Local Actions, Global Impact
By Tensie Whelan
Issue 5 Fall 2010
The Rainforest Alliance works to conserve biodiversity and ensure sustainable livelihoods by transforming land-use practices, business practices and consumer behavior. Since 1986, they have effectively addressed complex issues related to deforestation through collaboration with community representatives, business leaders, technical experts, local and international non-profit organizations. Through their system of certification and verification of agricultural products, they have enabled communities that manage these natural resources, while simultaneously educating consumers. This article outlines several initiatives that have used strategic design to create sustainability standards for forestry, agriculture and tourism businesses.
Community. Traditionally, it’s been defined as a group of individuals localized in a particular area that share a common interest. But with the advent of computer technology and globalization, the definition of community has morphed and expanded considerably. There are people who share interests and needs despite being thousands of miles apart, and there are communities that exist only in the virtual sense. How does one go about de signing the wellbeing of such a potentially diffuse entity?
It may seem like an impossible challenge, but it’s actually the same challenge that conservationists have faced for years. We’ve always known that environmental destruction and its associated impacts do not respect manmade boundaries or confine themselves to discreet spaces. In the US, problems like acid rain lifted the veil and showed us that the actions of a few could affect the wellbeing of fellow citizens hundreds of miles away.
“We’ve always known that environmental destruction and its associated impacts do not respect manmade boundaries or confine themselves to discreet spaces.“
These days, the headlines are about the BP oil spill, but the message is the same. And on a global scale, we know that rampant deforestation in the tropics has destroyed wildlife habitats—causing species extinctions and the attendant ripple effects—disrupted environmental services such as watershed protection and produced the greenhouse gas emissions that lead to climate change. The idea that any of us can shield ourselves from the choices and actions of others is a fallacy. For better or worse, we are all in this together. And that’s where community comes in. Whether we live in the same town or half a world away from each other, by recognizing our shared goals and working together to achieve them, we can transform complex, seemingly intractable problems into manageable, practical solutions.
It’s what the Rainforest Alliance has been doing since its inception in 1986. Founded in response to the clear-cutting of tropical rainforests, we realized that we could not simply tell an impoverished family or community in a developing nation to put down the axe or refrain from razing their trees and planting subsistence crops. In many cases, the economic survival of entire villages depended solely on the income they earned from illegal logging or other activities made possible by the clearing of forests. The only way we can effectively address the problem of deforestation is by coming up with solutions that take into account all of the economic and social realities that these people are facing.
As a result, we’ve collaborated with community representatives, business leaders, scientists, technical experts, local and international nonprofit organizations and government officials to design sustainability standards for forestry, agriculture and tourism businesses. Through certification and verification, the Rainforest Alliance and our NGO partners independently evaluate companies and community enterprises against established guidelines; those that meet the standards are able to market and sell their products and services with the Rainforest Alliance Certified™ or Rainforest Alliance Verified™ seals. In turn, these labels allow consumers to support the efforts of responsible businesses through their purchasing decisions. From the beginning, we knew that certification standards had to comprise the all-important triple bottom line: environmental conservation, social justice and economic viability. Destroying the environment on which a company or community business depends will, sooner or later, doom that enterprise to certain failure. Without proper working and living conditions for its greatest resources, its employees, no business can possibly function at its peak over the long term. And without economic success, there is no hope of sustaining any of the other improvements, no matter how well intentioned or ethically sound. All three legs of the tripod have to be firmly grounded in order for it to remain standing.
Cultivating a Solution to Habitat Loss
Though the tripod metaphor is apt, our triple-bottom-line approach is about more than just preventing collapse. As the various elements of our programs come together, the successes they produce start to take on a life of their own. Businesses and community enterprises that conserve their environments often become more efficient and are better run in all respects—a byproduct of the increased attention to the management of their operations. By caring about their natural resources—the fertility of their soil, the health of their forests and the survival of the natural and cultural attractions that draw tourists—they ensure the longevity of their businesses and earn the loyalty of their customers. Enterprises that have happy and healthy workers have lower staff turnover rates and are more productive than their peers. And a community that earns a premium for its products and protects its economic bottom line has just given itself a very compelling reason to maintain and even improve on its commitment to sustainability.
