Beyond

A new wave of young entrepreneurs is using our passion for healthy lifestyles as a way of promoting

Our small boat bobs along the unimaginably wide Amazon River, then heads up a fast-flowing tributary into the heart of the rainforest. Monkeys scamper in the trees above us as the motorboat chugs more and more slowly until the stream becomes too narrow to travel. This is where José Luiz de Oliveira and his 17-year-old son, Alex, live on a small farmstead alive with bird calls. Piglets frolic in the cool mud below the dock, while ducks march in formation.

The de Oliveiras live as people have for centuries - drawing their daily meals and livelihood from the land, the river and the livestock. But the tiny house has no electricity, no telephone, no fans, no mosquito screens in the windows.

Is it possible to bring the de Oliveiras some of the advantages of modern life - for example, schools and shoes for Alex - without in the pro cess destroying valuable things such as the Amazon rainforest itself, crucial to us all as a source of ecological balance and new medicines?

José invites us to sit under the palm-thatched shelter at the end of their dock. For them it's a welcome break from working in the heat as well as an opportunity to show off baskets of freshly picked açaí, which they gathered from the tops of palm trees surrounding their home.

Açaí - a fruit slightly larger than a blueberry with a similar colour - is our reason for coming up the river. It has recently been discovered outside the rainforest as a "superfood" - a nutritious bundle of amino acids, fibre, essential fatty acids and more of the highly coveted antioxidants than either red wine or blueberries. People often report feeling a surge of energy after eating it - I certainly did when gobbling some after a long day on the river without lunch. Now that açaí (pronounced ah-sigh-ee) products are beginning to appear in health-food shops around the world, the berry offers hope that development in the Amazon can be more than a choice between environmental ruin and continuing poverty.

My boat mate, Travis Baumgardner, a 31-year-old Texan working for a US food company, believes açaí will prove to the people of the Amazon, in cold cash, that it is more lucrative to leave the rainforest standing than to chop it down to raise cattle or grow soybeans.

His company, Sambazon, is part of a new wave of entrepreneurial companies promoting ecological restoration and economic justice as an integral part of their business - a concept known as "market-driven conservation". Such firms hope to push the natural foods industry "beyond organic". Rather than simply rejecting dubious practices such as the use of chemical pesticides and genetic modification, they want to create products that make a contribution to the environment and local communities.

Sambazon sells açaí throughout North America, Europe and Brazil in the form of ready-to-drink smoothies, frozen packets, powder and capsules. Last November, alongside General Motors and Goldman Sachs, the company won a State Department Award for Corporate Excellence, for US businesses operating abroad. But Sambazon operates by principles quite different from those of most corporations. It purchases açaí from co-ops and growers at prices higher than those paid by the usual brokers and it pays workers at its own fruit-processing plant in Macapá, near the mouth of the Amazon, three times the local wage. The firm also helps farmers become certified as organic (expensive, and complicated for people not used to paperwork).

Sambazon's founder Ryan Black, 32, a former professional US football player who first encountered açaí on an off-season surfing trip to Brazil, sees market-driven conservation as the next logical step for the booming organics in dustry. "We want to give something back as part of the production process."

He believes this can help bring democracy to the market place. "It means giving people what they want - a chance to vote with their dollars. People can become policy-makers, spending their money on the future they want to see."

That's an ambitious mission, but one winning the support of respected figures in the fields of ecology and business. Meindert Brouwer - a consultant working with the WWF and Hivos, the Dutch sustainable-development institute - says: "Sambazon is doing a great job. The açaí is harvested in an ecologically sound way. These guys are quite young, and are an example of young entrepreneurs who are doing things differently. They represent a new generation of business."

Brouwer predicts that the emerging movement will become influential because it fits directly with a number of other business trends he observes, including a growing emphasis on transparency throughout the international business world; mounting interest in social responsibility; consumer demand for authenticity in products that we all use; and increasing concern among corporate leaders about diminishing natural resources.

