For US Company, Tribe Partnership Is Bottom Line

What started as a Minnesota-based cosmetic company's need for natural dyes has resulted in a working relationship with a Brazilian Indian tribe.

When the Aveda Corp. needed the bixa orellana - a plant found in the Brazilian rain forest - the company turned to Acre State's Yawanawa Indians for help. The Indians had long used the plant's crushed seeds for making ceremonial face paint.

Today, with technical assistance and supplies from Aveda, the Yawanawas are not only supplying bixa for the company's lipsticks and other all-natural products, but also are on the verge of growing enough to sell to others. "By working directly with the Yawanawas we know exactly where our supply is coming from and how it is being grown, and we're helping with a viable, even global, value-added enterprise," says Jim Hulbert, head of Aveda's environment department. "A plus for us is that with this kind of relationship, we avoid the whole issue of biopiracy."

Aveda, which has stores in 54 countries, is just one example of how companies are working in tandem with rain-forest dwellers for mutual benefit. The London-based Body Shop has a working relationship with the Kayap Indians of Brazil's Par State for the supply of several materials. And Shaman Pharmaceuticals of San Francisco offers compensation - usually in the form of services such as building homes or schools - for the knowledge of indigenous groups they rely on to decide which plants to test.

Aveda's experience began shortly after company founder and head Horst Rechelbacher attended the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. His desire to work on sustainable development in the rain forest led to contacts with Acre's Yawanawas. Aveda helped the Indians turn already deforested lands into bixa fields and introduced solar technology to electrify their remote villages.

Even though the United States has failed to ratify the Earth Summit's biodiversity convention, Aveda has developed its own biodiversity and indigenous peoples support policy. "It's an important document that can show the way for other businesses that want to be socially responsible," says May Waddington, a Rio consultant to Aveda who helped develop the policy.

Noting that the policy commits Aveda to working openly with local agencies, to not seeking patent rights to any "life forms," and to respect for "intellectual rights of indigenous peoples," she says, "it may make some of the company's work slower, but the result is a partnership."

But even the environmentally committed Aveda has learned that it's not easy to be the good guy all the time. The company is one of several that recently got in hot water with London-based Amnesty International for using palm oil from Malaysia. Amnesty International said Malaysian authorities were deforesting indigenous people's lands and imprisoning protesting Indians to make way for the palm oil boom. "Even a company like Aveda still gets criticized. Shaman Pharmaceuticals is criticized even though they think they're being fair," says Jason Clay, an expert on rain-forest business partnerships based in Arlington, Va. "It just shows how hard it is to please everybody in these complex issues."

After investigating and deciding that Amnesty's accusations were well-founded, Aveda made arrangements with a Brazilian women's cooperative to supply babassu oil, a palm oil substitute.

"I think biodiversity laws [like Acre's] are very necessary," says Mr. Hulbert. "They can help address the problems, but they aren't going to harm companies that aren't just out to get something but are helping to develop thriving local businesses."

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