We can look to the Indonesian island of Sumatra for an example of these ideas at work. On the island’s southern tip is the Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park, a World Heritage site that is also home to the worlds remaining population of wild Sumatran tigers, currently estimated to number fewer than 400. The habitat of this critically endangered feline has been shrinking rapidly. Illegal squatters have already converted nearly 20 percent of the 900,000-acre (356,000-hectare) park to farmland for the cultivation of coffee, pepper and other crops. And a large influx of post-2004 tsunami immigrants from the provinces of Aceh and North Sumatra has only increased pressures on the resource-rich protected area. Despite government efforts to resettle these immigrants, as many as 15,600 families have built semi-permanent homes within the park, and the incursion continues, endangering not only the Sumatran tiger but scores of other wildlife species.
The Rainforest Alliance believes that it’s not enough to tell these families that they cannot establish homes or farms within the park; there has to be a more positive, proactive response to the very real challenges these people are facing. That’s why we’ve been collaborating with the World Wildlife Fund to encourage the sustainable cultivation of coffee outside of the park’s boundaries. We are working with farmers to help them produce coffee beans that comply with the standards established by the Sustainable Agriculture Network—the network of NGOs that jointly manages Rainforest Alliance farm certification. In addition to preventing further deforestation and habitat loss by operating outside the park, these farmers are learning to make natural compost and intersperse their coffee with other plants including ginger, elephant grass and fruit trees, which can help to slow soil erosion. To earn certification, they must also properly dispose of their waste, eliminate certain herbicides such as paraquat and reduce their agrochemical use overall.
Because their coffee bears the Rainforest Alliance Certified seal, farmers can command a premium in the market. To ensure that these communities are able to benefit from their commitment to sustainability, we encourage coffee trading companies to source the certified beans that these farmers produce. Kraft Foods and ECOM—the world’s third largest coffee trader—have been supporting the Rainforest Alliance’s work on Sumatra, and other traders, such as Nedcoffee and Olam, are following the call for a combined effort to promote Rainforest Alliance Certified coffee grown in this area. As Qori Nilwan Ishaq, our project coordinator in the region, explains: “Biodiversity is being maintained, and farmers are benefiting economically. This gives squatters the incentive to move outside the park boundaries where they can live legally and still earn a living.” When local communities are able to do better by producing a crop in harmony with the environment than they would by alternative means, it provides them with a persuasive reason to keep precious wildlife habitat intact.
Training the Next Generation
The ethnic Poqomchi are one of Guatemala’s smallest indigenous groups. They have relied mainly on subsistence farming, and the women of the community weave textiles on backstrap looms, as they have done for centuries. Most Poqomchi live in the country’s mountainous Alta Verapaz region, where the indiscriminate clearing of forests for the cultivation of corn and beans presents an ongoing problem. In 1996, four members of the community created a forestry association, known as ASILCOM, in an attempt to take a more organized approach to harvesting and selling timber. The Rainforest Alliance began working with ASILCOM in 2007, helping the group manage its growing forestry business, prepare for certification and market its products.
Today, the association includes more than 800 members, from nine communities, who manage 2,604 acres (1,054 hectares) of Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)/Rainforest Alliance Certified forestland. They now have a sawmill and carpentry warehouse and plan to harvest more than two million board feet of lumber by 2015, worth a total of $292,000. When transformed into products such as sawn wood, pallets and furniture, the market value of these goods could reach one million dollars. With their newfound financial prosperity, the Poqomchi have chosen to invest in education. Two of their leaders have been teaching forestry to over 100 girls and young women, helping them develop their basic technical knowledge, which would allow them to become active members of the local forestry association, and stewards of their land. These young women are learning about the life cycle of trees and the link between trees, erosion control, wildlife and water resources, as well as how to identify and map natural forests and tree plantations in their local communities.
