments out of the realm of just doing good and plant them firmly in business models in order to make our world fit for our children and grandchildren.

But how does that happen?

A new report released last week by J.P. Morgan and the Rockefeller Foundation in partnership with the Global Impact Investing Network  (GIIN) attempts to advance this discussion.

The report argues that impact investments are emerging as an alternative asset class, thus allowing the sector to be considered alongside any other as part of an investment portfolio.  Impact investments in this instance are defined as investments intended to create positive impact beyond, although not to the exclusion of, a financial return.

“With increasing numbers of investors rejecting the notion that they face a binary choice between investing for maximum risk-adjusted returns or donating for social purpose, the impact investment market is now at a significant turning point as it enters the mainstream, ” the report states.

It addresses questions such as what defines and differentiates impact investments, who is involved in the market and how they allocate capital. Also considered is what makes impact investment an emerging asset class, how much return investors are expecting and receiving,  how large is the potential opportunity for investment in this market and what does risk management and social monitoring involve?

The report analyzes five sectors that serve bottom-of-the-pyramid populations (the global population earning less than US$3,000 annually): Urban affordable housing, rural access to clean water, maternal health, primary education, and microfinance.

For just these segments of the impact investing universe, the report identifies a potential profit opportunity of between $183 and $667 billion as well as  investment opportunity between $400 billion and $1 trillion over the next decade.

Many impact investments will take the form of private equity or debt investments, the report says, while other instruments can include guarantees or deposits.  Publicly listed impact investments do exist, although as a small proportion of transactions.

B-Lab differentiates Impact Investing and Socially Responsible Investing, which has been around for some time, defining SRI (estimated at $2.7 trillion in 2007) as primarily negative screening, or investment in screened public equity funds that avoid so-called ‘sin stocks’ or seek to influence corporate behavior.

The core of the II asset class is that the model of the business (which could be a fund management firm or a company) into which the investment is made should be designed with the intent to achieve positive social or environmental impact, and this should be explicitly specified in company documents.

There are a handful of investment funds established to finance businesses that address social problems, especially in the developing world. Examples of funds working in these space include Acumen Fund, Root Capital, E+Co and IGNIA, among others.

A significant challenge identified in making impact investments is sourcing transactions. Many impact investment recipients are small companies and the majority of deal sizes analyzed from our investor survey are less than US$1m.

Particularly for investors based in different regions, the costs of due diligence on these investments can often challenge the economics of making such small investments.

Another, of course, would be setting the reporting standards needed to establish just what constitutes a social or environmental return on an investment. This is something on which GIIN and B-Lab are working hard.

It’s great to see a mainstream financial institution dipping into this discussion.

Last week,  I participated in a panel discussion at INSEAD, Singapore on impact investing and many of the points above were discussed at length. In particular, we spoke of the  challenges of II in a developing world context where this is urgently needed.

 

We recently hosted a forum with the Asia Foundation on Philanthropy and Climate change.  We hoped to encourage Asian funders to draw the lines between climate change (something that seems often hard for the individual to grasp) and the more tangible and immediate air pollution, forestry degradation, water scarcity etc.

We also hoped to then get them to think beyond the environment to a wider philanthropic portfolio and to consider the impact of climate change on livelihoods, health, education – even how funders in the arts might get involved to build awareness around the need to act.

Why? We feel that given the enormity of the problem, it’s often hard for the individual funder, the family office foundation, to see how they might act in any way that is impactful.

But what we found was remarkable energy in the room. Rather than despair, we felt that participants left informed and energized by our panelists and keynote speaker, Stephen Heintz of Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which has an excellent environment and health, southern China program, managed by Shenyu Belsky.

Dr. James Hansen, one of the world’s leading climate scientists and head of the New York’s NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, provided an overview of climate science – setting the scene for discussion. Dr. Hansen, an advocate for a carbon tax, spoke of our inertia in the face of an emergency, the possible extermination of species, receding glaciers, bleaching of coral reefs, acidification of the ocean, basically that we are a planet out of balance.

Heintz also spoke about urgency, describing climate change as a “planetary threat that knows no bounds.” He emphasized the particular threat in Asia – that of 16 countries facing extreme risk, five are in in this region and they are among the most impacted, low-lying Bangladesh for example.

