Reaping the rewards of the partnership between Rabobank and the World Wide Fund for Nature

Good for biodiversity, entrepreneurs and the bank

Four years ago, the World Wide Fund for Nature and Rabobank sowed the seeds for a unique partnership: setting up projects together with customers creating business models for sustainable food production. After some teething problems, the partnership is now bearing fruit, in the forests of Indonesia, in the waters of Chile, and amid the pastures of the Netherlands. ‘It is such a beautiful thing. Why on earth did it take us so long?’

When Rabobank and the Dutch branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature announced their partnership to the world back in March 2011, they thought they would be getting down to business in no time at all. After all, they had known each other for ages, and had long been working hard to make the planet more sustainable. The World Wide Fund for Nature possessed the drive and expertise to conserve the wealth of plant and animal species (i.e. biodiversity), while Rabobank had substantial experience working with customers to make the agricultural sector and food production more profitable and more sustainable. Now, the plan was to team up and actively work on setting up economically and ecologically sustainable agriculture projects.

Hard realities

The reality, however, turned out to be slightly more challenging, as those who were there at the inception of the partnership recall. The World Wide Fund for Nature is in contact with 250 banks worldwide, but working together with a bank and its customers in such an in-depth way was a real first. ‘A number of our customers are a bit wary about some NGOs, and that can make it a little more difficult to get people within the bank enthusiastic’, says Richard Piechocki, Senior Sustainable Business Developer at Rabobank. The experience of Claar van den Bergh, Senior Advisor Markets at WWF Netherlands, mirrored this problem: ‘In our world, people tend to be rather suspicious of banks.’

Six projects

Despite the tough beginning, four years in, that first seed of the partnership has grown into a magnificent tree with six different branches, each representing different earnings models for sustainable food production. There will not be any more projects. Over the next two years, the partners will focus on developing these existing projects further, and sharing the insights and knowledge acquired in the process so that many more farmers, fishermen and horticulturists will be able to reap the rewards. The six branches are as follows:

  • A tool to help financial organisations rate the sustainability of seafood companies (Sustainable Seafood Tool)
  • Chile: increasing the sustainability of salmon farming (aquaculture), mindful of the ecology and needs of local communities
  • India: the sustainable production of sugar cane, resulting in a reduction in the business and ecological risks associated with water usage and CO2 emissions
  • Indonesia: increasing the sustainability of palm oil production. Based on advice from the WWF, one of Rabobank's larger customers is now is part of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), and has set to work on putting sustainability into practice in their own business
  • Brazil: increasing the sustainability of soy production, in tandem with livestock farming and the preservation of the tropical rainforest
  • The Netherlands: a method to encourage dairy farmers to make biodiversity an integral part of their operations

A willingness to roll up your sleeves and get to work

‘If the thing you are trying to do is important enough, and it really matters that people work together, then in the end the initiative is bound to succeed.’ That is how Piechocki explains why the project for sustainable fish farming got off the ground in Chile, and is currently doing very well. ‘We, Rabobank, were keen to roll up our sleeves and get to work. Customers wanted the same thing, and so did the World Wide Fund for Nature in Chile.’

Sometimes it takes more. Van den Bergh: ‘The World Wide Fund for Nature was engaged in discussions in India with one of the largest producers of sugar cane. Initially we were not making much headway, but when Rabobank joined the table – an organisation that both we and the customer knew and trusted – we suddenly turned a corner and were able to reach an agreement.’

Being passionate about the issue

‘Ultimately, it starts with people who are passionate about the issue at hand and are able to recognise new opportunities when they see them’, says Claar van den Bergh. She recalls the early days of the project in Brazil. Initially, there was uncertainty as to whether the partners would be able to agree on a project for sustainable soy production in Brazil. There was a sense that ‘if we do not manage to seal the deal here and now in Brazil, we might as well give up’. The turnaround came when the parties involved were shown a textbook example of how livestock farming, soy cultivation and the conservation of eucalyptus trees can go hand in hand. ‘We all looked at each other and said: isn't this exactly what we want to achieve together?’, Piechocki remembers. By using crop rotation you can ensure that you maintain the soil's fertility, so the farmers do not have to start using new land and the tropical rainforest can be preserved. Van den Bergh: ‘Looking back, we felt: this is such a beautiful thing, why on earth did it take us so long?’

Rich soil life

On the pastures of the Netherlands, too, great strides are being made. These pastures are ideally suited to dairy production, but there is hardly any biodiversity there at all. Van den Bergh: ‘The soil needs to be rich with life, with worms and insects. Farmers need this, as do farmland birds. Together with dairy producer FrieslandCampina we are looking into how farmers who make biodiversity an integral part of their operations, can also reap the financial rewards from this. We have only just started in the province of Friesland, but we are already being contacted by groups of farmers from other regions who are eager to get involved.’

Getting other entrepreneurs enthusiastic about joining in – ultimately, that is what it is all about. Van den Bergh: ‘Using these projects, we will be able to demonstrate that this approach pays off: for local biodiversity, for the customer and for the bank.’

Copyright image: © Michel Roggo / WWF-Canon

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