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ICRAF joins Clarins’ Seeds of Beauty project in China

Women sort walnuts in the Three Parallel Rivers ecosystem[2]

Women sort walnuts in the Three Parallel Rivers ecosystem

At the entrance to the valley where the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) will work with Clarins, two women sort walnuts in the bright winter sun. The nut tree is part of the delicate ecology of the mountains above. This is China’s three parallel rivers ecosystem, where the Yangtze, Mekong and Salween flow just kilometres apart, and which may “harbour the richest biodiversity among the temperate areas of the world”, according to UNESCO.

Funded by the iconic French company, the project will help villagers preserve the unique flora among which they farm, improve their productivity with agroforestry, and diversify their incomes. “We built Clarins thanks to plants,” said managing director Dr Olivier Courtins at the launch on 19 November. “This project is for biodiversity, the environment and ruralité.”

This is ICRAF’s third new private public partnership in 2014. The others are with the US firm Pioneer – exploring whether seed for nitrogen-fixing trees can be marketed alongside maize seed — and with Lafarge – a consultancy to fathom whether Uganda produces sufficient coffee husks and other agricultural residue to fire the cement company’s furnaces without carbon stripping the land.

Clarins Icraf group 2[2]

Clarin’s managing director and owner Dr Olivier Courtins at the launch of the Seeds for Beauty project with the ICRAF team: Cathy Watson, Peter Mortimer, Jianchu Xu and Anne Ostermann. At right is Panchat Thongbuaruang, project manager for Pur Project.

Of the three, teaming with the beauty brand is the most glamorous. At the launch, a young woman in a Clarins-red dress introduced the speakers, out shone only by women in the traditional costume of the Naxi and Lisu minorities, among which the project is sited. The project will investigate some of the 1680 plants that the China Food and Drug Administration recommends for cosmetic use.

“This project is a good testing ground for Clarins as all their products come from plants,” said Professor Jianchu Xu, who leads ICRAF in China and Central Asia. “They plan to share the benefits back to the community, and that is why we will support Clarins in many different ways.” Clarins ranks fourth on the list of most ecological cosmetics companies and was the first French cosmetics brand to abandon animal testing.

“I see this project in three ways,” said ICRAF soils scientist Peter Mortimer, whose specialty is the communities of bacteria and fungi that make soil alive. “First, identify the plants that are being depleted in the wild. Second, grow those plants on farm to eliminate wild harvesting. And third, explore the agroecological knowledge of villagers and offer them training in agroforestry.”

Training will be based on farmers’ concerns. “We have already spent quite some time with them in their fields,” says Dr Anne Ostermann, who serves with ICRAF China. “Ninety per cent of their questions are about soil – its water holding capacity and stability. There is a lot of erosion in the dry season. Basically, all of their soil problems can be solved by increasing the organic matter.”

Ostermann says that promising approaches to increasing soil carbon include planting legumes to cover bare soil in winter, not burning crop residues but instead using them as bedding for livestock and composting them  with the manure that accumulates in the cold months when the animals are kept inside, and a more deliberate integration of trees on farms – agroforestry.

ICRAF’s Dr He Jun says there is much room for gain in the selected villages of Meile and Liguang. “They manage their walnut trees poorly, not debranching them. And the varieties are not the best. We can suggest ten different ones with qualities like softer shells, more oil and better timber. For the first five years, corn and walnuts can grow together. After that, the agroforestry combination is wheat with walnuts with medicinal plants in the shade.

Even more fundamentally, says the social scientist, “They need to reduce chemical use. You can’t produce a herbal product for medicine or a cosmetic company with chemicals.” China applies more chemical fertilizer per hectare than anywhere else in the world: 647 Kg of nitrogenous, potash and phosphate fertilizer per hectare of arable land in 2012, according to the World Bank, compared to 131 kg/ha in the USA and  234 kg/ha in the UK. More detailed ICRAF research in Yunnan, meanwhile, found farmers applying 304Kg of nitrogen per hectare compared to 84 kg/ha in the USA.

But Dr Jun is optimistic that this too can change. From 2004 to 2012, he worked among the Yi in Baoshan. “All farmers worry that their yields will fall if they reduce chemical inputs. So we said, ‘If you lose income, we will compensate you’. We reduced their fertilizer use by 30-40% through good agricultural practices and production remained the same. In fact, it increased for local strains of corn.”

Organic agriculture makes business sense. According to Yufang Su, ICRAF China’s programme director, organic herbal medicine in China can sell for three times the price of herbal medicine produced with chemicals. The first farmer training is scheduled for March 2015. Other partners in the Seeds for Beauty project are the NGOs Zigen and Pur Project and the Yulong Naxi Autonomous County Government. Kunming Institute of Botany is managing the plant extracts.

Clarins established a direct presence in China in 2011 and has grown by over 10% a year since then. Sold from 118 counters in 47 Chinese cities, China now accounts for 6% of Clarin’s global business and 12% if sales to Chinese overseas travelers are factored in. ICRAF China has been headquartered in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, since 2002 and has close to 60 staff and students today.

A press release by Clarins says that the Seeds for Beauty project aims to “increase local biodiversity after intensive farming had adversely affected the range of plant species and driven some, like the Yunnan fern, to the point of extinction.” “All the people in Clarins are behind me and know that I am here representing the values of the group,” said Olivier Courtins, the son of the Clarins founder.


For PDF copies of the journal articles referred to above and more information, please contact Yufang Su on suyufang@mail.kib.ac.cn


Cathy Watson

Cathy Watson is chief of programme development at the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi. Before joining ICRAF in November 2012, she founded and ran two NGOs in Uganda -- Straight Talk Foundation and Mvule Trust. She was made a senior Ashoka fellow for social entrepreneurship in 2006. She has also been a foreign correspondent, working for The Guardian and the BBC, among others. A graduate in biology and Latin American Studies from Princeton, she has over 30 years of work experience in Africa with a focus on trees, youth, HIV, families, and communication for social change. She holds a graduate certificate in agroforestry from the University of Missouri.

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