• Felipe Villela
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Agroforestry in action with Felipe Villela

If anyone embodies the spirit of putting ideas into action, it’s reNature founder Felipe Villela. In fact, you get the impression that Felipe is so enthusiastic about his projects, that he barely has time to sit still. We were lucky enough to catch up with him in Amsterdam to learn more about his background and a unique project he’s currently implementing in Indonesia with a major Dutch spice company.

Can you tell our readers a little bit more about you? What do you do, where are you from, what makes you excited to jump out of bed in the morning?

I’m from Brazil and come from a family with parents who are very different. My mother is basically a tree hugger – she’s passionate about nature and doing yoga. My father is a banker – he’s very logical and rational. I’ve got a bit of both – I love math and I love nature.

After doing volunteer work in Africa, when I got back home to Brazil, I realized I didn’t know much about my own country. So, I started visiting the Amazon and learning about indigenous cultures. Along the way, I saw the impact agriculture was having in these areas – soybean farming and cattle ranching were destroying the local landscape and traditional crops.

That made me wonder: Is it possible to have economic and ecological growth at the same time? I began visiting farms across Brazil to investigate different types of agriculture. I saw that there was lots of expertise and knowledge, but it wasn’t connected or shared. It was “hidden in the bush”. The numbers show it’s more productive to work WITH nature – but there was no dialogue about that within the industry. I saw myself having a role here – not as a farmer, but as a connector. I want to show people that there’s a better way to work in harmony with nature.

To make sustainable agriculture more mainstream, I decided to go to the Netherlands. In Brazil, it’s harder to reach policy makers, and it’s easier to have influence from the outside than from within. In contrast, the Netherlands is more innovative, and it’s easier to get things done in this small country.

What gets me out of bed in the morning? Seeing with my own eyes how much deforestation is affecting nature and people. I see that there’s a need for someone to speak up for nature. That’s why I created reNature Foundation in January 2018. Shortly after, I met my Dutch business partner, Marco de Boer. Through our organization, we bring together information and experts to create scalable international model farm projects.

Felipe Villela

What exactly is agroforestry? How does it differ from regular agriculture?

After WWII, we had an agricultural revolution. These innovations allowed us to feed so many more people, but they also unfortunately introduced a lot more chemicals, and we ended up burning a lot of forests.

Today, we have a better understanding of how nature behaves. We can mimic the forest ecosystem and apply it to agriculture. So that’s agroforestry – it’s a combination of agriculture and forestry. The idea is to give plants the highest potential to perform well. You start by looking at the surroundings, and then pick the ideal plants for the local ecosystem.

Agroforestry allows you to diversify your crops. For example, you can start with a major cash crop (like oil palm, rubber or cacao), and then plant companion trees for shade. This way, you can actually plant fewer trees, but dramatically increase production. And because of the variety of crops, multiple sectors can benefit from the design of the forest. Besides multiple revenue streams, other benefits include improved soil quality, land regeneration, better water use and increased carbon supply.

reNature foundation

Which parts of the world do you work in?

We started by focusing on Brazil and Indonesia, due to highest deforestation rates there. They also have the biggest native rainforests on the planet. We wanted to create model farms there as a proof of our concept for local farmers. These farms show that you can preserve the forest and increase incomes at the same time.

This year, we’re expanding into additional countries and commodities. For example, we’re working with coffee in Rwanda, citrus in Mexico, and dairy and livestock in the Netherlands. All of these projects are connected to a company to ensure there’s a marketplace. We want to prove that what we’re doing is possible in different climates.

Beyond commodities, we’re focusing on the next generation of farmers. Today, farmers’ children don’t want to continue the family business – everything is so industrialized, and they often don’t eat what they grow. With agroforestry, we’re showing young people that there’s a new, different way to doing things – one where you can have more ownership. We want to influence this young generation to stay in rural areas and create more jobs.

reNature foundation

Why is it so important to partner with large corporations?

