Charles da Silva Virgens, a small-scale farmer from Bahia in Brazil, takes us out to his thriving eucalyptus plantation near the town of Guaratinga. "At first I had doubts about possible problems such as the water consumption of plantations, but after studying the issues I learned how well suited eucalyptus is to our region," he says. Alongside his 16-hectare eucalyptus plantation Virgens cultivates coffee over an area of 12 hectares and grows pepper on 2 hectares. His 40-hectare property also includes a nature reserve, as required by Brazilian law.
Virgens is one of the 104 forestry partners of the Veracel Pulp Mill, a joint venture between us and the Brazilian company Fibria. Such partnerships link farmers to an international value chain of paper and board production. The mill processes the farmers' eucalyptus logs into short-fibre pulp destined for export. Our share of Veracel's production is mainly shipped to the company's fine paper mills in Europe and China.
In hot and humid southern Bahia, eucalyptus farming is 3-4 times more profitable per hectare than cattle ranching, which remains the region's dominant land use. Almost all of the local eucalyptus plantations grow in areas that were formerly degraded pasturelands.
"I come from a family of small-scale farmers here in Guaratinga. This is where I grew up," Virgens says as we look at a group of palm trees from which he harvests coconuts and heart-of- palm for his family's own use. "I want to stay here in the countryside, and farming eucalyptus has made this economically possible for me."
Southern Bahia does not have a very long or strong farming tradition. After most of the region's native Atlantic rainforest was logged by sawmill companies, in just four decades, local landowners mainly converted their lands to pasture for beef production. The regional economy reached a low when an outbreak of plant disease ended the formerly flourishing cocoa industry in the late 1980s.
Most well-known agricultural crops require a regular dry season for high yields, but Southern Bahia enjoys rains all year round. Trees flourish, nevertheless, thanks to the dependable rainfall and high temperatures. In this region eucalyptus seedlings become mature trees ready for harvesting in less than seven years.
"Since the mill started operating in 2005, we have so far received wood only from the company-owned eucalyptus plantations," says Sergio Borenstain, Forest Director, Veracel. "However, the aim is that our partner farmers will soon account for 20 percent of the mill's total wood supply."
Before the mill accepts wood from the farmers, they must meet the same high social and environmental standards and forest certification criteria as the company's plantations. To guarantee high standards in responsibility, Veracel's operations are certified by both the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Brazilian forest certification scheme Cerflor, which is endorsed by the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC).
The certification procedures include annual visits by authorised auditors, who assess the company's operations against economical, environmental and social certification criteria. Requirements relate to issues including employees' health and safety, employees' rights, respect for local land use rights, environmental protection, the rights of indigenous people, and local community relations. Landowners can also obtain forest certifications in groups. Group certification schemes enable forest owners to share the costs and work involved. Obtaining forest certification is a significant and rewarding achievement for any tree-grower in any part of the world.
Veracel's partner farmers have pioneered the concept of group forest certification in South America. "The biggest challenge has been to create a cultural change. Farmers need to learn to recognise, fulfil, document and maintain all the necessary environmental and social requirements," notes Wellington Rezende, Veracel's Land Manager. When the certification programme for partner farmers was initiated, Veracel's sustainability expert visited us in Sweden to learn from their fifteen years of experience in group forest certification.
Veracel's first group of sixteen partner farmers were granted FSC and Cerflor forest certification in December 2011. Deliveries of wood from these farmers' plantations to the mill have already started. Armando Rodrigues Gomes, one of the first certified farmers, is a fairly large-scale landowner, with 1 260 hectares of land, including 400 hectares of eucalyptus plantations. "Several of my employees actually live with their families on my farm. To meet the social certification criteria we renovated their houses, which are now connected to electricity network," he says proudly. The forest certification criteria require that the children of rural employees attend school. "There is a public school near the farm, so this hasn't required any special arrangements in our case," Gomes says.
Many of the partner farmers have established their own water supply treatment systems, as the municipal network is limited in rural areas. Certified farmers must guarantee safe drinking water for their employees. "I'm still providing my employees with bottled water, but we are exploring the possibility to build our own water treatment system," Gomes says. "And we have already built up a waste recycling system."
The costs of group forest certification are mainly covered by Veracel, including fees for consultancies, water analyses and workers' health examinations. Partner farmers meet expenses related to the renovations of facilities, including fences that mark out areas of preserved natural rainforest. Brazilian law requires that at least 20 percent of each property must be set aside to preserve nature. In practice this regulation is not always followed strictly to the letter, but to participate in Veracel's forestry partner programme farmers must have clearly defined nature reserves in place. "The partnership with Veracel forced me to study our environmental legislation, which my farm now fully follows," says Charles da Silva Virgens.
The rainforest reserves established by Veracel's partner farmers also facilitate the establishment of ecological corridors across Southern Bahia. The related project, through which Veracel is also restoring extensive areas of Atlantic rainforest habitat in the company's own lands, aims to establish rainforest corridors to connect isolated areas of natural rainforest habitat and the region's two national parks.
Virgens uses a machete to hack open a couple of green coconuts from his coconut trees for us to enjoy their refreshing water. "During the coffee harvest I have around 20 part-time employees helping me," he says. Virgens sells his coffee beans to a regional marketing organisation, and his pepper harvest is bought by local restaurants.
When it comes to harvesting eucalyptus, Veracel's partner farmers so far rely on the company's machinery and experience. In the future farmers will also be able to deliver their wood to the mill, as long as they fulfil chain-of- custody certification requirements. For seedling planting and wood transportation services farmers are able to choose from three locally based certified service companies.
Veracel is currently working with a second group of farmers seeking forest certification, and the plan is that most partner farmers will be duly certified by 2014–2015. The group certification process is scheduled with regard to the order in which farmers' plantations were established, prioritising those who planted trees first, who will also be the first farmers to deliver wood to the mill.
Virgens started his eucalyptus plantation almost five years ago. The first trees will be harvested in about two years. "I'm looking forward to it!" he smiles.