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DaimlerChrysler turns waste coconuts into car seats

27 March 2001 - Under an ambitious recycling campaign hatched in the depths of Amazonian Brazil, the car manufacturer has turned to natural fibres to make car seats, sun visors and truck upholstery.

A small factory in Ananindeua, Brazil is at the heart of DaimlerChrysler's ten year project to introduce coconut fibres into vehicle production which it says will benefit the people and environment of the Amazonian basin.

Dubbed the POEMA project (Poverty and Environment in the Amazons), the program encourages small communities in the Brazilian rainforest to farm their land in a sustainable manner.

Outer husks of coconuts grown by participating communities are processed locally and delivered to the new factory to be made into seats for Mercedes Benz A-Class cars, vehicle sun visors and upholstery for beds in trucks.

The new factory currently employs about 50 people. The project is expected to lead to the creation of a further 550 jobs by the end of the year.

Matthias Kleinert, Senior Vice-President of External Affairs and Public Policy at DaimlerChrysler said: "Before POEMA was started, land was often desecrated by slashing and burning for coconut production, and there was very little stability for investment in other activities, much less for services such as clean water and education.

"In line with the United Nations Global Compact, this scheme encourages people to earn their own sustainable income from the rainforest. It provides them with a new foundation for their lives."

Mr Kleinert said DaimlerChrysler believes there are sound environmental reasons for using natural fibres in vehicle production.

"Coconut shell waste is renewable and can be recycled," he said. "The fibres also decompose easily after their useful life in a car, unlike plastic which can accumulate in sprawling waste sites."

POEMA was first set up as a joint project with the University of Parà in Belém. Since then, cooperating with the Brazilian and German governments, and in association with the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), DaimlerChrysler has provided research, technology and financial support to the rapidly expanding project.

Farming is tough in the equatorial Parà region - small seedlings shrivel under the sun's rays, and exposed soils are quickly washed away by heavy rains.

POEMA's answer is simple but effective. Land around participating communities is divided up into lots of 400 square metres, each with a tall central tree, for example a mango or Brazil nut tree. In the shade of this tall tree, various plants of different heights can survive, from coconut palms and cupuacu trees to lime trees and cashew trees, bananas, cassava and pineapples, down to beans, melons and squash at ground level.

The mixed levels of vegetation ensure that the soil is regenerated without using costly chemicals. Farmers harvest a wide range of products which are either consumed by the cooperative or sold elsewhere. Using this technique, a family previously needing 25 hectares of cultivated land to survive now requires only two hectares for the same yield.

In 1992 POEMA involved fewer than 200 families. Word spread quickly to neighbouring communities, so that by 1996 the number of participating families had grown to 2000. Today more than 5000 families from small cooperatives across nine counties take part in the scheme. Together they produce a total of 100 tons of coconut fibres every month.

Mr Kleinert said: "POEMA is the perfect example of a good corporate citizen project that has succeeded in reaching all its objectives - indeed, so much so that the project is now self-sustaining."