were there trees in those places
where my father and my mother were born
and in that time did
my father and my mother see them
and when they said yes it meant
they did not remember
What were they I asked what were they
but both my father and my mother
said they never knew
-From Native Trees by W.S. Merwin
When the Rainforest Alliance was founded, the Brazilian Amazon alone was losing forest equivalent to the size of Maryland every year. In 2015, annual deforestation had decreased by 75%, down to the approximate size of Connecticut. This is the sort of good news that’s hard to take with a smile. Between 1970 and 1988, the Brazilian Amazon lost 10% of its rainforest. It has lost nearly another 10% since then, but it took 30 years rather than just 18. Again, good news … if you say so.
Rainforest Alliance is among the organizations that have helped slow the deforestation. While the loss is still too great, had not organizations like Rainforest Alliance sounded the alarm and taken proactive steps to mitigate deforestation and its indirect causes, we would be living with even a greater loss, perhaps staggering. Still, worldwide, 32 million acres of forest vanish every year. Almost half of the earth’s original forest cover is gone while the work we ask the remaining forests to do as the earth’s air filter has multiplied many times over.
We might be surprised at where we find the Rainforest Alliance in action 30 years from its founding but should not forget that whenever we see a Rainforest Alliance logo there are trees at the beginning of that story and be reminded of just a few reasons: Why trees?
- More species of plant and animal live in the rainforest than any other land habitat. Four-square-miles of rainforest can contain as many as 1,500 flowering plants, 750 species of trees, 400 species of birds and 150 species of butterflies. If the rainforests continue to decline in the way that they have been, about 5-10 percent of these species will go extinct every ten years.
- More than 25 percent of the medicines we use originate in rainforest plants but Less than one percent of the species of plants in the tropical rainforests have actually been analyzed to determine their value in the world of medicine. Seventy percent of the plants identified by the U.S. National Cancer Institute as useful in the treatment of cancer are found only in rainforests.
- Rainforests are the world’s thermostat, regulating temperatures and weather patterns. A mature tree can reduce peak summer temperatures by up to 9° Fahrenheit.
- A significant amount of our oxygen supply is supplied by the tropical rainforests, regardless of where we live. One tree can convert as much as 48 pounds of carbon dioxide into clean air per year.
- One-fifth of the world’s fresh water is found in the Amazon Basin. Rainforests are critical in maintaining the Earth’s limited supply of drinking and fresh water.
From its founding over 30 years, the Rainforest Alliance recognized that the causes of deforestation begin far “upstream” from the axes and chainsaws, and understanding the value of forests means understanding the agricultural and human systems that must survive and thrive alongside them. Beyond medicine, rainforests provide other products integral to the economies of the regions they share with people, so the Alliance adopted the pillars of sustainability: social, economic, and environmental.
Like dropping a pebble in a pond, what happens in the rainforest doesn’t stay in the rainforest but ripples out into the world and one of these ripples is the social and economic necessity of agriculture. The Rainforest Alliance focused first on fighting deforestation, which immediately led to reframing ideas around forestry, identifying economic incentives for sustainable practices that sought to maintain biodiversity, impacts that could be measured and certified. Certification would quickly become a key component of the Rainforest Alliance approach because it reached all the way downstream to the consumer.
From forestry, the ripple continued on to banana farming. Bananas can not only be grown in forest conditions, they thrive in forest conditions. Rainforest Alliance certified its first Banana farms in 1992. From bananas, it is a short hop to coffee.
The first coffee farm certification was issued in 1995 in Guatemala. Most of the specialty coffee industry was still learning the value of shade coffee and coffee grown in forest-like conditions. The specialty coffee industry and the Rainforest Alliance were a match made, if not in heaven, then under the canopy.
When you buy Rainforest Alliance certified coffee, roasted or green, like the coffees from Zambia recently brought in by Olam, you are contributing to these impacts:
- Less water pollution, as all sources of contamination (pesticides, fertilizers, sediment, wastewaters, garbage, fuels and so on) are controlled.
- Less soil erosion, as farms implement soil conservation practices such as planting on contours and maintaining ground cover.
- Reduced threats to the environment and human health, as the most dangerous pesticides are prohibited and all agrochemical use is strictly regulated, farmers must use mechanical and biological pest controls where possible and strive to reduce both the toxicity and quantity of chemicals used.
- Wildlife habitat is protected, as deforestation is stopped, the banks of rivers are protected by buffer zones, critical ecosystems such as wetlands are protected and forest patches on farms are preserved.
- Less waste, as farm by-products such as banana stems, coffee pulp, orange peels and un-marketable foliage are composted and returned to the fields as natural fertilizer. Other wastes, such as plastics, glass and metals are recycled whenever possible.
- Less water used, as water conservation measures are applied in washing and packing stations, housing areas and irrigation systems.
- More efficient farm management, as the certification program helps farmers organize, plan, schedule improvements, implement better practices, identify problems and monitor progress.
- Improved conditions for farm workers, who get fair wages, decent housing, clean drinking water, sanitary facilities and a safe and wholesome work area. Workers and their families also have access to schools, health care, transportation and training.
- Improved profitability and competitiveness for farmers, who have increased production, improved quality, reduced worker complaints and increased worker efficiency. The Rainforest Alliance Certified seal of approval offers farmers more leverage at the time of sale, product differentiation, premium prices and improved access to credit.
- More collaboration between farmers and conservationists. Parks alone cannot save the world’s biodiversity; we have to ensure that wild flora and fauna find refuge outside of protected areas. Because farmers control the fate of so much land and so many critical habitats, their ideas and willingness to participate are essential to any local or regional conservation strategy.