THE BLOG

What Do a Seed and a Website Have to Do With Stopping Climate Change?

03/13/2015 12:06 pm ET | Updated Apr 26, 2015

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Photo credit: The Maya Nut Institute

Deep in the tropical rainforests of Latin America, a seed the size of a marble grows in abundance. Amid the many visual splendors of the rainforest, neither the tree from which the seed comes, Brosimum alicastrum, nor the seed itself seem of particular note. Indeed, though the seed (and leaves, sap, and wood) have been critical to the survival of people who have lived in the forest for years, it has been largely ignored outside of its native habitat.

Yet this seed--like other products of the rainforest--may be central to a shift in the universal understanding of how we fight climate change.

The thin, citrus-flavored skin of the seed covers an edible, highly nutritious "nut." Known as the Maya Nut, this "superfood" was once a diet staple of forest dwellers, and in recent years, the Maya Nut Institute has been working to bring this ancient food back to prominence, and its production has already greatly improved the livelihoods and the health of forest dwellers.

The Maya Nut, like myriad other products of the world's rainforests, has the potential for even greater impact, however, particularly for the value it adds to the world's perception of the forests in which they grow--namely, that a forest is worth more alive than dead.

The forests of our planet, on the frontlines of climate-change mitigation because of their ability to store massive amounts of carbon, are in real danger from deforestation and degradation. But what if it were known, on a global level, that these forests contained value not just because of their timber, but because they contained sustainable and marketable products that could greatly impact lives--and keep the forests healthy and alive?

The Long Road to Market

Because it is harvested exclusively in the wild--deep in the forest--the Maya Nut, however, has a long way to go before gaining the global acceptance enjoyed by other superfoods like quinoa.

Making that journey a bit easier is CanopyBridge, an online global network that connects sellers of sustainable, wild-harvested products with international buyers. The site "allows members from around the world to list, describe, discover and learn more about natural products and the people behind them."

The site aims to bring together small-scale producers--such as the Maya Nut Institute--and businesses looking to source such unique products and make the transaction process between them easy and transparent. "The world has about 400,000 plant species, but 90% of our food comes from only about 100 of these," says Jacob Olander, director of EcoDecision, an environmental consultancy, and a founder of CanopyBridge. "There's this vast storehouse of diversity and local traditions still waiting to be discovered, and there are literally millions of local producers whose livelihoods depend on finding better markets for their products. But it's still really difficult to connect that potential supply with demand--both for buyers looking for new sustainably sourced products and for producers trying to reach broader markets."

The Maya Nut Institute joins a long list of sellers connecting with buyers, such as restaurants looking for innovative menu items, boutique chocolatiers looking for single-origin cocoa beans, people looking for the next acai, or perhaps someone developing a new power bar. Smaller producers--many in the rainforest, for example--simply don't have the advocates or the funds to go to an international trade fair and make the connections necessary to bring their products to a global market.

"We've got producers of alpaca fibers on the site," says Olander. "We've got people who are purchasing ingredients for energy drinks. Then we've got Shea nut producers from West Africa. The idea is really that there's a vast world of possible ingredients out there that should be discovered, and we want to create a space where you can find all that."

Olander and Marta Echavarria founded EcoDecision, a company based in Ecuador, in 1995. EcoDecision is a pioneer in the emerging markets of ecosystem services. These markets work on the premise that natural ecosystems generate more value alive than dead. A swamp, for example, filters water and acts as a floodplain, while a forest sucks carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and mangroves protect the coasts. All ecosystems, meanwhile, support biodiversity--and all of these services are lost when swamps are drained for farming, forests are cleared for timber, and mangroves become pricey resorts.

Some products can still be harvested from the forest without destroying it, and it was in their exploration of the non-timber values that a forest could provide that Olander and Echavarria hit upon the idea for CanopyBridge, an offshoot of EcoDecision.

"We were looking at the products coming out of projects that are related to conservation in some way, where additional income from sustainable crops or wild-harvested ingredients can make the financial difference between keeping or clearing a forest," says Olander. "And we realized that the process of sustainability-minded buyers and sellers finding each other was really inefficient.