Gourmet ice cream

Jan Oosterwijk, who brought the Body Shop and Ben & Jerry's to the Netherlands and other countries in western Europe, is another champion of "market-driven conservation". He's an investor in Sambazon and is considering putting capital into Guayakí, which he believes has gone the furthest in creating a new paradigm for organic businesses.

Guayakí markets maté, a tea-like drink from South America made from the yerba plant, which is grown in large fields in the usual manner of industrial agriculture. But yerba maté can also be grown in the shade, like coffee, and Guayakí pays a premium price for organic yerba cultivated in the rainforest. The company offers growers a better deal for preserving their trees than they could get cutting them down to make way for cattle, lumber or conventional yerba.

Guayakí is pushing the frontiers of organic agriculture with one project that supports farmers planting native rainforest trees in the middle of their yerba fields. Rather than just avoiding unsustainable farming methods, notes Oosterwijk, the company is pioneering ways to reverse environmental destruction.

"They show how business can be more of a force of restoration," Oosterwijk says of both Guayakí and Sambazon. "To save wildlife spe cies. To promote fair trade for workers. To restore the earth."

Such projects "can be like an ice-breaker in frozen waters", Oosterwijk contends, "and then the big boats follow". After all, gourmet ice cream, sustainable outdoor wear and natural body care products - all huge markets now - were seen as niche products when socially responsible firms such as Ben & Jerry's, Patagonia, the Body Shop and Aveda rose to prominence in the 1990s. Indeed, the market forecasters Min tel named Amazon superfoods (including açaí) number one in its top ten supermarket trends for 2007, with ethical products ranking second.

These initiatives are emerging at an interesting time, with the future of the organic industry and the idea of socially responsible business up for grabs. Recently, several leading natural-product companies have been snapped up by huge corporations; they include the Body Shop ('Oréal), Tom's of Maine (Colgate-Palmolive) and Green & Black's (Cadbury Schweppes).

And what happens now that huge firms such as Kellogg's and Heinz, along with retailers such as Wal-Mart, have entered the organics market?

"Industrial organics will only get bigger," says the noted US environmental author Michael Pollan. "[But] there are issues that organics don't deal with. When they were formulating organic rules, they focused on a number of concerns mostly having to do with chemicals. They ignored social-welfare issues, they ignored labour; they didn't insist on animal welfare. There are many issues, like energy use. It's not clear, for instance, that organic production by itself will make any difference on global warming."

Greg Steltenpohl founded the juice company Odwalla in 1980 with a simple aim: to promote good health by offering a tasty alternative to sugary soft drinks. He succeeded at that, in part because his company was taken over in 2001 by Coca-Cola, which has access to nearly every corner shop and convenience store around the world.

"In the past, organic and natural foods were about personal health," says Steltenpohl, "which is why they have become mainstream today. And that's very important. But it's impossible to separate the organic movement from environmental and social-justice issues. The idea now is to make the whole process of what you do the thing that does good in the world."

Guayakí was founded by Alex Pryor and David Karr, two students at California Polytechnic State University, in 1996. Pryor is a native of Argentina, where yerba maté outsells coffee seven to one, and he brought a big supply with him to school. While delivering a caffeine boost, maté contains far more nutrients than coffee or tea, which many drinkers (including me) report leaves them with a smoother feeling. Pryor's friends at college all started drinking maté during finals week, surprised at how they could study all night without the usual coffee jag. That convinced Pryor to undertake a class project, marketing maté around campus, and things just took off from there. He soon invited Karr, his best friend and confirmed maté fanatic, to join him in introducing the drink to North Americans.

Pryor is now back in Buenos Aires, running Guayakí's South American operation, while Karr oversees the business in North America, which sells yerba maté in tea bags, packets of loose leaf and ready-to-drink beverages. Guayakí's yerba supply comes from the Ache Guayakí indigenous people of Paraguay, who cultivate the crop beneath trees in their rainforest preserve, as well as from Argentinian farmers who are preserving or reforesting endangered subtropical rainforests and a Brazilian farmers' co-op that harvests one of the remaining stands of wild yerba.

"We want to be a bridge between consumers looking for health products and growers who want to take care of the earth," Pryor tells me, as we finish lunch in the garden that separates his home from Guayakí's office.

