From Hertfordshire to the Amazon

PUBLISHED: 19:04 27 September 2010 | UPDATED: 17:54 20 February 2013

Andrew, right, with partner Omari Bowers at a local school

Andrew, right, with partner Omari Bowers at a local school

How the recession led one Hertfordshire businessman to the Amazon Rainforest

FIVE years ago Hertfordshire businessman Andrew Skeene was on top of the world. Riding the wave of economic prosperity, the entrepreneur was busy amassing a small fortune in property development and had his sights set on building a small empire.
Then the slump came and like millions of others around the world Andrew felt the rug being pulled from underneath him.
A true entrepreneur in every sense of the word, Andrew, from Hitchin, was determined not to sink with the ship and, with his business partner Omari Bowers from Bromley in Kent, he spent six months researching other business opportunities and markets, looking for an alternative business to housing that would offer stability, growth and above all profitability. It was during this period that he started investigating forestry as an alternative.
What really appealed to us about forestry, says Andrew, is many of the skills wed developed as property developers in the UK were extremely relevant to the industry. For example when you buy land to grow trees you need to think about things like the quality of the land and the infrastructure and the environment.
The other thing that stood out about forestry was the rate of growth of the industry which overtook the rate of growth of the property market in 2007. Broadly speaking the industry has grown 10-20 per cent per annum over the last 20 years.
Having decided that forestry was the last stable market the next question that faced Andrew and Omari was where to invest. After looking at potential markets in India and China they eventually settled on Brazil, largely because of the huge demand for teak trees a yellowish brown timber often used in manufacturing outdoor furniture, boat decks and indoor floorings and furnishings. Within a few weeks they flew out to Matto Grosso state in Brazil where they visited several plantations and eventually bought their first 1,000 hectares of land establishing Global Forestry Investments.
Everything happened so incredibly fast, says Andrew. Within the space of a year we were suddenly immersed in a new industry and were working in a country on the other side of the world. The most important thing we had to do was set up a company for forestry specialists and experts who fully understood the region, the environment and the politics of the country.
We werent just buying land to grow trees, we were going to need to build infrastructure to support the people we employed, forge relationships with the local authorities and create a community in the heart of the Amazon obviously this is something we could not do alone.
Another major issue for Andrew and Omari was the environment. Over the past few decades the Brazilian rainforest has been a major battleground for environmentalists. From 2000-2005, deforestation saw Brazil lose 7.3 million hectares an area larger than that of Greece.
It is widely believed if deforestation were to wipe out the entire Brazilian Rainforest it would spark changes all over the planet. It would result in huge weather changes around the globe, cause an increase of droughts and deserts, cause massive starvation for many people and we would lose millions of species of plants and animals that roughly represent half the species on Earth.
I dont think either of us really appreciated the situation in Brazil until we saw it for ourselves, says Omari. You are always told about the negative effects that destroying the rainforest will have on the planet, but until you go out and experience it firsthand its very difficult to feel strongly connected to it, adds Andrew.
According to the business partners one of the main benefits of forestry is it offers a sustainable alternative to more traditional slash and burn agriculture that has caused havoc in the region. While slash and burn techniques may have a long tradition, they are a major cause of deforestation, ruining the fertility of the land.
On our first visit we saw many areas hit by slash and burn. It is a very real problem and it helped us realise that what we were doing was far more than just a business venture. When we set GFI up we pledged that for every acre of trees we grow for harvesting we would grow an acre for reforestation. Our aim is to grow 14 million trees in the next five years so we very much consider ourselves on the side of the environment.
The biggest challenge the pair face over the next few years, though, is building a village to house up to 150 people in the Brazilian state of Para where they have bought their latest plantation. They are extremely passionate about this community project and particularly about the new school they are planning to build, which they hope will be the Eton of the Amazon.
We really want to make sure that these kids get the best possible education and opportunities in life. It isnt often you get the opportunity to genuinely help people and this is something we are so excited about. Once the school is up and running we are also planning to build a football academy and a performing arts school hopefully as GFI grows we can replicate this model across the country, adds Andrew.
Its a dream come true. If youd told us 10 years ago that we would end up doing this I would have called you mad, but now that we are here I couldnt imagine doing anything else that could be this rewarding.

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