Scope#40 | Forest Resource Business

Growing Forests around the Globe for the Sustainable Future of Our Planet

Along the uncharted trails, a group of tree-planting workers wade through lush, tall grass, heading for a steep slope, where they will first prepare the ground by cutting grass with a scythe. Then, they will dig holes at regular intervals. Seedlings, which are to be transplanted into these holes, will be coming in a cart pulled by a water buffalo.

This hilly grassland, where Marubeni has been planting trees since September 2023, lies in a rural area of the Philippines, about four hours away by car from Bacolod, the biggest city of Negros Occidental. The hills are green, but there are no trees; only the strong plants have prevailed. Marubeni has acquired the rights to use this vast grassland for their new business—generating carbon credits through reforestation. The company is currently conducting a pilot project using 100 hectares of this land, gaining know-how on-site. They are experimenting with seedlings (e.g., trying to identify the best possible combinations of species to be planted together) and exploring ways to increase efficiency in the tree-planting operations on this type of landscape. During the next phase, they will scale up afforestation to 10,000 hectares, with an eye to starting commercial operations in 2025. Over the course of the 30 years that follow, Marubeni intends to produce up to 100,000 tons of carbon credits every year.

Carbon credits are tradable rights and are based on the idea that emissions of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gasses made at one place can be offset by emissions reduction efforts made elsewhere, such as using renewable energy or rehabilitating forests. Trees and plants release oxygen while absorbing carbon dioxide, an essential factor for photosynthesis. Focused on this intrinsic yet hidden value of the forest, Marubeni has ventured into afforestation that is not for the sake of logging, but for the sustainability of the planet. The company intends to add this new business to many of their future projects, which they are planning in various parts of the world. Projects similar to the one taking place in the Philippines are already underway in Angora and Malaysia.

“Our goal is to open the way to a sustainable future through the power of people and forests,” says Seiichiro Takayanagi, a member of Marubeni’s Forest Products Division. He adds, “We are committed to mitigating environmental degradation and restoring biodiversity through reforestation while generating economic value through carbon credits.” Takayanagi recalls being shocked when he witnessed “a world devoid of biodiversity” when he first set foot on the devastated grassland in the Philippines, where Marubeni’s pilot project is now moving forward. Despite the abundance of plants, there were no birds chirping, no presence of insects. He didn’t encounter any animals. In this project, more than six species of native Philippine trees, including Narra and Molave, are being planted; no fast-growing exotic trees are being used. On the other hand, pervasive plants, which are now part of the biomass (the total mass of living organisms in a particular ecosystem), are also being preserved as much as possible while efficiencies of the tree-planting operations are also ensured. The idea is to bring back the true forest—what a forest in the Philippines should look like. Marubeni designed this method based on the knowledge and insights they have gained through reviving forests in Indonesia, where MHP, their wholly owned subsidiary, is doing commercial afforestation using Eucalyptus pellita.

The First Industry-Academia-Government Collaboration in the Philippines to Create Enhanced Value through Reforestation

For the reforestation project in the Philippines, Marubeni is working together with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), University of the Philippines Los Baños College of Forestry and Natural Resources, and DMCI, the company’s local partner. This is the first collaborative effort in the Philippines to jointly develop a carbon credit program among a private sector company, university, and government agency. In addition to financing and managing the project, Marubeni is expected to leverage its knowledge and years of experience in the afforestation business both in Indonesia and Australia, as well as its excellent track record of trading carbon offsets. Utilizing its expertise in carbon offsetting, the company is going to design a carbon credit program together with the DENR.

University of the Philippines Los Baños provides technical assistance to the project, and it has created a special team that is made up of faculty members with various areas of expertise: silviculture, soil science, taxonomy, biometry, watershed management, and forest sociology. “The Philippines has a lot of failures in its greening efforts, but with private-sector participation like this, we see a brighter future, bringing back the once lush greenery of the Philippines,” says Marlo Mendoza, dean of the university’s College of Forestry and Natural Resources.

