Rebuilding the Amazon one tree at a time — Ben Valks, Social Entrepreneur

Written by: Samantha Wolhuter

picture of a man with a black hoodie on a light blue background

‘Do not lose hold of your dreams, for if you do, you may still exist but you have ceased to live’ Thoreau

In 2009 Ben Valks launched the Black Jaguar Foundation (BJF), an international NGO with one very clear and ambitious goal: realising the longest biodiversity corridor in the world and one of the largest reforestation projects ever, in order to improve the lives of each of us and of all future generations on our planet. The inception of this grand mission arose from the very personal experiences of the foundation’s founder, Ben Valks. He is an ardent traveller and has spent extensive time in the Amazon region in the heart of Brazil, in search of the elusive black jaguar. The incredible story of what lead Ben to embark on the mission of realizing biodiversity in the Cerrado and Amazon makes the Black Jaguar Foundation a truly unique enterprise.

An Entrepreneur at heart

Ben grew up in a household that nourished his entrepreneurial spirit. His very first business endeavour was as a rabbit breeder when he was 8 years old. When he asked his father for a skateboard, he was told the way he would get his skateboard was if he earned the money himself. Even as a young child, Ben’s vision, patience and tenacity were visible. Most kids set up a lemonade stand, Ben bred rabbits and sold them at a premium — a plan that required attention and foresight.

As he details in his book, No Risk, No Life, he was not a great student at school who barely scraped by. However, when it came to making a decision of what he wanted to do with his life it was an easy one for Ben. He applied to business school and was initially waitlisted, but after sending more than ten letters to the admissions staff he secured a spot. From there he went on to do internships across the globe including in Japan and Venezuela. These experiences allowed him to recognise how practicing business in other cultures was a challenge, yet it was the kind of challenge that made every day exciting.

Due to these experiences and a continued desire to see the world, he set out to start his first professional enterprise after graduating college. He was determined to set up a business representing American and European stock-market listed firms in regions that were notorious for high export barriers. He decided that the location for his first business would be in the Middle East. It took him several years, a number of fortunate business relationships and many long hours of hard work and plane travel but eventually he had turned a simple idea into an incredible success. In 2003, he and his partner agreed to sell the business with the plan to start the enterprise all over again in South America.

On a trip to scout possible markets where they would start over, Ben flew over the Amazon and a deep desire was stoked within him. He realised he didn’t want to just fly over the Amazon — he wanted to go through it.

A series of adventures

Not long after this flight, Ben decided to take 3 months off work and go to Brazil to embark on a treacherous journey through the jungle from Humaita to Manaus on his motorbike. Many of those he met along the way thought he was either crazy or foolish or both, but he was determined and went about finding the best way and the best people to help him accomplish this dream. Being confronted by dense jungle, alligators, snakes and isolation did not temper his spirit. This 800km journey through the jungle with little else than his motorcycle, gas, food and a hammock left him exuberant. Ben says “If you are not entirely sure something is impossible, it will turn out to be possible, somehow, most of the time”, a testament to his adventurous spirit and embrace of any challenge.

For Ben’s next journey he had something else quite fantastical in mind. Some years previously he had been told about the Iditarod, a 1600 km dog sled race across the Alaskan tundra. One of the most gruelling races known to man under the most extreme conditions. Once again, most thought he was crazy but after discussing it with his business partner he decided to put the plans for the new business on hold so he could take part. Training for the race took just under 6 months and throughout the race Ben was tested physically and mentally beyond anything he had experienced to date. Unfortunately, poor weather conditions in the way of a terrible snowstorm prevented him from finishing by a mere 300 km. But he left the race with great respect for all those that had come before him and pride in pursuing a dream and driving through all manner of adverse conditions to achieve it.

Following this fantastic journey, Ben motorbiked his way through North, Central and South America. Along the way, he met so many inspirational people including women like Mayra and Maively Escobar who dedicated their time to an orphanage in Guatemala for disabled orphans, called ‘Obras Sociales del Santo Hermano Pedro’. So moved by the children at the orphanage and their bravery in the face of destitution and difficulty, Ben dedicated all the author proceeds from the first Dutch editions of his book to the orphanage and continues to raise awareness for this incredible place that saves the lives of children who otherwise would have very little hope.

In search of the Black Jaguar

Upon his return to Manaus, two years after his first journey through the jungle, Ben had one thing in mind, photographing the elusive black Jaguar. This brings our story full circle and back to where his intent to help save the rainforest began. After 21 unsuccessful missions to track down this regal animal in its natural habitat, Ben met with an expert hunter who was only too pleased to take Ben out so he could get his prized picture. A trip that was supposed to take 4 days into dense jungle ended after 9 hours with Ben returning not with a picture of the jaguar but with an incredibly heavy heart. On their journey, instead of pristine and intact jungle, they were confronted with acres and acres of scorched earth. The jungle’s natural wild beauty had been flattened for soy farms and the devastation was set to grow, as globally, plans continue to focus on deforestation of arable land for farming purposes.