In all, he said, global warming could cost southeast Asia 6-7 percent of GDP. Clearly, Asia is squarely at the intersection of climate and development and he emphasized the need for new ideas and new ways of thinking, something that accurately reflects current realities and anticipates new needs.

It is easy, Heintz pointed out, to be discouraged by the science, yet philanthropy, government, civil society and the private sector all have roles to play. In reality , it is imperative that we act because, inevitably, climate change will impact every other issue that we are working on.

Global grant-making, Heintz said, has increased dramatically over the past decade yet environmental issues are way behind, receiving only 5 percent of funding. Resources targeting climate change specifically, of course, are far less.

The philanthropy sector, Heintz said, can play a crucial catalytic role, take risk, experiment, support advocacy to change public policy and trigger larger systemic change. Important will be innovative public-private partnerships, helping to develop emerging models of low-carbon prosperity. His was an excellent speech.

Our three panelists, Runa Kahn of Bangladesh’s Friendship, Dorjee Sun of Carbon Conservation and John Liu, an environmental filmmaker and journalist based in Beijing, spoke of the practicalities of working effectively within this context – and they also were inspiring.

Runa spoke about making life possible for the 4 million people living  in impossible circumstances in Bangladesh’s northern chars, John Liu on a massive ecological restoration project in China and showed the results, Dorjee on carbon, community and market solutions for saving forests.

The entire session was expertly moderated by the Asia Business Council’s Mark Clifford who managed to draw together the discussion, keeping an often amorphous and difficult topic moving toward practical solutions and away from fear.

The forum was a private side event to the C40 Climate change conference early this month organized by the Civic Exchange and supported by the Hong Kong government and Jockey Club Charities Trust.

It would be great to hear about other experiences linking climate change with a wider philanthropic portfolio, about nudging funders into action in this arena.

With air pollution at critical levels, the Hong Kong government fails to act to protect public health. After years of study, public consultation and dithering over what to do, there still is no action to revise air quality objectives, last rewritten in 1987.

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Mountains of garbage in Mumbai

Mountains of waste

 

We hear about climate change all the time now, we know it’s bad, we understand much of the science behind the phenomenon. But what can we do? No really, what CAN we do? How does this broad concept connect with our daily lives? 

We turn off and unplug appliances, we try to take public transport where possible, we use fewer resources, turn down the air conditioning in summer and heat in winter, we buy less bottled water. 

But often we don’t stop to think about the rest of our lives. We still want to eat strawberries in winter, meat flown in from the U.S. We (or our children) still buy clothes where often quantity and price reigns over quality. 

We look for lower prices (because we’re hooked on cheaper is better) and then don’t have to think so hard about whether or not that particular cheap item that clearly is not taking into account the environmental or social cost of  production is actually needed.  

We change our cars regularly, buy the latest Apple gadget (must have the ipad, the latest computer to stay in touch) and think nothing of chucking an iphone, ipod that has lasted only a year. 

What happened to the time in the not so distant past when we romanced a dress for a long time and just one purchase was ok, when we could buy fresh local produce and meat in season, when one car lasted a decade or more, when we didn’t need gadget upon gadget to be happy?    

So back to climate change: All of that consumption, flying goods around, needs energy. Production and energy (produced largely by coal in China) at least at the moment lead to air pollution and climate change. Sometimes we forget the connections. 

 In Hong Kong this week Clean Air Network has been good to remind us  with its tongue-in-cheek Fresh Air video what we face if we don’t change our bad habits:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lmH3xCpOSW8

In Hong Kong we rightly complain about the state of the air we are forced to breathe and the government’s apparent lack of interest in addressing the pollution challenges – despite  HK$ half-trillion in fiscal reserves this year.

The moribund HK government seems incapable of taking action to protect its citizen’s health despite having the financial resources to do so. Clean Air Network is working hard and successfully to educate the public and stir the government to act, providing the tools and support to do so – hand-holding of sorts.

But perhaps part of the challenge is that in Beijing, from where I am working for three weeks, Hong Kong’s pollution pales by comparison – not that this city should set any standard!

Here, my eyes are a constant rimmed-red, a smog headache challenges concentration and my sinuses are in revolt. Here, the clouds are but a memory and weather is either cold or hot but never sunny, it seems, but there is only a steady grey. The near distance fades into a smog that anywhere else would be unbelievable.