A Host of Responsible Travel Options
A vital part of our work with certified farms and forestry operations focuses on educating consumers about the connection between certified products and the communities and businesses that produce them. When it comes to tourism, however, the connection needs little explanation; travelers can see the impacts with their own eyes. The very survival of the destinations they visit and the economic and cultural wellbeing of the communities that host them depend on the sustainable management of tourism businesses. A beachfront hotel that destroys the coral reefs that draw visitors to its shores is a beachfront hotel that will not remain in business very long. Through Rainforest Alliance-led workshops and training sessions, tourism enterprises learn techniques for integrating best management practices into their particular business. A 2009 study of hotels that participate in our program demonstrates the kind of change that is possible. An examination of 14 hotels of various sizes and types located in Belize, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala and Nicaragua, found that these businesses reduced their operating costs and improved both the quality of their service and their public image. Seventy-one percent reduced water consumption, 93 percent decreased their energy use and 71 percent reduced solid waste, while the amount of money they spent on water and energy decreased by 31 percent and 64 percent, respectively.
When it came to supporting their local community, all of the hotels purchased goods and services from small- and medium-sized local enterprises, and 64 percent saved money on transportation costs as a result. All of the businesses hired local workers, and 93 percent reported a decrease in staff turnover. In addition to helping existing hotels and tour operators to operate more efficiently and responsibly, we also provide forest communities with the information they need to establish lodges and other sustainable tourism businesses as a means of generating income from their healthy standing forests and natural attractions. These businesses offer a good alternative to other potentially lucrative but damaging activities. In Ecuador, for example, we have been working with the indigenous Kichwa community of Añangu, whose Napo Wildlife Center provides visitors with a high-end tropical experience while earning community members a sustainable source of income and the means to conserve 53,500 acres (over 21,400 hectares) of rainforest. In Rainforest Alliance tourism workshops, lodge operators and staff have learned to install solar panels, treat wastewater properly and compost organic residues. By protecting the natural treasures that tourists flock to see, the members of this community are establishing the foundation for an economically and environmentally viable future.
Creating a Stable Climate forConservation
All of the sustainability efforts of forest communities will fall short if the issue of climate change is overlooked. Rural forest communities have not only been among the first to endure the effects of our changing climate, but they will inevitably be among those who suffer the worst of its wrath: the floods, droughts, resource inequities and conflicts that are likely to intensify as resources grow increasingly scarce. Deforestation is responsible for 17 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions caused by human beings—which is more than all of the emissions generated by cars, trucks and buses combined—so it’s never been more important to help forest communities manage their land properly and keep their trees standing.
By verifying that forests, farms and other natural sites effectively sequester carbon, we’re enabling the communities that manage them to benefit from carbon-credit payments made by industrialized nations seeking to offset their own emissions. This provides communities with an opportunity to improve their own economic condition while aiding the global environment.
Since 1997, when the Guatemalan government awarded the community of Carmelita the rights to manage 132,938 acres (53,798 hectares) of land in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, the 75 families who live there have been working to conserve their forest resources through the sustainable harvesting of xate, chiclé and wood.
By verifying that forests, farms and other natural sites effectively sequester carbon, we’re enabling the communities that manage them to benefit from carbon-credit payments
The Rainforest Alliance has certified Carmelita’s forestry operations and helped it find international buyers for its wood products. While this arrangement has meant steadily increasing profits for the community—which has invested it in building a new school, health center and soccer field—it has not completely succeeded in helping its members fully protect against the illegal loggers and fires that continue to destroy forest reserve areas.
