The story of Forest Wise is simple: utilize the products that nature provides us to place monetary value on the forest so that they inherently protect the forest while creating economic stability for locals.
Forest Wise is tapping into sap that is in abundance to employ locals while using their land to promote diversity and prevent its deforestation. I am excited that their model is helping to conserve these rainforests, however, have some concerns that their implementation of wage labor has created some negative effects for the communities they employ.
Arenga Rainforest sugar is harvested from the Arenga Pinnata tree. It is a creamy, dark-brown sugar with a caramel aftertaste. This sugar is healthier than its white cane sugar counterpart because its glycemic index is almost half of white sugar and honey. It also contains 50 times more minerals than white sugar, three times more potassium than bananas and vitamins C and B12 (involved in cell metabolism and which they even make note of in their spec sheets that they believe this comes from the activity of yeast in the sugary juice).
These trees thrive in Indonesia’s diverse rainforest ecosystems and take advantage of the undulating, hilly terrains because of their deep roots. Arenga is a seemingly sustainable product because it is broadly available in West Kalmantan forests and regularly harvesting the sugary juice improves the growth of the trees, provides diet for wildlife, maintains forest’ biodiversity and is of high conservation value. I was a little skeptical of taking from the rainforests at first, but as these native trees are broadly available, and no deforestation occurs to bring the product to your plate (except maybe in creating roads), I think this naturally processed form of sugar is a much nutrient dense and environmentally friendly alternative to pure cane sugar which sit in so many of our cupboards.
The product bought in bulk (200kg drums) is packaged in a plastic sealed kraftpaper bag, but if bought as a sample (1.5 kg) is packaged in a plastic container.
Arenga Rainforest sugar makes its way to your home (most likely by cargo crossing the Pacific Ocean) from Indonesia. Over 2,340 farmers go out every day into West Kalimantan forests to collect the sugar sap from Arenga Pinnata trees.
In order to tap the sap, farmers cut the flower stems, causing the trees to start “bleeding” the sugar juice (Nira). This process must happen twice a day to prevent the yeast bandit from being consuming Nira and turning it into alcohol.
Once the Nira is collected, it is boiled so that the sugars crystalize. From their website I see a picture of a metal round pan, three feet in diameter where a brown orangey liquid boils. In the next image it shows the chunky, vibrant orange sugar crystals that will then be sent to the factory to be dried, sieved, graded, checked for foreign bodies, and then packaged, sealed, and labeled.
This product is harvested from the wild rainforest - no pesticides, fertilizer or chemical input are added. Although the company processing facilities run on a diesel generator and their electricity is powered by coal, they were transparent about it to us and explained the energy consumption limitations of using solar and the lack of a local renewable energy provider.
Forest Wise is led by a team of 5 from Netherlands, employ 15-30 local staff who manage and work with their 700 partnering farmers who supply the resources.
Forest Wise wants to use their company to stop deforestation. This statement makes me tingle with excitement because they’re showing that you can gather and use resources that the forest provides, while also helping to protect it! How do they do this?
They want to develop a market for valuable, wild-harvested rainforest products without damaging it.
I am excited by their drive to protect the forest, however, have a few concerns. The more one uses a place as a monetary value, makes it seem like you need to put monetary value on every item/aspect of it. If this is so, it could make protecting nature for itself harder, as every acre of land is worth X amount of profits sacrificed.
Nonetheless, I really appreciate that Forest Wise has compost training, one of the necessary components to creating closed loop food systems so that the nutrients drawn out to grow the Arenga Pinnata trees are replenished back into the ground when compost is reapplied.
The company explains that they are partnering with villagers and in exchange for taking products from the land, creating jobs, supporting the local economy and preserving biodiversity. Although they are preserving biodiversity which is critical to SDG 15, protecting life on land, I am concerned with the actual benefits that they are providing to the indigenous peoples livelihoods. These people may have never been under a “wage labor” society and most likely thrived on communal centered and governed living. When wage labor is introduced, it causes communities to no longer have individual roles that help self sustain the community, and instead, the natives need to rely on wages and jobs from settler colonists to purchase food, water, and goods that they before could make themselves, but now need to ship in from elsewhere because their labor is going to Forest Wise instead.
I am not entirely sure that this is the case, but want to make consumers aware of the possible harmful impacts that could be felt by the indigenous communities living in Indonesia. I want to recognize that the current situation of many indigenous Indonesian's may be unreliable employment from a value lacking, profit driven big agriculture, monoculture corporation, which in comparison to that, I commend Forest Wise for implementing stable, fair wage paying jobs for these communities.
The executives care a lot about their mission to use the forest to protect the forest— I hope consumers see the value in this and how much their products work with nature instead of against it to provide sweets that we crave.
Arenga Rainforest Sugar