This is the price of China’s progress, and, to be fair, of pulling an estimated 600 million people out of poverty over the past two decades by fulfilling our Western need to consume ever-more products. According to the ADB, over the past 20 years, China’s poverty rate fell from 85% to 15.9% – a huge challenge for any government and unmatched anywhere, anytime.

Still, what we hear more about in the West is the fantastic progress machine that is China, the well-oiled production centre for the world’s consumers.

The flip side of that for China’s citizens is the polluted rivers, the smog-filled air, the cancer villages in evidence countrywide, the drained aquifers, the contaminated land. All of these will be the Beijing government’s newest challenges if it is to keep its population healthy and maintain social stability, which is the utmost goal.

Highly polluted areas near factories have shown increasing cases of cancer.  Southern China is replete with communities that recycle electronic waste and here people are exposed to toxic heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury.  The country’s myriad chemical factories produce carcinogens that enter the water and soil, also contaminating food grown on the land.

According to a recent Guardian article, in 2007, cancer was responsible for one in five deaths, and Chinese farmers are more likely to die of liver and stomach cancer than the world average.

Water supplies are polluted and aquifers significantly drained, something leading environmental activist Ma Jun warned about ten year’s ago in his book, China’s Water Crisis, which considered the local equivalent of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

The Qinghai-Tibet plateau area suffers from environmental degradation that is threatening three major rivers: the Yangtze, Yellow and Mekong. Melting permafrost and glaciers in the surrounding mountains are also eroding the grasslands and wetlands, causing the ground to lose its capacity to absorb water, according to AFP.

Xin Yuanhong, a government scientist quoted by the news agency says that at the current rate, 30 percent of the region’s glaciers could disappear within 10 years.

Climate change is also affecting the 580 million people living in these river basins.  This crisis also affects food security; drought and drying up water sources are severely lowering crop yields in the area.

By all accounts, the government increasingly understands the severity of the challenge. Careful Chinese environmentalists are being allowed to speak out. Indeed, many seem to be encouraged by the government to highlight bad practice by companies breaking local laws by emitting pollutants into the water, air and ground. Information disclosure has taken leaps forward in recent months.

Ma Jun and his Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs over the past several years have divulged information in online databases of air and water violations by factories throughout China. He has created a groundbreaking “blacklist” of polluters. At last count, IPE databases listed more than 60,000 air and water violations.

To be removed from the list, companies must take corrective action and accept IPE-supervised environmental audits of their Chinese factories. Ma is also a champion of increasing access to environmental information, which he believes will bring public pressure on companies to operate more responsibly.

In Yunan Province, Yu Xiaogang, another courageous environmentalist I met with recently, is also using information disclosure, to gain bank data. He and his group, Green Watershed, along with a network of nine other NGOs, are compiling information on loans granted to development projects that are damaging to local populations.

The group recently published the environmental record of 14 Chinese banks, looking at their policies, regulations, investments and loan portfolios, noting which were connected with environmentally damaging projects.

Yu is also working with communities to help them open channels with local financial institutions to discuss social and environmental impact ahead of any loan being granted to a large development initiative.

That Beijing seems to be backing the sort of discussion underway in China is certainly encouraging. It seems Hong Kong should be setting standards in the environmental arena not lagging behind its severely challenged neighbour.

French sailor Yves Marre first viewed Bangladesh’s myriad waterways from a plane and the adventurer decided the intriguing country below would be the location for his next exploration.

Yves perhaps would not have guessed that his adventure would consume him or that 25 years later he would be still living in Dhaka, married to a Bangladeshi Runa Khan and desperately struggling against time and lack of resources to document the country’s dying wooden boat building tradition.

What in 1994 then began as a development project involving transporting a 38-meter river barge from France to Bangladesh for use as a hospital boat in the remote northern chars, gave birth to Friendship, an excellent social enterprise I wrote about in my previous blog post. What I didn’t talk about was Friendship’s commitment to Bangladesh’s fascinating boat culture.

