Since 1998, Ecoflora has been working in rural areas of Colombia with one main purpose: to derive blue food colouring from a safe and sustainable source, something that’s yet to be done globally.
Their source? The jagua fruit.
In central-west Colombia, the Antioquia region is known for its diverse ecosystems, but since the peace process began in 2016, the region has seen increased levels of deforestation. “Cattle ranching and timber extraction are major economic activities in the region,” explains Paulo Pulgarin-Restrepo, Palladium Senior Investment Associate. “There are few other options for local communities to secure a sustainable income.”
The region’s forests offer a wealth of potential for non-timber forest products that could be commercialised and sold at local and international markets, including products created from native plants, such as the jagua fruit – but only with the right support in place. While Ecoflora knew that what they had was an innovative product with incredible market potential (a natural and safe blue colorant that remains stable at different conditions), they needed the support to scale their business processes.
“Partnerships for Forests started working with Ecoflora in 2019 to help structure a supply chain that creates positive environmental impact in areas currently used for cattle ranching by supporting communities to harvest jagua,” explains Pulgarin-Restrepo. Partnerships for Forests works with nature-based businesses to combat deforestation, enhance sustainable land use practices, and contribute to the restoration of vital forest ecosystems with businesses such as Ecoflora.
Not only can Jagua be planted in areas that were previously used for cattle, but it’s resilient, regenerative, and can grow alongside other agroforestry crops or livestock. “We helped to secure agreements with local communities, including smallholders, who have known the fruit for a long time and with a variety of cattle ranchers that were open to changing how they utilised the land,” Pulgarin-Restrepo adds. “Those communities working with Ecoflora also signed agreements with an environmental agency so that they could receive payments for the ecosystem services of protecting the forests while harvesting the jagua.”
For both Ecoflora and Partnerships for Forests, while harvesting the jagua and increasing supplies have been the goals, doing so sustainably is critical. The team has now signed over 100 conservation agreements with smallholder farmers and suppliers and has brought more than 4000 hectares (and counting) under sustainable land management. “Through those agreements, farmers are signing up to work with Ecoflora and an environmental agency for the prosperity of the region,” Pulgarin-Restrepo explains. “The jagua provides a source of income, especially when combined with other crops, and the environmental services payment that make up for income lost by stopping ranching or illegal activities.”
And after a nearly 10 year long process, Ecoflora has obtained FDA approval for their product. With it comes the opportunity to attract major market investments on a global scale.
“In the past, when you went to the region where Ecoflora works, it was flooded with paramilitary groups, it was unsafe, and the only option for most people was illegal crops or deforestation,” says Pulgarin-Restrepo. “Now, when I go there and see that there are alternatives to unsustainable cattle ranching and illegal activities, it’s just amazing.”
He explains how more and more people are harvesting jagua and that there are even billboards for it along the road. “You can stop and talk with people who are no longer interested in intensive cattle ranching because there are other options for income, and they believe in their hearts that working to protect nature is good and valuable.”
Ecoflora isn’t alone. He notes that there are more and more Colombian companies launching with a sustainable biodiversity component. “They play an important role in demonstrating that you can create alternative ways to live and showing Colombians in the cities that there are hardworking people in the rural regions taking care of the forests and making a sustainable living.”
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