His English is quite good, but Pryor looks concerned, as if he hasn't made his point as forcefully as he would like. He jumps up and hurries into his office, bringing back a picture from the wall, which he hands to me. It's a photograph of a forest. I look up at him, a bit perplexed. "I went up in a plane to get this picture," he tells me. "It's one of our yerba maté fields in Paraguay."

It's a steamy spring day in Iguazú National Park, one of the last remnants of rainforest in north-eastern Argentina. Less than 10 per cent of the original subtropical Atlantic Forest in Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil still stands. The rest has been chopped down for timber and agriculture, including plantations growing yerba for maté, which Argentinians drink all day long.

Just outside the park boundaries, Alfonso and Gladys Werle give me a tour of their yerba fields, which look noticeably different from those I stopped to inspect along the highway a few miles away. The leaves are greener, which Alfonso says is because he farms organically - still a rarity in Argentina. He also claims that organic maté tastes sweeter because it contains more of the vitamins, minerals and amino acids that gently balance the drink's caffeine kick.

But the most striking difference here is the trees: 14 different varieties such as cancharana and lapacho, all native to the Atlantic Forest, that Alfonso and Gladys have painstakingly planted throughout their fields. Their dream, and the dream of Guayakí, which buys their crop, is that in a few years this field will become a natural extension of the park's rainforest, while still producing top-quality maté.

The Werles' farm already serves as an im portant wildlife corridor, allowing jaguars and other threatened species to move freely between Iguazú and another national park in nearby Brazil. Alfonso, Gladys and Guayakí hope this land - which also grows organic bananas, lemons and pineapples, and rings with the sound of birds, cows, pigs, chickens, dogs and children - will become a showcase, proving that the Atlantic rainforest can be restored while offering farmers a secure livelihood and providing the world with ample food.

Alfonso suddenly strides into the middle of the field to examine one of the trees he and Gladys planted. He looks at it intently and then turns back towards us with a smile. "This is redesigning agriculture," he shouts.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New Leader, New Danger

Photo: STEFAN BONESS/PANOS
Show Hide image

What Britain needs to understand about the profound and ancient divisions in Germany

As Angela Merkel campaigns for re-election, the balance of power in Europe is changing.

On 24 September, Angela Merkel will be re-elected chancellor of Germany and that, we might think, will be that. With Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron in control of the European project, populism will surely be vanquished and the old Franco-German core of the EU restored. Yet things are changing, and if western Europe wants Germany to keep singing “Ode to Joy” as enthusiastically as “Deutschlandlied”, it will have some work to do. Our Brexit negotiators need to see how important this is to Macron, to other European leaders and, above all, to thinking Germans.

For we may all soon miss the old, self-effacing Germany. Despite having such economic power, it always seemed to have no greater wish than to exist as part of a larger whole. Konrad Adenauer, its first postwar chancellor and founding father, made Westbindung (“binding to the West”) the heart of West German politics. Adenauer came from the deeply Catholic Rhineland, “amid the vineyards” as he put it, “where Germany’s windows are open to the West”. His instinctive cultural sympathy was with France, but he knew that West Germany’s existence depended on keeping America in Europe. France he courted out of profound conviction, the US out of clear-eyed necessity, and he was worried that after him this twin course might be abandoned. His demands for reassurance during his final year in office led to John F Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech of 1963. Every West German knew about that, and about the Berlin Airlift: these became locations of national memory from which West Germany triangulated its sense of self.

There were some Germans for whom this was too much. Anti-Americanism was ingrained among West Germany’s hard left, the early Green Party and the tiny hard right. But even Germans who were suspicious of America had no fear of tying themselves closer to Europe. On the contrary, that was exactly what they wanted. The standard explanation of this is guilt. West Germans, in this argument, felt so remorseful about the horrors of the Second World War that they wanted to make amends. This idea fitted with others’ belief that Germany did indeed have much to feel guilty about.