Last month, Friendship opened an exhibition of Bangladesh’s remarkable wooden boats at Dhaka’s National Museum as part of its cultural preservation programme. It is extraordinary that in a country so dependent on waterways, considered the world’s most susceptible to climate change, where boats are integral to trade and transport, that the art of boat building is dying quickly and with little fanfare.

Bangladesh has one of the oldest traditions in terms of naval carpentry, and it also has the largest fleets in the world. Here you will find the largest variety of boats

anywhere in the world, Marre says. It is all this that is being lost without adequate documentation or preservation of the country’s naval history, he says.

For many centuries, wooden boats with large earth-colored sails have plied Bangladesh’s hundreds of rivers and tributaries and they have become interwoven with the country’s culture. Yet over the past few decades, these beautiful vessels, many unique to particular regions of Bangladesh, have slowly been replaced by diesel-powered steel vessels, which are less expensive and more practical in terms of maintenance and navigation.

Yves and Runa have taken it upon themselves to draw attention to the disappearance and at the same time document and preserve the techniques and knowledge.

At his boatyard in Dhaka, Yves has built the more than 50 models on display at the museum in Dhaka of traditional Bangladeshi vessels. Building these, have been master craftsmen using only traditional techniques that are often unique to the country.

Here, Yves also has built or restored several full-size wooden boats, among them a beautiful 30-meter Malar vessel, one of the country’s largest hulls and now used to carry tourists along Bangladesh’s waterways. Some profits from the Friendship tourism company, Contic, built around the wooden boats, goes to support the social enterprise’s work.

Looking forward, Runa and Yves hope to establish a living museum that would preserve all types of traditional Bangladeshi boats in Dhaka and allow people to experience the craftsmanship involved.  To achieve this, they are searching for funding. Any suggestions of similar efforts elsewhere or possible sources of funding?

Choosing how to give philanthropic dollars is usually a personal, often private, and hopefully rewarding enterprise many people like to keep close to home.

Those who spend much of their lives juggling returns on their financial investments and building wealth, often prefer to let other factors determine how to give to charity; emotion, for example, and perhaps friendship since frequently giving is something done in the comfort of circles or with friends.

The ever-bigger M'Lop Tapang centre for street children in Sihanoukville, Cambodia

But what is the significance of the donor community? Giving USA reports that every year, 40 million individual donors in the U.S. contribute $250 billion which represents more than 75% of total giving. That is a significant wad of cash that could be put to good use cleaning our environment and making our world a better place for marginalized communities. And that’s just in the U.S.

Obviously, there is no right approach to philanthropy and no absolute way to judge how effective a donation has been, despite that over the past two decades a whole industry has grown up around measuring social impact. But I think that once again we know more about what we don’t know rather than what we do.

Why do we need to think about how we give anyway? Isn’t that the point of giving – not to expect any return? I would say yes, true on one level, but not really. Why? Much has been written recently about the pitfalls of aid more generally. Two of the more vocal critics are New York University’s Bill Easterly and Dambisa Moyo whose book Dead Aid caused wide controversy.

The trouble is, without a concerted strategy or effective tools to guide us, many individual donors, grant-making bodies and foundations alike fall into the trap of providing aid that in the longer-term CAN be more damaging than helpful, despite our best intentions.

Because of issues around governance, particularly in a region like Asia where corruption is rampant, donors bypass governments, choosing instead to invest in a network of NGOs, which keeps these same NGOs flush with cash and lots of people employed.

If the NGO isn’t particularly thoughtful and doesn’t engage local government, this giving strategy also deprives the state of any stake in change and almost relieves them from the responsibility of improving the lives of marginalized citizens without a voice.

Another issue is that donors frequently prefer to contribute to contained NGO projects rather than to strengthening the organization simply because programmatic support fits with a particular donor funding agenda.

Although building new programs or expanding existing ones is important in terms of an NGO widening its impact, these often come at the expense of organizational support. It’s hard to see how an NGO can create a program, monitor it and measure its impact without sufficient organizational resources to do so.

Occasionally, or more than occasionally, an NGO has bent its needs to receive the targeted funding so there is little incentive or lack of adequate skills to really build.

And often that programmatic support is short term, given in periods of two to three years, after which the project is expected to be magically self-sustaining. Usually that is unrealistic and once funds are gone so is the program, leading to a real waste of resources.

