environmental issues

What makes a forest? Breaking down GCash’s coconut tree program

Iya Gozum

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What makes a forest? Breaking down GCash’s coconut tree program
GCash says it has expanded its efforts into agroforestry as well, in parallel with its original reforestation initiative

MANILA, Philippines – Finance app GCash recently drew flak for its initiative to plant one million coconut trees in Mindanao. Online users said that a million trees of the same species do not constitute a forest.

The planting of a million coconut seedlings is part of GForest, GCash’s project that lets app users plant virtual trees from points they collected from transactions. These are translated to actual trees by GCash and its partners.

GCash acknowledged that while GForest first started as a reforestation program, with ongoing mangrove restoration in Visayas region, it had now expanded its portfolio to agroforestry as well.

“[F]rom the traditional reforestation, we are now also opening our doors to agroforestry,” CJ Alegre, sustainability officer of GCash, told Rappler in an interview on Friday, May 24.

“These are the fruit-bearing trees that will help, not just the farmers, but also the environment.”

According to Alegre, “there’s a need to help the farmers now.”

Agroforestry is a land use management system that combines trees and crops. It ideally serves to boost food security and give livelihood, while recreating ecological benefits of forests like improved soil fertility and water quality.

GCash projected that 100 coconut trees per hectare of land from smallholder farmers could yield an additional income of ₱25,000 per year.

It started the partnership for the coconut program with non-profit organization HOPE and Century Pacific Food Inc. in 2021. For the second phase, which is the ongoing additional one million coconut trees in question, GCash had partnered with HOPE and coconut water brand Vita Coco.

These combination of dwarf and tall coconut trees, species approved by the Philippine Coconut Authority, will be planted predominantly in General Santos. These are supposed to replace senile trees that lower productivity in farms.

In the Philippines, 90% of coconut farmers live below poverty threshold.

According to the 2018 National Coconut Farmers Registry, majority of coconut farmers are food insecure and do not have social protection.

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What makes a forest a forest?

While GCash emphasized more, at least in this case, GForest’s benefit to smallholder farmers than to the environment, the issue raises a related question. What makes a forest?

In the age of mass production where monocrop plantations serve global demand for raw materials such as palm oil, pulp, and timber, they can easily get confused with forests.

But what separates a plantation from a forest is their different purposes.

The former is composed of the same species, usually fast-growing, and caters to the needs of industries like pulp and paper.

Forests, on the other hand, support life by providing habitats to plants and animals, resources for humans, food for many living things.

“Planting trees of the same species, with the same height and the same age, doesn’t make a forest,” Neil Mallari, ecologist and founder of Center for Conservation Innovations, told Rappler on Wednesday, May 22.

“It can create a plantation, but not a forest. You cannot create the ecosystem service that the natural forest gives,” Mallari added.

While the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) includes forest plantations in its definition of a forest, it does not count plantations used for agriculture production.

In fact, this definition from FAO has attracted criticism from environmentalists before.

International group World Rainforest Movement said in 2016 that with this definition, FAO “has actively promoted the establishment of many millions of hectares of industrial tree plantations, of mainly alien species, especially in the global South.”

These plantations have been linked to issues of human and labor rights violations and land grabbing.

Interests at play?

Alegre said that while GCash is the funder and the tech-enablement arm of the initiative, it “acknowledges the fact that we are not the experts in the environment.”

“Our partner HOPE, they are in charge of verifying the land, they’re in charge of choosing the farmers,” Alegre said. “[W]e give them funds so that they can buy seedlings and give them to [the farmers].”

In 2014, HOPE partnered with Vita Coco to distribute coconut seedlings and train farmers.

Century Pacific also fosters a partnership with the American brand, supplying them with coconut water. Century Pacific said it has grown to become one of the largest suppliers for Vita Coco since 2012.

This is not the first coconut planting program in General Santos where brands are involved. In 2022, Colgate-Palmolive led a similar project where 9,500 seedlings were distributed to 95 farmers. The project was also a collaboration with HOPE.

“For me, there’s greenwashing,” said Mallari. “[P]robably they’re doing the right things for the right reasons– for livelihood, et cetera– but I think they’re not doing it right.”

Greenwashing is a term used to describe companies marketing themselves and their products as more environmental-friendly than they actually are.

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Amid the intersecting business interests, Alegre said smallholder farmers who are beneficiaries of the GForest program are not obliged to sell their produce to the brands involved.

“There’s no contract with the farmers,” Alegre said. “They are not obligated to sell the produce to Gcash, to HOPE, or to Vita Coco.” – Rappler.com

Quotes are translated to English for brevity.

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Iya Gozum

Iya Gozum covers the environment, agriculture, and science beats for Rappler.