To provide communities like Carmelita with the tools necessary to conserve their forests, the Rainforest Alliance is spearheading a project that will help avoid carbon emissions while creating a new source of revenue. During its 20-year life span, the project has the potential to offset an estimated 16 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. On an annual basis, the avoided emissions are equal to those produced by over 145,000 passenger vehicles. Under the terms of the project, the communities, government and two companies that hold concessions in the region will sell credits for verified emissions reductions on the international carbon market. Income from these sales will be applied toward increased vigilance of reserve areas and improved education. “For me, education is crucial,” notes Carlos Crasborn, president of the Carmelita concession. “Sadly, most of the children in our community leave to study elsewhere at the age of 15, because we don’t have the facilities or teachers to educate them up to 18 years. We want them to stay in the community. Educating them here will be a step towards achieving that.”
Weaving a Web
Though certification and verification are now widely accepted tools, this wasn’t always the case. At first, their complexity made them a challenge to explain, to the media, the general public and other key audiences. In many ways, it would have been easier to restrict our focus to one aspect of the deforestation problem—getting governments to set aside forest reserves, or by staging boycotts. But we knew that our work would achieve the greatest results over the long run if we integrated all of the various facets of the problem into a creative, comprehensive solution.
The communities we work with are similarly complex—intricate webs built around the interactions between people and the relationships these interactions help forge. Whether it’s the ability to feed one’s family, the survival of a species, the protection of a local water supply or the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, the shared interest of a community is a powerful bond, one that can bring about remarkable change. Though the success of organizations like ours is often measured through numbers and statistics, the true impact of our work is much more profound. In the words of Armando Encarnación, a cocoa farmer who has earned the Rainforest Alliance Certified seal and a member of an indigenous community in Ecuador, “The process of certifying our cocoa has changed the way we think and the way we live.”
Economically successful methods of agriculture and natural resource utilization have traditionally been considered to be in opposition to environmental sustainability and community wellbeing. Previous business models have forced communities with access to these natural resources into systems that damage biodiversity, therefore depleting the very natural resources necessary for economic activity. Founded in 1986 as a response to deforestation, the Rainforest Alliance works to conserve biodiversity and ensure sustainable livelihoods by transforming land-use practices, business practices and consumer behavior. Rainforest Alliance’s respect and concern for natural environments, local peoples and all stakeholders has led them to design sustainable business models in over seventy countries around the globe.
Work with communities to take advantage of available business opportunities which create economic value for consumers and communities alike.
STRATEGIES IN ACTION:
Certification and Verification
Design a system of tools that are built around community relationships, based on whole web of issues, not only single dimension of deforestation
Market and sell products with Rainforest Alliance Certified™ or Rainforest Alliance Verified™ seal
Consumers support responsible businesses through purchase
Shared interest of community and market can bring about remarkable change
About the Author:
Tensie Whelan serves as the president of the Rainforest Alliance, and has been involved with the organization since 1990, first as a board member, and then later as a consultant, becoming the executive director in 2000. Whelan has been working in the environmental field for more than 25 years, during which time she served as the vice president of conservation information at the National Audubon Society and executive director of the New York League of Conservation Voters. Whelan also worked as a journalist and environmental communications consultant in Costa Rica, and was the managing editor of Ambio – an international environmental journal based in Stockholm. Prior to joining the Rainforest Alliance as its executive director, Whelan worked as a management consultant to nonprofit organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund. Whelan serves on the boards of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Coalition and Social Accountability International, is a member of the advisory board for corporate social responsibility at Fortis, as well as the sustainable agriculture advisory board for Unilever, sits on the governing body of the U.N. Foundation’s World Heritage Alliance, and is the co-chair of the steering committee of the Sustainable Food Lab.
Rainforest Alliance Website – http://www.rainforest-alliance.org/index.cfm
Forest Stewardship Council – http://www.fsc.org/
Frog Blog (US) – http://www.rainforest-alliance.org/blog/
Frog Blog (UK) – http://thefrogblog.org.uk/