So how do we make sure, as donors, that we are working as effectively as we can be with our own resources and not operating counterproductively, particularly in the developing world where issues are deep and broad?

This brings us right back to much talked about measuring impact. An excellent Wall Street Journal Article on Friday, Measuring the Bang of Every Donated Buck by Alice Hohler is a good discussion of the issues around this topic. http://bit.ly/d3Afil.

She points out that while many companies and NGOs have developed formulas for measuring the effectiveness of a donation, there still is no real magic box. She points to the tricky question of the unique qualities of nonprofits that are each fulfilling a social need in their own way.

There is little standardization in this field and little reason why one set of measures would fit all. Naturally, each organization then requires its own evaluation to assess its effectiveness and that is prohibitively expensive. It certainly isn’t scalable, which is another obsession among the donor community.

At the same time, any analysis of impact on the part of an NGO is only as good as the information gathered and few organizations have the resources, skill set or manpower to gather relevant data and then assess the real benefit.

An organization that  works to get children back into school will have a much easier time determining impact than for example a conservation group that works with communities to educate them about biodiversity and the value of preserving their forests.

But even in the first instance, we see there are many, many ways to count!

And then, how to compare organizations working in different spaces to determine which would use additional resources more effectively, providing the greatest benefit to a particular community?

We find that the best way around this question is to work in a holistic way with organizations, to help them set their own measurements with their particular children, to constantly work with them on developing initiatives and monitoring their effectiveness.

In that way, we can help them refine impact, reach more children or work more effectively in a particular conservation space. We shy away from the obvious numbers that are so often meaningless, preferring instead to let the work tell the story.

Any thoughts on interesting innovation in impact measurement seen working well?

Asia Water Project: China

Lisa Genasci —  February 25, 2010 — 1 Comment

The ADM Capital Foundation and Civic Exchange today launched in beta the Asia Water Project: China and AWP’s first piece of commissioned research, Water in China: Issues for Responsible Investors, authored by the independent research company Responsible Research, which is Singapore based.

Feels great to get the water portal birthed and visible, even if it’s only in testing phase ahead of the official launch on March 18 in Hong Kong. That will happen with IPE’s Ma Jun, who was the inspiration behind the water portal. It was a desire to translate Ma Jun’s data from the IPE website that names and shames water and air polluters in China, (see Jan. blog) that first inspired ADMCF to create AWP. Ma Jun, who wrote the first major book on China’s water crisis in 2000, uses only government emissions and penalties data on his site and in that way has been allowed to work relatively unimpeded in China.

ADMCF saw there was space to fill a lacuna in information relating to China’s water supply, management and pollution and at the same time better inform investors. We see there are both risks and opportunities in China’s growing crisis. Informed investors can help shape how companies respond to water challenges. Ina Pozon, who has built and manages AWP and ADMCF environment director, Sophie Le Clue,  have worked tirelessly in recent weeks with freelance writer, Pua Mench, to get the site in shape. Still work to do but today we are a big step closer!

Bloomberg sponsored today’s event, which featured Christine Loh of the CE, Lucy Carmody of RR and Guo Peiyuan of Beijing’s SynTao, an AWP partner and participant in the RR water research.

The research, found here: http://www.asiawaterproject.org, showed that China may be looking at trade-offs between access to clean water and economic growth. At the national level, China’s water shortages are thought responsible for direct economic losses of US$35 billion every year.  This is 2.5 times the average annual losses due to floods.

The report points out that sectors where China dominates globally, such as in steel, textile, paper and forest products, are heavily water intensive. Fluctuations in quantity and quality of water supply in these industries carry significant potential risks to earnings.

The new report draws on case studies from ten industries that have the most impact on water in China including agriculture, forest products, textiles and beverages. As water becomes increasingly material to investors in China, they will need to be more pro-active in looking at how listed companies are addressing supply issues.

While there is some understanding of water-related risks to companies and investors, “a key barrier is the lack of reliable, comprehensive information on water issues in China,” according to Ina. “The Asia Water Project has a unique role to play in fast-tracking this trend, through its commissioned research and its new web-based information portal.”

Earlier this month, the Chinese government released the findings of a pollution survey that show water pollution levels in 2007 were more than twice the official estimate, in part because previous reporting had failed to take agricultural contamination of water supplies into account.