"We realized that if you're a business and you're looking to source these products, there is no easy way to find these things. There's no community out there that somehow brings buyers and sellers committed to conservation together. Finding your market or finding your supplier still largely depends on personal contacts, word of mouth and chance."

Of course there's Google, Olander explains, and "the Internet in all of its breadth and depths," but if you were looking for sustainable products, across a range of certifications and around the world, and if you needed to know the origins of the product, such a site did not exist. CanopyBridge was born of this need, and they settled on the name to communicate "the idea of building a connection between the sheltering forest, the forest canopy, and all that it contains, and building a bridge between the producers there and buyers who are using these products around the world."

The products on CanopyBridge reflect these original goals in that they are produced in such a way that they protect nature and foster healthy communities. Runa, a Brooklyn, N.Y., and Ecuador-based seller on the site, makes energy drinks from the guayusa leaf, and is certified organic, Fair Trade, non-GMO and kosher, and the company itself is a B Corp.

"We're huge fans of Runa, and we're proud that they're on our site," says Olander. "We think they're a great example of a company that's working with one of the literally hundreds of thousands of potential ingredients that are out there in these natural ecosystems in the tropics that's had a traditional use, and using it in a way that brings it to a new market, and at the same time reinforces its traditional value within the communities where they work."

To use the site, buyers and suppliers create a profile for free, which provides detailed information about the product being sold or the potential selling venue. Although CanopyBridge does not require its members to hold a specific certification or follow a certain standard, it looks for users with a strong commitment to sustainability who are open and transparent about their products or services.

"Behind each of these products are wonderful stories," says Echavarria. "Both from a human standpoint, but also from a biological standpoint."

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Focus on Food

The emphasis at CanopyBridge is on ingredients for either foods or cosmetics, or with medicinal and supplemental uses. With its focus on food, CanopyBridge is tapping into the burgeoning connection being made between conservation groups and the food industry. Superstar chefs like Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, of Ámaz and Malabar restaurants in Lima, Peru, are sourcing and cooking with unusual and delicious ingredients from the Amazon, many of which are listed sellers on CanopyBridge. This kind of work is pushing the envelope on modern cuisine--and taking a big step in the preservation of the planet's biodiversity.

"There are some fantastic ingredients out there," says Olander. "You've got this wild fruit called camu camu, which makes this beautiful pink juice and grows on the river banks [of the Amazon]. It's one of the world's highest, most concentrated sources of vitamin C. Sacha inchi or Inca peanut from Peru is a great source of Omega-3s and protein. From Indonesia, several varieties of palm sugar, sweeteners that are not available or commonly used yet that I think have a huge potential. Baobab is coming into its own as an antioxidant superfruit from southern Africa. The list just goes on and on."

CanopyBridge presents a tremendous opportunity for valuing biodiversity--these products are now given explicit market value--with potential for significant livelihood benefits for the producers of rainforest products as well as along the value chain.

Small Site With Far-Reaching Potential

As with the Maya Nut seed, the implications of what CanopyBridge is doing may not at first be apparent. But CanopyBridge is far more than simply a "Match.com" type site bringing vendors and producers together. By bringing sustainable, scalable products out of the forest into a global market, CanopyBridge is making an enormous ripple in the pond of biodiversity conservation, local livelihoods, and climate change mitigation. And according to Jacob Olander, such a ripple is vital.

"I got my start with non-timber forest products years ago, researching the potential for new ornamental plants from the rainforests of Costa Rica when I was in grad school," says Olander. "There's all this great stuff out there, these products that complement these other objectives of valuing nature and keeping communities healthy and prosperous. Paying for watershed services alone or paying for carbon alone is never going to get us [to climate-change mitigation]."

"If you start to look at how much the economy is already moving in these other kinds of sustainable products, it's an astounding volume of trade, probably greater than the total amount of development aid globally. [CanopyBridge] just seemed like a really logical fit while we were looking for new ways to finance the protection of ecosystems. If we can bring all the pieces together--farmers, forest peoples, companies and consumers committed to sustainability--that's a really, really powerful combination."

Both in the forest and in business, big things grow from a single seed.

This report was filed by Ann Clark Espuelas.