Some people don’t want to work with large organizations, but we don’t want to exclude companies just because they did bad in the past. Our view is that we should cooperate and give them the opportunity to be more sustainable.

Many smaller companies are more sustainable, but they don’t have the size or the money to make a major difference. Large companies DO have the money; they can invest. They can make a much bigger impact on the planet, much faster. ReNature ensures that whoever we partner with is walking the talk. It’s a symbol of authenticity and putting in the work.

And what do you do to engage the local communities?

Every time reNature gets involved in a project, we go to the location and map the cultural context. Our model is based on inclusive interaction, so we sit down with local families to discuss the needs and challenges of the community, and make sure we can fulfill each other’s expectations. After we complete the community mapping, we do the biological mapping, looking at the soil, conditions of ecosystem, water supply, etc. Once all that is done, we can start drawing up the most efficient and effective agroforestry farm, and ensure everyone feels ownership over the design.

reNature Agroforestry

Tell us more about your project in Indonesia – what’s the background story?

After hearing me talk about it, a Dutch friend of mine dedicated all his time to learning about agroforestry. He later got an internship at Verstegen, a Dutch spice company, and thanks to his enthusiasm, convinced the CEO that agroforestry is the future. He’s now visiting Verstegen’s farms worldwide, and he’s the one who identified the white pepper plot in Bangka, Indonesia as an ideal location for agroforestry.

Why there? Bangka is the main global exporter of white pepper, and it’s one of the traditional crops in the area, but now palm oil is taking over. However, if we show that it’s viable/profitable to keep farming white pepper here, this crop won’t be lost.

For the project in Bangka, we reached out to 500 farmers in the region. The agroforestry plot combines white pepper, bananas, long-cycle timber and other biomass species which eliminate the need for fertilizer. We also planted a variety of fruits that the locals picked out themselves. Each row of plants is named for a community member and he or she is responsible for taking care of it. In addition, every time we visit, we bring a local expert who speaks their language and can share local knowledge.

The top priority for this project is food security, followed by the cash crop (white pepper). But we’re also planting educational species, like palm oil, to prove that it’s economically viable without resorting to deforestation.

What have you already done? What are the next steps?

In April and May this year, we completed the cultural and biological mapping. We’ve also designed and implemented phase 1, the biomass planting, as the soil was extremely depleted from monoculture rubber. The second phase will happen in November, when we’ll plant the pepper and fruit trees. At that time, we’ll have a workshop with designers from Brazil and local experts. We’re also bringing over other changemakers to come see what they are doing.

What’s in it for Verstegen?

This project has benefits for people, planet and profits! On the planet side, it’ll improve the overall ecosystem, soil fertility and productivity of white pepper over the long term. It will also improve Verstegen’s true cost accounting, meaning that the company won’t have to invest in offsetting the negative carbon impact of their production. From an economic and brand perspective, the company will have a long-term supply of white pepper that they can ask a premium price for, and a valuable story that will set them apart. Finally, on the people side, the farmers will be healthier and more motivated, and this approach will create more jobs in the region.

How can our readers learn more and follow along with your progress?

You can find us on Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram, plus learn more through our newsletter and project updates on the website.

If people are interested in agroforestry, how can they get involved?

As an individual, you can get involved by joining the changemaker programs that we organize or planting your own forest. You can also buy agroforestry products, and in general, buy from companies that are working to be as sustainable as possible.

As a group, you can think bigger! Find people who share your beliefs and create your own project.

It seems like you’ve really done a lot at a very young age! What advice do you have for other young people who have a world-changing idea, but aren’t sure where to start?

I would say follow your intuition and don’t overthink things. Your instincts will push you to meet the right people at the right time. Take action. Don’t wait. Ignore people who tell you it’s not possible. In summary, just go for it, and don’t be afraid of the obstacles that you might face.

Disclaimer: The views of me Convention speakers do not necessarily reflect the opinions of either Mercedes-Benz and/or SXSW.