Christine Loh reads this as good news that the Chinese government has done its homework and now understands that “the problem is as big as it is urgent.” She anticipates that “there will be more dialogue and debate in China this year” as government plans require reductions in wastewater pollution that are not easy.

The new investor report  also highlights some shocking statistics: 70 percent of China’s rivers and lakes are “significantly” contaminated, 50 percent of the country’s cities have polluted groundwater and over 30 percent of China is affected by acid rain.

Most of us agree that deforestation on the scale we have seen in recent decades is undesirable and unsustainable.

Our tropical forests are in dramatic decline, pumping tons of carbon into our atmosphere and causing changes in temperature and rainfall worldwide with potentially devastating consequences for our planet.

The problem remains, how to tackle this critical problem in developing regions, where corruption is endemic, how to pay the enormous costs of protecting forests and engaging the local communities that depend on them for their livelihoods.

Reversing global deforestation will require industrialized countries to invest billions annually in forest protection. It is worth remembering, however, that last year U.S. government put aside $700 billion for banks, insurers and automakers during the financial crisis as part of the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

By now, we know the story: Rainforests soak up huge amounts of planet-warming carbon dioxide. Deforestation releases retained CO2 released into the atmosphere.  Forest destruction contributes about 20 percent of mankind’s greenhouse gas emissions annually, according to the U.N. climate panel. Indeed, tropical deforestation is more damaging to our planet than the transport sector or factories, with one day of logging equivalent to the carbon footprint of eight million people flying to New York.

And why do we care? Our rainforests form a vital cooling band around the earth’s equator, generating a large part of our rainfall and acting as a thermostat.  We perhaps also aren’t aware that 50 per cent of life on earth exists in these humid forests, which cover less than 7 per cent of the planet’s surface. We are far from understanding the real consequences of losing the biodiversity we seem to take for granted.

Yet our governments, and indeed most of us, continue to act as though our tropical forests are expendable, that there is no impending climate crisis, biodiversity is a given, perhaps unimportant, and anticipate little, if any alteration in our lives of consumption and energy use.

Clearly, December’s global climate powwow in Copenhagen was the best reflection of this, with no real sense of urgency conveyed by governments gathered there.  Country delegations arrived by private jet, were ferried around town in gas-guzzling limos – not exactly the right tone for a crisis meeting on climate.

There had been hope to gain a legally binding international treaty committing nations to mandatory cuts in greenhouse gases but none was forthcoming, lost once more in the all too familiar regional bickering. And chances are slim of any agreement from the next round of U.N. climate talks in Cancun, Mexico, particularly following the resignation last week of Yvo de Boer, who has led the process for four years.

The pledges that de Boer did manage to eke out of Copenhagen will merely stabilize emissions by 2020. By most accounts, we need to achieve reductions  of at least 50 percent by midcentury – something that can’t be achieved without big cuts from the major emitters, which are the U.S., China, India and Brazil.

Part of the problem lies in ascertaining, at the international level, who should pay to conserve our forests. Developing nations want the right to develop unimpeded, while the United States wants to see significant emissions cuts from China and India that would be on par with its own and doesn’t want to be held accountable for cost.   Fundamentally, the U.S. has no effective national strategy of its own and thus is really not in a position to take the lead.

The assumption is that at some point, nations will get it together to achieve meaningful emissions reduction and carbon will become a real part of the solution. In the meantime, regional initiatives such as the U.S. Climate Change legislation currently stalled in the U.S. senate are evolving and could bring some movement in the carbon picture, generating resources for forestry conservation.

But will this be too little too late for our forests and what is the solution for them while we wait?

The bottom line is that in an attempt to protect what is left of our precious stores of tropical timber and the estimated 1.6 billion people who live amongst them, environmental groups have poured tens of millions of dollars into conservation over the last two decades without any real gains.

Global Witness co-founder Patrick Alley, said in a worth-quoting speech last year :

Virtually every intervention by the international donor community into the forests sector over the past few decades costing hundreds of millions of dollars has essentially been to patch up the holes in enforcement to stop the haemorrhaging of illegal timber and corruptly looted revenues. And these interventions have ranged from certification, chain of custody systems, governance, capacity building, law enforcement and there has been precious little success in that litany. And on top of this, we have the increasing threats of conversion to plantations and agricultural encroachment http://bit.ly/fiCvz

The U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization says about 13 million hectares, or an area the size of England, are still destroyed annually. In all, half the world’s tropical and temperate forests are now gone.