The Amazon region that Ben was in and its neighbouring Cerrado Savanna are two of the most important ecosystems on earth, contributing significantly to essential resources that quite literally support human life. Between them, they generate 20% of the world’s oxygen, filter 30% of the planet’s freshwater annually and grow the ingredients of 25% of all modern medicine. With these statistics in mind, it is particularly alarming that the rate of deforestation in the region has actually increased by 29% in 2017 in comparison to 2016 figures.

Driven by the destruction he saw and inspired by the message in Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s documentary Home: ‘the time to act is now’, Ben began the Black Jaguar Foundation. The impressive and ambitious foundation plans to create the longest biodiversity corridor on Earth along the Araguaia river in Brazil. It is currently one of the largest reforestation projects in South America and it involves planting hundreds of millions of indigenous trees in the corridor zone which runs up to 40 kilometres wide and 2600 km long. A nature corridor traditionally consists of strips of reforested land that connects isolated ‘islands’ where the natural biodiversity is still in pristine condition.

Ben and his team of dedicated professionals, predominantly located in Brazil and the Netherlands, have set out three distinct tasks in order to achieve the mission of the BJF:

BJF Corridor Mapping Project

‘Identify all landowners of the 10.4 million-hectare Corridor Zone and determine their land use’. With the help of prestigious technical partners such as WRI Brazil, this first task has now been completely achieved and the corridor has been entirely mapped out. Creating a community of landowners committed to the creation of the Araguaia Corridor is also crucial to success. BJF is striving to achieve this and has already got influential first transition-landowners on board, such as Guilherme Tiezzi who owns two farms inside the corridor and has now become a BJF partner.

BJF Biodiversity Planning

‘Perform in-depth studies to determine the right combination of indigenous trees to be replanted for the entire corridor and make meticulous plans for the reforestation itself.’ Because each part within the ecosystems of the corridor has its own unique mix of native trees that are essential to restoring the natural balance. The BJF aim to set up an Ecological Agriculture Knowledge Center to help landowners transition into sustainable ecological farming and, as a result, increase their productivity. That way, farmers in the Corridor Zone can produce more while both soil and biodiversity will prosper. This service for landowners in the Corridor Zone promotes a new agricultural paradigm that integrates crops, cattle and forests. The BJF will carry out these complex tasks in close partnership with world-renowned scientific institutions and partners.

Fundraising

This fund would ultimately plant the hundreds of millions of indigenous trees required to make the corridor project a success and restore the region to its original state.

The Plan

To ensure success, the BJF team have divided the plan into three phases: preparation, funding and implementation. The first of these phases is entirely complete and allows the BJF to take off by building a healthy framework for the foundation in terms of (CRM) systems and (sponsored) offices. The BJF is also developing a global ‘Community of Change’, a dedicated international team of talented volunteers, suppliers and ambassadors who work towards helping the BJF realise its goals.

As of 2019, BJF is in the funding phase of the project and is well on its way to meeting some key milestones. One of these key milestones is that the BJF, in close partnership with its institutional partner WRI Brazil, have 100% completed the first important task of ‘mapping’ the entire 10,4 million hectare corridor zone! BJF’s team in Brazil is also realizing the first success-cases in the field, where ‘transition-landowners’ are becoming active participants in the Araguaia Corridor. These people are also performing the roles of ambassadors in the field, inspiring and motivating other landowners to restore and reforest part of their land and be an important piece in the large puzzle-of-green, which will ultimately create the Araguaia Biodiversity Corridor. Many corporations and individuals have already gotten involved with either services or cash donations.

WeAreBrain is incredibly pleased to be part of this initiative and we truly value our interactions with both the foundation and Ben himself. Ben comes with some very sage advice summed up quite simply as:

1. Pursue your dreams, find a way to do the things you want to do. If the traditional avenues aren’t open to you, take the road less travelled.

2. On the road to your success, don’t give up! Be honest with yourself, realise that it will be hard and sometimes you will be all alone and this is when you will be tested the most. Push through those difficult moments because the reward is always worth it

3. Don’t listen to people who say it can’t be done or shouldn’t be done. They’re usually wrong.

4. Find people who are willing to go on the journey with you. You do need people in your corner for support but also, even the most talented people can’t do everything. So surround yourself with smart people who do the things you can’t. They’ll do it better than you can and it’ll be a pleasure watching them succeed.

5. Find a way to serve others, true accomplishment and satisfaction frequently come when you build, grow and do something in service of something greater than yourself.

6. Have fun! It will be difficult but it shouldn’t always be hard. Take those moments to really appreciate what you have achieved and what you plan to achieve.

Beyond that remember life is an adventure and your good idea will only become real if you work to make it real.

To read more about Ben Valks, his incredible adventures and how you can be part of the Black Jaguar Foundation, you can buy the full book here.

100% of the proceeds go to the Black Jaguar Foundation!

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Samantha Wolhuter
Author info
Samantha Wolhuter
Sam is in charge of writing a big portion of WeAreBrain’s creative content. She is a digital nomad always on the go, inspiring us with her words from some of the world's most beautiful locations.
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