A nuanced version of this held that the western Germans thought they had somehow “got away with it”, compared with their brethren in the east, who had felt the weight of Soviet vengeance: rape, pillage, occupation. Accordingly, Germany’s willingness to subsume itself so thoroughly, even as it footed the bills for the European Economic Community and later the European Union, was accepted with little gratitude, almost as an ongoing war debt repayment.

This guilt thesis is based on a misunderstanding of German history, especially of the experience of western Germans. The most graphic illustration of this comes from Adenauer. In 1955, he privately informed the British that while he was obliged to act in public as though he wished for reunification, he intended to devote his remaining years to blocking it. In 1961, he secretly proposed to the Americans that they offer the Russians a swap: they and he should, he said, give up West Berlin in return for Thuringia (the region containing Leipzig and Weimar). He wanted, in effect, to make the River Elbe the eastern border of Germany.

Why did Adenauer dislike the eastern Germans, think Berlin was expendable and consider the River Elbe to be the natural frontier? Simple: he knew that the Elbe was Germany’s Mason-Dixon line. Beyond it lay the flat, grim Prussian heartlands, which until 1945 stretched into present-day Russia. This vast region was known to Germans as “Ostelbien” – East Elbia. Adenauer viewed the “unification” of Germany in 1871 as East Elbia’s annexation of the west. That’s why in 1919, as mayor of Cologne, and again in 1923, he tried to get Britain and France to back a breakaway western German state. Having failed, he is said to have muttered, “Here we go, Asia again,” and closed the blinds every time his train crossed east over the Elbe.

Prussia was a different country. The victorious Allies agreed. On 25 February 1947, they declared: “The Prussian state, which from early days has been a bearer of militarism and reaction in Germany… together with its central government and all its agencies are abolished.” The name Prussia was eradicated. The Prussian hegemony of 1871-1945, an anomaly in the two millennia of German history, was over.

If we understand this, we understand what West Germany really was and why it acted as it did; why the “reunification” of 1990 – or, at least, the way it was handled – was such a mistake; why we may all have to stop taking Germany quite so much for granted now that East Elbia is back; and why our Brexit negotiators are on a hiding to nothing if they believe that the Germans have no more urgent business to consider than their car exports to us. Far more important to liberal Germans is keeping safe the western soul of Germany.

***

West Germany was anything but an artificial construct. It was the historical Germany, being almost geographically identical to what was, for almost 1,200 years, the only Germany. Julius Caesar named the land, together with its people, in 58 BC; 49 years later, Drusus, the greatest commander of the infant Roman empire, is said to have been supernaturally advised that after defeating every tribe he met in Germania, he should halt at the River Elbe. By 100 AD, Roman rule was shown by a fortified border, the Limes Germanicus. You can still walk large stretches of it; it encompasses most of the richest land in modern Germany and all of the great cities except Hamburg, Berlin and the 19th-century industrial monocultures of the Ruhr. Even these last were born as trading posts or forward bases within what archaeologists call the “market region” of Germania – the lands beyond the limes where commerce with the Roman empire defined the whole culture. Southern and western Germany’s cultural roots are almost as Roman as France’s.

But what about 9 AD and the destruction of three Roman legions by the German tribes under Arminius? There is a popular myth that this kept all Germany free and different. We owe this idea to Martin Luther and his supporters: Luther claimed from 1520 onwards to be a German, anti-Roman hero and identified himself with the newly rediscovered tale of Arminius. More decisively, the events of 9 AD were an obsession of later Prussian historians, who had an interest in claiming that the real Germany was one that was pure and un-Romanised. Yet the reverse is true. Under the Romans, then the Merovingians, then the Franks, the Rhine/Danube super-region of Germany remained politically and culturally a part of western Europe. After Charlemagne, a Rhineland German, “restored the Roman empire” (as his seals put it) in 800 AD, western Germany was the very centre of things. It was never a nation state, but always the key part of a greater whole, the Holy Roman empire.

Along the Elbe, things were different. Charlemagne extracted tribute from the pagan Slavs across the river, and his successors tried to build on this, but the German conquest and settlement of East Elbia only really began with the Wendish Crusade of 1147, the northern arm of the Second Crusade. Three centuries later, the entire region was still hotly disputed by Balts and Slavs, with German supremacy threatened by major defeats at Tannenberg (1410) and in the Hussite Wars (1419-34).

