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The Zone: WithOneSeed

WithOneSeed's Andrew Mahar joins Michael Short in The Zone.

PT2M52S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-325ya 620 349

[WHO] Andrew Mahar, founder of WithOneSeed
[WHAT] Improving the live of some of our poorest neighbours in East Timor.
[HOW] Exploiting the business opportunity created by the global need to offset carbon emissions.

In East Timor, an hour to the north of Australia, some people are trying to survive on less than 80 cents a day. Subsistence farmers struggle to produce enough food for their families. There is neither regular electricity nor running water. Parents can often not afford to send their children to school, where they might get the education they need to give them an opportunity to fully explore their potential.

Their plight is exacerbated by widespread environmental degradation. As recently as 1975, half of East Timor was covered by forest - now it is about 1 per cent.

Sunday's guest in The Zone is empowering people in one region of East Timor through a pilot program that simultaneously generates new forests, significantly increases farmers' income and educates children in the villages and here in Australia.

For the past four years, Andrew Mahar has been establishing the program, WithOneSeed, the cornerstone of which is paying farmers to plant and tend mahogany trees. The aim is to extend it across other parts of East Timor and then elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region.

The full transcript of our interview and a short video statement by Mahar are at theage.com.au/federal-politics/the-zone. He will be online for an hour from midday to answer questions and comments from the audience.

WithOneSeed is not a charity, and is not funded by official Australian aid. It is one of the growing number of enterprises that use business principles to create economically sustainable operations that have a social and/or environmental mission.

''Reducing global emissions can provide these people with an opportunity to build a business, which is growing trees and selling the offsets.

''People in the developed world need that, so it is a business-to-business transfer. It's not a welfare model. It is actually a new model that helps sustain our society and our communities.''

Under the program, seedlings are propagated and cared for within villages by school children and others through community tree co-operatives and nurseries. Once they are ready for planting, they are given to individual farmers. Each farmer can take up to 500 trees, and is paid 50 cents a year for each tree that survives.

So far, more than 20,000 trees have been planted, generating $40,000 of income for the farmers and their families. This has boosted the number of children attending school. And it has created optimism in the communities, where people are not only earning bigger incomes, but are creating long-term capital. Another 20,000 trees are almost ready to be planted.

''This mahogany is absolutely superannuation. In 20 or 30 years time when they can start to harvest that, those villagers will become considerably wealthier. These farmers see the long-term vision. This is not a short-term exercise for them. They do get money now, but they see the idea of putting the trees back and putting the forests back.''

The benefits extend far beyond the financial. Reforestation counters erosion and degradation of soil, and returns the nutrients to the soils. It lowers the water tables, which enhances crop yields.

''They therefore are eating better. They therefore can work better and can think better and they can study better. The whole thing has a really lovely synergy to it. I am now able to walk around some of the land with the farmers, and while the trees are at most four years old, they are five or six metres tall and you can start to see the forest reappearing.

''Some of the people who are in their early 40s and who grew up in that area tell stories of walking through that land and not being able to see the sky for the tree canopies.''

The goal is to plant as many as 1 million trees in the next decade. That would cover about 200,000 hectares, which would mean 30 per cent of East Timor would be covered with dense forest.

Mahar received an Order of Australia last year for his work in East Timor, as well as for his service to Australian communities. For two decades before launching WithOneSeed, he ran Infoxchange, an operation he founded to provide a database of available beds in lodgings for homeless people.

Infoxchange has expanded into a social enterprise that employs 70 people, has annual revenue of $7 million and operates across Australia and the Asia-Pacific. It now runs 12 enterprises to help bridge the ''digital divide'' between those who have access to technology and those who do not, and to help the disadvantaged by using information technology to provide health and community services.

WithOneSeed began after Mahar came across the idea in a book by environmentalist and former Australian of the Year Tim Flannery. It became a reality after Mahar talked with the chief executive of Computershare, Stuart Crosby, about the environmental, social and economic benefits. Crosby contributed $350,000 from Computershare's Change a Life Foundation to underwrite WithOneSeed's early years.

Flannery's book, Now or Never, contains a chapter called Trees for Security. But Flannery did not set out more than the notion of helping communities develop by generating income through capturing carbon emissions, so Mahar tracked him down and organised a meeting.

''I was sort of hoping that Tim would tell me how to do it, and then I would just go and do it. But it ended up that Tim had had a great idea but did not necessarily have the information I needed about going and putting it into place. So Tim said 'good luck, go for it'. I said 'OK, I will do that.' ''

He did a lot more. WithOneSeed, whose patron is the Nobel peace laureate and former president of East Timor, Jose Ramos-Horta, has four, interrelated components.

The reforestation project generates revenue for the second element - economic participation - which helps reduce poverty and hunger, funds education and training and creates jobs.

The third part is open education. As well as helping get more children into schools, WithOneSeed has developed classroom resources about environment, citizenship and culture.

Finally, WithOneSeed is building partnerships in the Asia-Pacific to foster regional citizenship. The idea is that the atmosphere knows no boarders, ''my carbon is your carbon'' and we need to work across countries and cultures to find solutions.

One partnership with WithOnePlanet, is being developed to use computer technology to bring information to students in various regions about environmental issues and potential solutions. Existing programs bring young people from Australian schools to visit East Timor schools to explore environmental and cultural ideas.

Another is called Carbon Futures, which teaches children about carbon capture and the biology of trees, and operates in Melbourne in partnership with the Royal Botanic Gardens.

''We have had a range of very skilful, qualified teachers who have come and voluntarily put the curriculum together for us. Others have organised to assist to get schools to be able to visit and understand what is going on in these communities and then bring that learning back and share that around the place.''

People can donate directly to WithOneSeed on its website. Another way to participate is through an app (available at withoneseed.org.au/get-app) Mahar and his colleagues have developed for smartphones and tablet computers.

Mahar values the benefits technology brings - Infoxchange is based on them - but he wants people to also understand the devices that have become so widely used emit about $5 of carbon pollution, at current prices, each year.

The app alerts the user when that amount has been reached, and allows the transfer of $5 to WithOneSeed, which uses it to offset the pollution by planting more trees in East Timor.

''We in Australia are very fortunate.

''We get told a lot there are lots of economic difficulties, but you look at the high-end luxury car market or whatever and they are doing very well. Australia is very well-off and we have a responsibility to ensure that we understand our own wealth and we understand what we can do with that wealth, which includes helping other people.''

LINKS:

www.withoneseed.org.au

www.xpand.net.au