Blog & PodcastDealing with the Climate Crisis

Anthony Day helps you plan a sustainable future with expert guests and reports on green technologies from across a warming world.

Today I’m talking to Nick Spencer in Cambodia who is helping local people to survive and thrive while protecting wildlife and avoiding deforestation.  Before I start, let me welcome Sophie Jarvis, our newest Silver Supporter who has just signed up on Patreon. Sophie tells me that she's heard that infrared heaters are a better solution than a heat pump. I'll have a look at that and comment on it on Friday. Friday’s big news will of course be the latest report from the IPCC. This document will report on the impacts of the climate crisis. It’s not expected to be reassuring reading.

Anthony Day

My guest today is Nick Spencer. He is CEO of Ibis Rice Conservation Company Limited, based in Cambodia. Nick, welcome.

 

Nick Spencer

Thank you very much for having me.

 

Anthony Day

It's a pleasure to have you here. Now, all over the developing world, deforestation continues every day. It destroys habitats, it releases carbon to the atmosphere, and it displaces Indigenous people. In many cases, people clear the land because it's the only way they have to feed their families. Nick, how is your organisation addressing this problem?

 

Nick Spencer

I think you described the issues really well there. Ultimately, we tackle the problem by going to exactly where the problem is. So we target our interventions at the forest frontier where the deforestation is happening and we work with the communities that are at times involved in the deforestation, but as you suggested, are a victim of those pressures and the forest loss as well. We are in business to go and work with communities either on the boundary of wildlife sanctuaries or within wildlife sanctuaries where there is habitat loss and to work with them on their farming, largely rice, to find the best possible markets for those farmers and to support the community of farmers and in return to improve their land tenure, to work on land use plans that recognise the importance of the habitat but their needs as communities and to improve their livelihoods as much as possible by linking them to consumers that are interested in our products, that deliver impact so with Ibis rice that essentially means we follow three key principles. Our farmers commit to zero unplanned deforestation so they follow the land use plans that we develop with them. They commit to organic farming so our products are certified organic to EU, UK and US standards and they commit to zero poaching. As a result, we pay them now about 70% above market price for following those set of rules and we purchase all of their products. So we essentially look at linking them to markets, to consumers that are looking for conservation outcomes, that are looking for high quality organic products and as a result, improve their livelihoods cost, protecting the environment around them.

 

Anthony Day

How can you manage to pay them 70% above the market price? Because I've been looking at your products in retailers and it's not a particularly expensive product and your price doesn't seem to be very far out of line than anybody else's. So how does it work?

 

Nick Spencer

Yes, I think, again, that's a really good question. Ultimately, we control the product from farm gate all the way through milling to packaging into the final distributor or the final retailer shop. So that's quite unusual for a food brand to be working with the farmers directly on the certification. We supply the seed to farmers to maintain quality. We buy the raw paddy from each household, aggregate that paddy, mill it to various varieties of rice. So I think really committing to that vertically integrated value chain. And also our priority is to pay farmers as much as possible for the outcomes that we're looking for. So I think it's two things controlling the whole value chain. Therefore, you haven't got five or six stakeholders in the value chain looking for their own payout and prioritising farmer incomes over profits. And I think our ability to pay farmers 70% above market price whilst being on shelf, like you say, at a very reasonable retail price, shows how segmented and potentially dysfunctional a lot of the value chains, a lot of commodity value chains are, and why we see food companies struggling to deal with their deforestation commitments effectively, and why we see farmers in remote locations where we see deforestation not being paid what they deserve and not being engaged in the IBIS Rice Farmer during Transplanting IBIS Rice smallsolution.

 

Anthony Day

Okay, just stepping back for a second, a bit of jargon. You mentioned paddy. What exactly is that?

 

Nick Spencer

Good point. Sorry. I forget that this is my world and not everybody’s. Paddy is the raw grain that we buy directly from farmers. So a rice kernel has a layer on the outside which we call the husk. And when we buy it with a husk on, we call it paddy from the farmer. So that's the raw material we buy from farmers. We actually store it in paddy form because that's naturally a much more robust state for the rice to be stored in. And then we essentially mill, which is de-husking, and then cleaning and separating the rice grain to order for certain specifications in certain markets. So white rice has the bran layer on the outside polished off. Also a bit like what you do with wheat for white bread and brown rice is the same variety of rice, but without that bran layer polished off. So, yeah, paddy is the raw material.

 

Anthony Day

Okay. Right. Apparently, you are currently protecting some 500,000 ha. Who actually owns the land?