Author and environmental advocate, Gus Speth, ( http://bit.ly/bSBjOR) pointed out in a recent speech that species are disappearing at rates about 1,000 times faster than normal in a spasm of extinction not seen in 65 million years, since the dinosaurs disappeared.

Changes in our rainfall patterns have meant that over half the agricultural land in drier regions suffers from some degree of deterioration and desertification.

A key concern, if we are to reverse this trend, is either how to pay for conservation or, alternatively, how to make conservation pay; at a national level, how to justify the loss of revenue for developing countries that need the income.

The sad reality is that logging in the tropics generates enormous profit, but not for local communities and mostly not for governments in the form of taxes. Instead, much of the profit finds its way into corporate coffers and the offshore accounts of connected local individuals through corruption and illegal practices. The profit pressures on forests are huge from these interests. Biodiesel and palm oil have now also entered the equation, adding to the strains.

One initiative that tries to address the question of  how to generate profit for conservation and formalized at the Copenhagen talks was a U.N.-backed forest protection scheme called Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation or REDD.

This would include forests in the global carbon markets,  allowing polluters to earn tradable carbon credits by paying developing nations billions not to chop down their trees.  Local communities are supposed to earn a share of REDD credit sales to pay for better health, education and alternative livelihoods that persuade them to protect rather than cut down their forests.

But the revenue-sharing arrangements will differ for each country. Some NGOs worry that once again little support will filter down to the communities, with central and provincial governments demanding control of the money.

Another problem is that carbon measurement and accounting as part of any REDD design is complex and time-consuming, requiring laws to be enacted, officials to be trained and investors to be assured that the scheme won’t be undermined by corruption.

And finally, ensuring the forests aren’t simply cut down later, or that deforestation is displaced to another region or country, is another concern. REDD’s final technical design will have to address these issues.

Still, the well-regarded Eliasch Review (http://bit.ly/d99kM3) suggests that including REDD in a well-designed carbon trading system could provide the finance and incentives to reduce deforestation rates by up to 75 per cent in 2030

Still, in Indonesia, where the REDD discussion is quite advanced, there have been warnings that billions of dollars clearly are at risk from graft unless the country puts strong oversight mechanisms in place, according to a recent report released by CIFOR. (http://bit.ly/cfld28)

“Investors should be looking very carefully at the financial governance conditions in the countries where they will be investing their funds. Like Indonesia, many tropical forest countries have long track records of mismanaging public financial resources, particularly in the forestry sector,” said the report’s co-author, Christopher Barr.

Indonesia, which is one country in which ADMCF works on forestry issues, is the world’s third-largest area of tropical forest and the world’s third-largest emitter of carbon after the United States and China because of the massive destruction there of rainforest and peatlands.

Last year, Indonesia set up a legal framework for REDD. Several pilot projects are under way and the governments of Norway, Australia, Germany and the U.S. have promised millions of dollars in funding.

What we have seen everywhere forests are protected however, are the sad unintended consequences of the scramble for carbon: environmental groups that have been conserving forests are backing away from protecting them, fearing that as protected forest they won’t qualify under the REDD additionality clause.

It is uncertain whether already protected forests would qualify for REDD credits. This means that while we wait for REDD, for any sort of global or regional framework that will push forward the mechanisms that will allow large-scale protection, our forests are potentially more vulnerable than ever.

Fins at sea

I thought that since we were in the midst of Chinese New Year this might be the time to write about shark fin soup and its growing consumption in Asia. Perhaps not understood by many, is that this has dramatic consequences for our oceans, which are already depleted by overfishing.

Over the Lunar New Year, consumption explodes of the pretty tasteless soup, which is made by simmering the fins for up to eight hours with mushrooms, fine dried ham, other seafood in a base of clear chicken stock or water.

Traditionally served at Chinese weddings and other special-occasion banquets, shark fin has surged in popularity as China has become more prosperous, with more than 800,000 metric tons of fin consumed every year. That’s triple the quantity of 50 years ago.