Deforestation is a very serious problem for the Philippines, which is located along a typhoon belt. The country’s forest cover, which once stood at about 70 percent, began to decrease during the 1950s, dwindling to about 20 percent in 2020. Trees absorb rainwater through their roots and slowly release it into creeks and streams nearby. But in recent years, because the country has lost many of its forests, it has become more vulnerable to floods and landslides, which are often caused by excessive rainfall. “The main driver was irresponsible logging by many private companies. They cut trees beyond what was allowed by the government,” Professor Mendoza says. He adds that the situation was aggravated by poverty; people started encroaching upon the forest, cutting the trees, and converting it to agricultural lands. “By working closely together with Marubeni, we will have a very good model of afforestation using native species, which will also improve people’s quality of life, bringing more employment opportunities,” he says.

Crismildo Salarda, who leads the group of tree-planting workers, says, “The local community is supportive of this project.” Salarda, a Mindanao native, was previously working for MHP as its afforestation site manager. “This is a watershed area, so if the forest is rehabilitated and restored, it will help prevent landslides,” he says. “And people around us in this area, who have a rice field, can have a good source of water.”

Making the Most out of Japan’s Forest Resources

Also, in Japan, Marubeni is propelling projects that are designed to increase both the environmental and economic value of the forest. The country boasts a lot of artificially planted cedar and cypress forests, many of which are left unmaintained. Marubeni’s carbon-offsetting projects using the “J-Credit Scheme,” a government-led initiative, are aimed at unearthing the hidden assets of such “sleeping forests” and utilizing them for the conservation of ecosystems and the development of local communities. If thinning is undertaken, for example, the remaining trees will have more exposure to the sunlight, and thus their growth will be enhanced. The amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by properly managed forests will be certified by the government as carbon credits. The profit gained through trading carbon credits will be given back to the forest owners.

Marubeni is working on these projects hand-in-hand with municipalities and owners of public forests, as well as forestry associations, which manage privately owned forests on behalf of their owners. Municipalities and forestry associations are responsible for the creation and implementation of a forest-management plan, which presents details of scheduled maintenance including thinning. The monitoring of registered forests is also their responsibility. Marubeni’s responsibilities include applying for registration of forests, providing technology-based assistance in monitoring registered forests, and cultivating buyers of carbon credits. “We aspire to help stop global warming and achieve net zero emissions by increasing the value of forests to the maximum extent possible through our collective efforts,” says Narumi Obayashi, a member of Marubeni’s Forest Products Division.

There are a couple of problems that are common among the communities dealing with many forests. The biggest one is a lack of interest in forestry among forest owners, reflecting low profitability of the business caused by stagnant timber prices. “Many owners feel that their personal mountains are unwanted assets. We somehow need to change their mindsets,” says Masaki Kato of Shirakami Forestry Association (Noshiro City, Akita), who is working on the J-Credit project with Marubeni. To help promote application for J-Credit registrations, he says the association continues to talk to the forest owners to explain that they can make profits just by giving proper maintenance to their forests—an alternative to selling trees as timber—and that forest management requires little money because there are a variety of subsidies—public and non-public— available for them to use.

Noshiro City is also in the process of applying for J-Credit registrations using 200 hectares of the city’s forestland. “Once we have carbon credits issued and show that they can sell well, forest owners’ perception will change,” says Yoshihito Ishii of the Forestry and Timber Promotion Division, which is part of the city’s Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Department. “We tend to narrowly focus on our immediate concerns, but Marubeni can leverage its global network to generate new ideas, which go beyond our imagination,” Ishii says. “We would like them to keep bringing our city fresh ideas, which will become new solutions to our local problems.”

The very existence of the forest itself is valuable. Acknowledging this simple fact may seem like a very small step, but it will help maximize the value of forest resources, generating a new stream of income for the forest owners and their local communities. Obayashi strongly believes that this virtuous cycle will be beneficial: “It will help solve problems that the forestry industry in Japan has been facing. I am envisioning a future where we can continue to make progress, taking one small step at a time.”

All information contained in this article is based on interviews conducted from September to October 2023.