Long-contested frontier lands breed a special kind of society. The German incomers cowed the natives, such as the pagan Pruscie from whom they ultimately borrowed their name, through brute force. Where they couldn’t, they had to make armed deals with local elites. In this new sort-of-Germany, the Junkers, an aggressive landowning caste, lorded it over the Slavs and Balts – as well as poorer Germans, who knew that the locals would cut their throats if the Junker castles fell, so were loyal and subservient to their masters. East Prussia remained like this within living memory.

In 1525, Prussia named itself and declared itself the first Protestant state. From then on, it had absolute rulers, the Hohenzollern dynasty, backed by a quiescent Lutheran state church. The Junkers swore loyalty in return for exclusive access to all officer-level jobs in the army and the administration. By the mid-18th century, Voltaire quipped that while other states had armies, the Prussian army had a state. The overriding strategic concern of Prussia was always with the east. In his 1758-59 campaigns, Frederick the Great was shocked to find the Russians extremely hard to beat. He bequeathed to his successors a policy of keeping the tsars onside. Partitioning Poland between them was the sticking plaster that masked this Russian-Prussian rivalry, right until 1941.

This thoroughly east-facing power was, by the normal standards of European statehood – history, social structures, religion, geography – a different country from the Rhineland, Swabia or Bavaria. It defeated them all in 1866, laying the ground for the “unification” of 1871. The Prussian empire (for that is what it was) could now enlist the wealth, industry and manpower of Germany in pursuit of its ancient goal: hegemony over north-eastern Europe. By 1887, the future imperial chancellor Bernhard von Bülow was already musing on how to destroy Russia “for a generation”, cleanse Prussia of its Poles, set up a puppet Ukrainian state and take the Prussian armies to the banks of the Volga. This is the bloody Prussian – not German – thread that leads directly to the Nazi onslaught of 1941. In 1945, that centuries-long struggle was settled, in almost inconceivable violence. Half of East Elbia was ruthlessly stripped of Germans and handed over to Poles or Russians; the rump became the German Democratic Republic (GDR), a mere satrap of the Red Army.

So while it is easy and comfortable to say that the otherness of eastern Germany today is the result of that 40-year Soviet occupation, history says otherwise. East Elbia has always been different. Take the voting patterns: from 1871 to 1933, East Elbia outside Berlin (always a left-liberal political island) was the main electoral reservoir for the authoritarian right. The Prussian Conservative Party under the empire, the Deutschnationale Volkspartei until 1928 and the Nazis from 1930 depended on rural and small-town East Elbian voters. It was they who (just) swung things in 1933, by going 50-60 per cent for the “Hitler coalition”. Had all Germany voted like the Rhineland or Bavaria, Hitler and his Junker allies would have got nowhere close to a majority. Small wonder that Adenauer didn’t want East Elbia back and was secretly delighted to have it safely fenced off behind the Iron Curtain.

***

West Germany (1949-90) – Germany shorn of Prussia – was, then, no historical fluke, and nor was the supra­national way it acted. This was the real Germany. But the hasty reunification of 1990 (there was no referendum or election on the issue) changed things. Why should the inhabitants of the former GDR, rather than Poles and Czechs, get immediate access to the wealth and benefits of the West? Because they were Germans. With that, the chancellor Helmut Kohl embraced the notion that being German overrode all considerations of social, economic or historical difference. He also subliminally revived the idea, common to the Second Empire and the Third Reich, that East Elbia was special and needed subsidising by the rich west of Germany. The director of the Bundesbank, Germany’s central bank, resigned in 1991 over this abandoning of economic sanity for political nationalism.

Since 1990, the former East Germany has received more than €2trn from the old West Germany, for a fast-ageing, shrinking and disproportionately male population of only 16 million, including Berlin. That’s the equivalent of a Greek bailout every year since 1990, and as a straight gift, not a loan. This represents a huge shift in financial priorities, overshadowing Germany’s annual net EU budget contribution (currently €15.5bn). In 1990, Kohl promised that western German aid would soon turn the new states into “blooming” areas, but they have become, instead, proof that age-old differences resist even the most gigantic subsidies.