Chinese believe that shark fin soup, which can cost as much as US$200 a bowl, promotes health and prosperity, reflecting the status of the hosts. And whereas in years gone by, families would gather to prepare a simple meal together, for an increasingly affluent population the Lunar New Year has become a time to splurge on expensive and not necessarily tasty gourmet cuisine at restaurants and hotels.

Turtles, abalone, shark fin and birds nest are top of the list of foods families feel compelled to order for their exotic qualities and expense, rather than necessarily for their taste.

The sad reality is, however, that 20 percent of shark species are now threatened, with  an estimated 200,000 killed daily – millions every month – many for their fins alone. Some sharks, like the hammerhead and the great white, have been reduced by upwards of 70 percent in the last 15 years, while others, like the silky white tip, have disappeared from some oceans entirely.

Part of the problem, is the shocking practice of finning, which has been banned by upwards of 60 countries since 2004. Since sharks are large creatures and the meat itself is not particularly valuable, to save space on their boats, fishermen often slice the fins off the live shark on the high seas, tossing the body back into the ocean, where the shark in effect drowns.

This practice is fueled by huge demand. A “set” of dorsal and pectoral fins can fetch as much as $100 for fishermen, and then $700 a kilogram in Hong Kong’s dried seafood stores, the hub of the world’s trade.

Beyond the huge waste in a world where many are hungry and the  cruelty of finning lies the reality that these wonderful and important creatures are disappearing from our oceans yet we can’t live without them.

Sharks and their direct predecessors have been swimming in the world’s oceans for well over 300 million years – long before dinosaurs walked the Earth. The fact that sharks have survived for so long without changing very much is a real tribute to the effectiveness of their anatomy.

According to the Oceanic Research Group, recent studies have shown that sharks are quite sophisticated. Most sharks have an incredible sense of smell. These sharks can detect one drop of blood dissolved in as much as one million gallons of water. Many sharks can detect the extremely minute electrical currents generated by the muscles of swimming fish. Some sharks can sense at a great distance the tiny pressure variations generated by an injured fish struggling to swim. Contrary to popular opinion, most sharks have excellent low light vision, thanks to a mirror located behind the retina. This mirror reflects light through the retina a second time. A shark may have many rows of teeth. When an old tooth breaks or becomes too dull, a new one rotates into place. Are these the marks of an unsophisticated creature?

Perhaps also not well known, is that sharks come in incredible varieties. The largest fish in the ocean is, in fact, the whale shark, reaching about 60 feet in length. The smallest known shark is only a few inches long when fully grown. While many sharks do have conspicuous teeth, many of these animals eat only small invertebrates. Other sharks have no teeth at all, feeding by straining plankton from the water much like the balleen whales do.

Often we hear that sharks are dangerous creatures, perhaps fueled by the film Jaws.  The fact is, you are much more likely to be hit by a car or even struck by lightning than you are to be attacked by a shark and there are on average only about four fatal shark attacks a year. In reality, sharks are no more dangerous to people than any other large predators like tigers or lions. Why do we label sharks killers, while we consider lions majestic, magnificent?

And perhaps most importantly, sharks are essential to the ocean ecosystem. Like most top predators, sharks feed on the sick and weak, thereby keeping the schools of fish healthy. Lions and tigers serve the same role in their ecosystems, removing the weaker animals from the herds, and keeping the gene pool strong.

In areas where sharks are significantly depleted, fishermen report serious declines in shellfish populations as other fish species feed on them undeterred.

Despite the threats sharks face, there is not enough action worldwide to protect these majestic creatures. Only three species of shark –  great white, basking and whale – are currently listed under Appendix II under the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), meaning that trade in their parts is regulated.

Other species – including hammerheads, oceanic whitetip, dusky and sandbar sharks – desperately need the same protection. The U.S. is currently considering submitting proposals to add additional species to the list of sharks protected by CITES.

Among other action to conserve sharks, in Europe, the Shark Alliance – a coalition of NGOs – is working with governments there on regulation. In Hong Kong, Bloom Association (http://bit.ly/cFs4OQ) and WWF are working together to generate market, trade and cultural research that will inform a campaign targeting hotels, restaurants and consumers.

Joint and swift action is needed to protect sharks!