A Certified Path to Environmental Progress

Nov 28, 2012 by

Sustainability
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
 
 
The Aquiares coffee farm is Rainforest Alliance certified.S. Amanda CaudillThe Aquiares coffee farm is Rainforest Alliance certified.

The Rainforest Alliance was a pioneer in testing the idea that businesses can prosper by adhering to transparent and science-based environmental standards for the products they grow or make. I became familiar with their work when I first plunged into rain forest reporting in a big way to write my 1990 book on the fight for the soul of the Amazon River basin. They’re still at it, developing projects in sustainable agriculture, forestry, tourism and education. (The education efforts include educating businesses, as in “A Practical Guide to Good Practice for Tropical Forest-Based Tours.”)

Tensie Whelan, the group’s president, sent the following “Your Dot” post reflecting on some recent discussions of certification issues and opportunities:

I am writing to pick back up on some themes your postings explored before Hurricane Sandy hit — one on the role of certification in climate change and hunger and others on individuals or groups battling long odds to effect positive change in their communities.

The Rainforest Alliance is a leading certifier of sustainable agriculture, forestry and tourism operations. We’re 25 years old this year, and despite big problems we see every day, we’re optimistic about the next 25, because we also see certification working transformational change across whole industries.

Working with local groups in the global south to design standards for improving forest and farm management, and with producers and companies at all points in the value chain to implement those standards,  we’ve moved beyond polemics.   We’ve arrived at a common language about sustainable livelihoods with dignity and opportunity for workers and families and protection for wildlife, water, soil and trees.

Learning that language entails breaking down how farming is done into a hundred criteria that serve as training and innovation tools for farmers.  Often, that’s the only support they’ve had for many years. They embrace it because they can see certification increases yields and income, and protects vital resources.

In Côte d’Ivoire, an independent study documented certified cocoa farmers did more soil and water conservation, had higher yields and netted almost four times the income compared to non-certified farms.   In Kenya, when lead tea farmers supplying Lipton started working with the Rainforest Alliance, these benefits of certification were so apparent to the country’s 560,000 small tea producers, that about 350,000 of them became Rainforest Alliance Certified.   They express confidence about the future.   “We have been shown that if we work the land and our resources correctly then we can make money and live healthily and well,” says Charles Gachao, a smallholder tea farmer in Kenya’s Aberdare Mountains, who’s worked with us since 2007.

We’ve seen similar effects around the world:  certified pulp and paper producers in Brazil that protect their native forests while providing livelihoods, certified concessions in the Petén region of Guatemala where sustainable forestry not only raises  incomes but prevents deforestation 20 times better than government forest preserves,  and thousands of other examples.  Many are documented by studies rounded up here, and this video has a short primer on certification featuring Petén forestry and tea farming in Kenya.

Transformation is also underway at the big brands and retailers sourcing and selling certified sustainable goods.  They’re serious about managing environmental and social risk in their supply chain, using sustainability as a focus for innovation and competition.  Over 3% of the world’s coffee, 10% of the tea, and 15% of bananas are Rainforest Alliance Certified, and those shares are growing rapidly.

Has this eradicated hunger or poverty among all 2 billion people who rely on resource-based livelihoods?  Not yet.  But one farm, one company, one consumer at a time, the world is changing – fast.

We welcome your comments!