Between 30 and 40 per cent of voters in East Elbia have declared over the past two years that at the general election, they intend to support either Alternative für Deutschland (Germany’s Ukip), Die Linke (heirs to the old East German Communist Party) or the all but openly neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (the NPD, currently represented in the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern state parliament). Though theoretical enemies, these three parties are united by cultural affinities: all despise economic liberalism, oppose Nato and the EU and want closer relations with Russia.

East Elbia no longer has the population to swing the entire German electorate of more than 61 million but many liberal western Germans are nervous. They recoil at the sight of anti-asylum-seeker attacks, which are proportionally far more common in East Elbia than in the west, or when they see Merkel heckled by right-wingers. They call East Elbia Dunkeldeutschland (“Dark Germany”) and joke bitterly that if Britain can have a Brexit, why can’t the old East Germans, whom they lump together under the name of Saxons, have a “Säxit”? But it’s no laughing matter. They know there are those only too aware of any anti-western drift in Germany and eager to give succour to it.

Alexander Saldostanov, the rabid leader of Russia’s “Night Wolves” bikers and a public friend of Vladimir Putin, recently told Germany’s bestselling daily, Bild, that he dreams of a grand union between Germany and Russia: “We have so much in common. You simply have to free yourself at last from America, that scourge of humanity. Together, we can, should and must take power.”

There’s no danger of that, but there is a sense in which eastern Europe is, to Germans, no longer “the other”. It’s the place whence natural gas flows from Russia, where labour is cheap but skilled and where the people are keen to work with Germany on setting up new sites of joint national memory. From Kaliningrad to Prague, museums and projects are springing up in which the horrors of the past are neither denied nor used as ammunition in today’s negotiations. In eastern Europe, perhaps because Russia is so close, the Germans are rarely made to feel guilty for their grandfathers’ sins. Meanwhile in the west, from Greece to Britain, people can’t resist mentioning the war whenever the Germans don’t act as desired.

***

Germany’s resources are not infinite. Nor is the patience of the 40 per cent of Germans who “have net worths of essentially zero”, as Die Welt reported last year – largely because German home ownership rates are the lowest in the EU. They are disproportionately concentrated in the old east, the region that never had supranational, western European connections. From them come ever-louder voices saying that Germany’s EU contribution is too high. And with Britain out, the maths will look even worse to such voters. If south-western Germany’s taxes have to keep bailing out the country’s east, while also helping out the old and new EU lands, what is left for, say, the post-industrial Ruhr, which has financial and social problems of its own? There are tough choices ahead, and it’s not hard to imagine a day when Germany decides to aim its subsidies and investments where they seem most welcome. The old idea of Mitteleuropa – a multi-ethnic, German-centred Middle Europe, neither of the West nor of the East – no longer seems so antiquarian. Nothing would gladden Putin’s heart more.

So, yes, Merkel will win the election and will have a chance to revive the EU’s Franco-­German core. Yet the relative strengths of France and Germany are different now. As for their leaders, while Adenauer was a devoted Catholic Rhinelander, Merkel is a Lutheran vicar’s daughter from the east. Bonn was physically close to Paris, Brussels, The Hague, even London; Berlin is closer to Prague and Warsaw.

With Donald Trump’s wavering on Nato and his noisy anti-German protectionism, along with Brexit, the West may no longer seem vital to Germany’s future. During Merkel’s election debate with her main challenger, Martin Schulz, on 3 September, Brexit was not even mentioned. The old EU core will have to work to keep Germany anchored, resisting any new call from the east. Macron and German liberals know that; that’s why there will be no Franco-German split over Brexit just to sell us a few more Audis. The sooner David Davis and Liam Fox realise that the Germans have far bigger issues to deal with, the better.

James Hawes is the author of “The Shortest History of Germany” (Old Street Publishing)

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New Leader, New Danger