 

Nick Spencer

So they are wildlife sanctuaries. So the communities that we work with are mostly within some of the boundary of three wildlife sanctuaries in the north of Cambodia that make up a landscape known as the Northern Plains, which is really the last big swathe of dry tropical deciduous forest mostly. And the last swathe of that habitat used to be in Southern Laos and that part of Thailand and now in Northern Cambodia. So it's actually we work very closely with the Ministry of Environment here in Cambodia. They have jurisdiction over the wildlife sanctuaries and then the communities we work with. We've worked very hard over the years to clarify their user rights and their land rights within those wildlife sanctuaries. These communities obviously predate the designation of these wildlife sanctuaries and the wildlife sanctuaries are quite highly populated. This is common in Southeast Asia, really. A conservation solution has to be a community-based solution. So, essentially the land is owned is public land under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Environment. They're wildlife sanctuaries and the communities we work with have land use plans in what we call community zones, which recognise their requirements from an agricultural perspective and also the important habitat around them. And actually within the community zone prior to the work that we do with the wildlife conservation Society and the engagement of IBIS rice, it's a very low governance system. So there was very unclear tenure for farmers and often very unclear recognition of the wildlife sanctuary at large.

 

Anthony Day

You use some of the profits, I believe, for community development. How does this work?

 

Nick Spencer

Right now, most of our profits are being folded back into paying farmers as much as possible for their paddy. We also make an annual dividend payment to the what we call the village marketing networks, which are farmer representative group that actually are part of the community protected area committee. And we pay both an individual dividend to the farmers, but also a dividend which they can choose to spend on community projects as they see fit, whether that be the pagoda, which is the Buddhist temples in each village, or preparing a road or sometimes some tree planting or some equipment for the school or, in fact, saving for safekeeping. So there's benefits to individual farmers. But, yeah, we work with these community structures to deliver dividends based on the success of the price season.

 

Anthony Day

Are there any plans to extend the area that you are working in, or are you planning perhaps to move to other countries or expand to other countries?

 

Nick Spencer

So right now, our focus remains within Cambodia. I mean, there's a huge opportunity to work with many more communities in many, many more landscapes. So we've now extended further east to a wildlife sanctuary called Siem Pang, which is a really important wildlife sanctuary, similar type of habitat, really intact wildlife sanctuary. And the communities we work with are on the boundary there. They're not so much within the wildlife sanctuary, which presents a different way of working, but a different opportunity. And that's working really well. We've also expanded to a wildlife sanctuary in the Eastern Plains called Kao Siema. That is a different landscape. It's much higher elevation. It's got more evergreen forest, has a high density of Indigenous communities called Bunong communities is their identity. And there's a large REDD+ project [definition below] there and a lot of conservation work. So we're looking at rice, different varieties of rice. We're also exploring other products that are threatening the forest, but could be an opportunity to bring into our compliance system. Cashew and cassava are very prevalent there. But there's also some really interesting products that the Indigenous communities produce that we could look to bring to market. So there's lots of opportunity, I think, both with expanding the current Ibis rice model, but to look at other products or other agricultural products that are pressuring the forest, but actually could be really high quality but not reaching markets that care about reducing impact. So we're really about connecting the best possible consumer to the most important farmers at the forest frontier. And I think that as a philosophy and an approach is incredibly scalable. So I would say Ibis Rice is really focusing on Cambodia, but this idea of connecting the most conscious and able consumer from a purchase perspective to the the most important communities on forest frontiers. Because as a model, we like to see and are trying to scale globally, to really focus on the farmers at that frontier of deforestation and to connect them to the most equitable, high value markets based on compliance. That's a very scalable approach.

 

Anthony Day

So there are other operations similar to yours operating in different parts of the world?

 

Nick Spencer

Yes, at different stages of development. And I think at every level, the learning that we've enjoyed through Ibis Rice of how you structure the compliance, how you structure the incentives, how you engage communities, to how you find financiers and investors that can help you scale and understand the early sort of teething problems with companies like this, to the markets that were establishing with Ibis Rice in the UK, with supermarkets, some of our big customers. So we have a few fledgling projects in Madagascar, in Congo, DRC that I think will benefit from the experience of Ibis Rice. We're trying to share as many lessons to learn and as many resources as possible with those other business ideas within the global WCS network.

 

Anthony Day

Well, Nick, thank you very much for what you're doing. And thank you, too, for talking to the Sustainable Futures Report.

 

Nick Spencer

It's been an absolute pleasure. Thank you very much for inviting me to talk about Ibis Rice. And really the success is down to our farmers, our local teams, and also the consumers that choose to buy products like Ibis Rice. So really it's about connecting consumers, and consumers that care most, with the farmers that matter most. And that's really what Ibis Rice as a business is there to do. I think there's huge opportunity for many other businesses to do the same.

 

Anthony Day

A great note to end on. Thank you very much, Nick. Thank you.

 

 

Nick Spencer of IBIS Rice. Find out more at ibisrice.com 

As always, the next edition of the Sustainable Futures Report will be on Friday. 

That was the Wednesday Interview from the Sustainable Futures Report.

I’m Anthony Day.

Until next time.

 

Wildlife Conservation Society (owner of IBIS)

https://www.wcs.org 

IBIS Rice

https://ibisrice.co.uk 

REDD+

REDD+  = Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation

Administered by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN

https://unfccc.int/topics/land-use/workstreams/redd/what-is-redd 

 

No thoughts on “Protecting Forests, Empowering Farmers”

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A weekly podcast and blog brought to you by Anthony Day. A selection of stories and interviews aiming to be sustainable, topical and interesting.
And also, I do address conferences.

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