In Brazil, Suzano harvests trees with deep roots in communities

Can an organization that cuts down thousands and thousands of trees a yr ever truly be sustainable?

At first glance, perhaps not. But context matters.

What if the corporate had planted those trees years earlier, on degraded land that’s now been revitalized? And if it then planted thousands and thousands more trees where the cut ones was once — all to be harvested years later and replaced by yet more trees? And it did this for multiple generations in partnership with local and Indigenous communities?

Can that company be deemed sustainable?

These are among the many questions I pondered last week during my visit to São Paulo, Brazil.

I used to be there because the guest of Suzano — a 98-year-old pulp and paper company, the biggest in Latin America and certainly one of the ten largest on the earth — to assist host its annual ESG Call, a web-based event during which the corporate showcased its achievements and challenges to a worldwide audience of investors, customers, activists and others. (I used to be paid for this work, but not for this text.)

Can an organization that cuts down thousands and thousands of trees a yr ever truly be sustainable? Context matters.

While I’m unsure I’m in a position to answer the “is it sustainable?” query above, I got here away with a newfound appreciation of what it takes to be seen as a pacesetter within the forestry and pulp-and-paper industries — and, by extension, any company whose business model depends on natural capital and native communities.

Suzano, founded in 1924 by Ukrainian immigrant Leon Feffer, pioneered the production of pulp and paper from eucalyptus as an alternative choice to pine. It invested in research and development — within the Nineteen Eighties, for instance, it began to use biotechnology, adopting micropropagation practices in its plantations — and in sustainability measures, including the creation in 1999 of the nonprofit Ecofuturo Institute (Portuguese), with a concentrate on “socio-environmental responsibility.”

Today, the corporate, whose board chair is David Feffer, Leon’s grandson, manages about 7,700 square miles of land, a big portion of which is within the Atlantic Forest, which extends along much of Brazil’s coast, the planet’s second-largest rainforest, behind only the Amazon.

Being an organization that relies on natural capital on the earth’s most biodiverse country brings challenges.

“We’re undergoing a climate crisis, a biodiversity crisis and a poverty crisis,” Suzano CEO Walter Schalka told me once I interviewed him throughout the ESG Call. “And every day, each of those takes their toll. We wish to have a number one company, and to bring all the opposite parts of the society together on this journey. We imagine it’s critical for the work that we do it immediately.”

A key a part of that work involves planting 650,000 eucalyptus trees a day. The goal: regenerate degraded pastureland, which provides few ecosystem services, back into productive vegetation. Those trees produce pulp, about 90 percent of which is exported to Asia, Europe and North America, and is utilized in products and packaging by corporations corresponding to Procter & Gamble and Kimberly-Clark. Suzano also makes its own line of consumer products, including tissues and bathroom paper.

Social studies

I used to be impressed by the environmental features of Suzano’s operations, which have been informed by such global sustainability thinkers as John Elkington, Pavan Sukhdev and the late Tom Lovejoy. But what fascinated me more were the social components of its work, which occur in a nation rife with need.

“We live in a continent-sized country where around 13 percent of the population lives below the poverty line,” explained Marcela Porto, the corporate’s communications director. “In 2022, the country registered over 120 million Brazilians living with a point of food insecurity. The pandemic took greater than 5 million young people and youngsters out of faculty, compromising futures that were already exposed to a situation of vulnerability. So, any effective motion by an organization like Suzano must be systemic and to advertise scalable actions for real change.”

Suzano is a big landowner in five Brazilian states which are home to greater than 200 communities, including many Indigenous communities. The corporate has aimed to align its business goals with those communities and set a goal to lift 200,000 people out of poverty in its areas of operation by 2030.

“The character of our business requires continuous social engagement and in full empathy for the communities that surround Suzano,” Cristina Gil White, Suzano’s chief sustainability officer, told me once I interviewed her for our 350 podcast. “If we’ve got shared values, we may have an ideal business. So, it’s totally vital that we repeatedly understand the needs of our neighboring communities and work with them, providing tools to assist them come out of poverty — not only when it comes to income, but multidimensional poverty when you consider education, health and other needs that vulnerable communities have.”

The corporate has a longstanding rural development program through which it teaches communities the way to make one of the best use of their land by producing high-value crops and helping them transform those crops into finished goods that go into local and global markets. For instance, it supports honey producers and beekeepers in placing their hives inside Suzano’s eucalyptus plantations, which has the additional advantage of reducing poaching by people afraid of bee stings.

“It’s really vital that we’ve got trusting relationships that allow those communities to see the good thing about our plantations, of our work, of our production, and that there is at all times a shared value,” White explained. “In fact, it isn’t at all times peaceful, and we’re at all times striking that balance. But how can you will have a thriving business for those who do not have thriving neighbors?”

It could possibly be a heavy lift.

“The start of the journey has been difficult, given the dimensions and the challenges — filled with learning opportunities but with countless rewarding results,” said Giordano Automare, Suzano’s territorial social development manager.

Amongst other things, there’s a history of distrust to beat. A number of years ago, for instance, activists within the northern state of Maranhao claimed Suzano had behaved badly, stealing land from traditional communities, displacing families and making livelihoods untenable. Suzano disputes these claims.

And reaching that self-imposed 2030 goal — moving 200,000 people out of poverty — has proved to be slow going. In 2021, for instance, only about 9,000 people were lifted from below the poverty line — just below 5 percent of Suzano’s goal, with nine years to go.

Still, there are successes. For instance, those 9,000 Brazilians saw their income increase on average by 57 percent. Suzano says its programs generated around $18 million in revenue for these communities and has produced 35,000 tons of food and other products. “The enhancement of an inclusive bioeconomy has a positive impact on families’ food security, quality of life and conservation of essential social environmental attributes for the sustainability of distributors,” Automare said.

And a few of those individuals might find yourself working at Suzano. “A lot of our employees in our social responsibility area come from the exact same communities we’re talking to,” Gil White explained. “We be certain we at all times have a positive impact with communities. But in fact, we’re learning; we do not at all times do it perfectly.”

Schalka, the CEO, struck me as earnest as any business leader in regards to the company’s social — and environmental — commitments.

“Not every little thing that we’re doing is ideal,” he said. “But we’re humble enough to bring the issues to the table and take a look at to handle how we’re going to construct the motion plan to the long run.”

He’s the primary to say that much of what’s behind the corporate’s ESG work is about hedging risk, pure and straightforward.

“We’ve got lots of uncertainties,” Schalka explained to me throughout the Q&A portion of the ESG Call. “We want to hedge ourselves in several features and never only on the financial side. We have to be hedged on the forest side, as well. We want to hedge on the biodiversity issue for the long run.”

He added: “Our company has a purpose to renew life through planted trees. We imagine that we’re in a regenerative world, and we have to be a part of the answer.”

Thanks for reading. You will discover my past articles here. Also, I invite you to follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn, subscribe to my Monday morning newsletter, GreenBuzz, from which this was reprinted, and take heed to GreenBiz 350, my weekly podcast, co-hosted with Heather Clancy.


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