The Rainforest Alliance's Banana Certification Program
The Rainforest Alliance first began working with banana farms in 1990, when production of the fruit was increasing in the American tropics and rainforests were being cut down to expand cropland. Banana plantations were infamous for their environmental and social abuses, which included the use of dangerous pesticides, poor working conditions, water pollution and deforestation. Pesticide-impregnated plastic bags, which protect bananas as they grow, often littered riverbanks and beaches near banana farms, while agrochemical runoff and erosion killed fish, clogged rivers and choked coral reefs. The proximity of housing to banana fields, coupled with lax regulations for pesticide handling, led to frequent health problems among workers and people who lived near farms.
"Banana production was the activity that caused the most pollution in Costa Rica's Atlantic lowlands," recalls biologist Alejandro Alvarez, who helped develop the Rainforest Alliance's certification standards in the early '90s.
The Rainforest Alliance consequently organized working groups in 1990 to study the problems on banana farms and recommend improvements. Those groups included scientists, farmers, community leaders and representatives of other nongovernmental organizations. In 1992, after two years of deliberation, they produced the first principles for sustainable farm management, which were supported by dozens of measurable, concrete criteria.
The Rainforest Alliance then urged banana companies to test those criteria on their farms, offering a seal of approval as an incentive to farms that could meet the standards. A number of independent farms began making the improvements required by the standards and two farms, one in Costa Rica the other in Hawaii, earned Rainforest Alliance certification in 1993. The Costa Rican division of Chiquita Brands International began implementing the standards in 1992 and earned Rainforest Alliance certification for their first two farms in 1994. That same year, Ecuador's second largest banana exporter, the Favorita Fruit Company, or Reybancorp, also began implementing the Rainforest Alliance's standards.
Transforming an Industry
During the 1990s, Favorita invested millions of dollars to bring their farms into compliance with the Rainforest Alliance's rigorous standards, which include zero tolerance for deforestation; waste management and recycling; decent wages, hours and conditions for workers; reduction of pesticide use and strict safety regulations governing the handling of agrochemicals. In 2000, both those companies achieved 100% certification of company-owned farms, which meant the environmental impact had improved over vast expanses of tropical lowlands and hundreds of communities near banana farms were benefiting from better conditions.
Today, more than 15 percent of all the bananas in international trade come from Rainforest Alliance Certified farms. All of Favorita's banana farms in Ecuador and all of Chiquita's farms in Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica and Panama are Rainforest Alliance Certified. Certification is implemented by the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN), a coalition of environmental groups in Latin America that is coordinated by the Rainforest Alliance. SAN auditors visit each certified farm at least once a year to ensure that they maintain the Rainforest Alliance's strict standards.
Over the years, a few farms have had their certification revoked or suspended for specific worker safety and waste management violations, but the companies quickly corrected those problems and the farms were subsequently recertified. Chiquita has also obtained Social Accountability International's SA 8000 certificate, the most rigorous and verifiable social standard currently available.
Raúl Gómez, a farm manager who has worked for Chiquita for 15 years, has witnessed the company's transformation first hand: "Everything has changed thanks to the Rainforest Alliance program," he said. "We've cut agrochemical use. We've planted hundreds of trees along roads and streams. We're promoting environmental education. And it's all for the good of humanity, so that we can leave something for our children."
The process of certification has resulted in an array of specific improvements in areas where banana farming dominates the landscape and local economies. Chiquita, for example, has planted nearly one million trees and bushes on its farms to create natural buffers along public roads and waterways, and around housing and offices. The company has eliminated the use of the most dangerous pesticides and implemented rigorous rules for the application of the pesticides it continues to use, such as mandatory protective gear, showers at the end of the work day and closing areas where pesticides have been applied for 24 to 48 hours.
Chiquita recycles about 3,100 tons of plastic bags and twine per year and reuses the wooden pallets that banana boxes are stacked on, which saves tens of thousands of trees each year. Favorita created a foundation that now supports more than 30 schools near its farms, benefiting more than 3,000 children. Chiquita has donated dozens of sports facilities, schools and clinics to communities, and has donated or sold hundreds of houses to workers for very low prices. Both companies protect significant patches of tropical rainforest: Favorita at its Río Palenque Science Center, and Chiquita at the 100-hectare Nogal Nature Reserve, in Costa Rica, which it manages together with the Swiss supermarket chain Migros. Both of those conservation projects include environmental education for farm workers and their families, which is yet another goal of certification.
A Green Evolution
A key feature of the Rainforest Alliance's sustainable agriculture certification standards is that they require steady and continual improvement of social and environmental conditions. Yet, they are practical enough to allow companies to stay competitive in the international market. Chiquita, for example, is in the process of installing filter systems in its packing plants that cut water consumption by 80 percent, while the company's scientists are studying biological controls that could help it slash pesticide use.
According to Chris Wille, the Rainforest Alliance's chief of sustainable agriculture, technological advances and a more favorable market should facilitate a steady evolution toward ever better conditions on certified farms.
"The banana companies whose farms we've certified have begun a process of positive change that should never end. During the next decade, the Rainforest Alliance wants to see a steady decrease in agrochemical use on certified farms and continued improvements in the environment and quality of life in banana-producing communities," says Wille.
Working for the Future
Rainforest Alliance certification is open to any and all banana producers who can meet the SAN's standards. Thanks to the influence of Chiquita and Favorita, the number of certified farms has steadily grown. Both companies buy much of their fruit from small, independent farms which they are pushing to get certified. Because those smaller farms tend to lack the knowledge and resources necessary to meet certification's requirements, international aid has played a vital role in helping them reach that goal.
In 2003, the International Finance Corporation -- the private sector arm of the World Bank -- provided a US $50,000 grant to help train the nearly 400 independent suppliers that grow bananas for Favorita. In Central America, a grant from the United States Agency for International Development is helping independent farmers that supply Chiquita earn certification.
Though the initial changes a farm must make to become certified require considerable work and investment, the large banana companies have learned that many changes end up paying for themselves. Favorita estimates that it saves approximately US $350,000 per year in reduced agrochemical use alone. When the SAN objected to Chiquita's practice of dumping damaged bananas in trenches, the company decided to build a banana puree plant, which now generates significant income. More important, though, is that by improving workers' hours, conditions, wages and benefits, the companies have decreased turnover and gained a more satisfied, efficient workforce.
As Rafael S. Wong, the President of Favorita, notes: "Certified farms are cleaner and safer and production is higher."