Rainforest Alliance Certified Farms: On the Path to Sustainability

Looking out over the lush terrain, it takes a trained eye to spot some of the shade coffee farms in Costa Rica’s Tarrazú region—like Finca Zapotal, a seven-and-a-half acre (three-hectare) farm nestled into the verdant mountainous landscape. “Our neighbors often ask if we are growing a forest instead of coffee,” says Jonathan Vega, who owns and manages Finca Zapotal with his brother David.

When the brothers took over the family farm, they told their father that they wanted to make some changes, including planting shade trees and decreasing the use of herbicides and synthetic fertilizers. “He thought we were crazy,” says Jonathan. “He said the farm would be overrun by weeds and that nothing would grow.” But the sons proved their father wrong. They applied the methods they’d learned at training sessions for the 4,200-member coffee cooperative they belong to and began to work toward Rainforest Alliance certification, a distinction they earned in 2012. Combining farming practices designed to nourish the soil and protect standing forests with more efficient farm management, they doubled their crop yields. In addition, the price they now receive for their certified sustainable coffee is not only higher than what their father used to earn, but also more stable.

Coffee farmer Jonathan Vega

Coffee farmer Jonathan Vega

Photo credit: Yessenia Soto

The Vega family’s story illustrates what the Rainforest Alliance Certified™ seal really means. Simply put, our little green frog stands for big changes on farms around the world.

"Sustainable farming is not an alternative anymore. It is the present and the future of farming."

Coffee grower Jonathan Vega

The Journey from Farm to Table

When you spot the Rainforest Alliance Certified seal at your local supermarket or café, you’re seeing the result of a long journey of innovation that began in the 1980s, in the midst of Latin America’s tropical deforestation crisis.  Shortly after the Rainforest Alliance was established in 1987, we helped pioneer the first global forestry certification system, which eventually led to the founding of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)—the global body that maintains the gold standard for responsible forestry. In recognition that the banana industry was also responsible for tropical deforestation, as well as labor abuses, we developed standards for environmentally and socially responsible banana farming, awarding our first certificates in 1992 to banana farms in Costa Rica and Hawaii.

Rainforest Alliance Certified seal on a burlap sack

Rainforest Alliance Certified seal on a burlap sack

Photo credit: Patrick Floyd

Rainforest Alliance farm certification is the result of close collaboration with farmers, communities, scientists, human rights experts, government representatives, and local NGOs. What started out as an effort to improve the banana industry grew into a global movement, leading to the establishment in 1998 of the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN), a coalition of conservation groups that jointly manages the Rainforest Alliance certification system for farms and sets the standard for sustainable agricultural certification around the world.

The SAN adapts its standard to meet each industry and region in which it is applied, and it incorporates the knowledge of and feedback from individuals and organizations on-the-ground to revise and adapt the standard as needed. The 2017 SAN Standard was published in September 2016 after extensive public consultation and field testing. The network has developed criteria for the production of more than 100 crops, including bananas, beef, cocoa, coffee, mangoes, oranges, palm oil, pineapples, and tea.

While the standard is frequently updated, the basic idea remains the same: to obtain Rainforest Alliance certification, a farm must meet the network’s rigorous environmental, social, and economic criteria, which are designed to conserve forests and protect wildlife; safeguard soils and waterways; support the well-being of workers, their families, and local communities; mitigate climate change and build resilience to its impact; and improve the livelihoods of farmers and their employees. After a farmer applies to the program, his/her farm is reviewed by a SAN-accredited auditor, and if a farm meets the network’s standard, that farmer may market his/her products using the Rainforest Alliance Certified seal—a distinction that carries weight among today’s conscientious consumers and often helps farmers access new markets for their products.

To win certification, a farm must meet all of the standard’s critical criteria, and farmers are required to demonstrate continuous progress toward long-term goals and remedy non-critical areas in which they may have fallen short. Farms undergo regular audits—including surprise visits—to help ensure that they remain in compliance and/or continue to improve.

A Comprehensive Approach to Farm Management

The SAN standard is comprehensive, covering environmental protection, social responsibility, and economic viability. To earn Rainforest Alliance certification, farms must meet criteria in all three areas. This means farmers work to:

  • Maintain or increase tree cover
  • Prevent erosion and nurture the quality of their soil
  • Eliminate the use of critically dangerous agrochemicals, reduce the use of other chemicals, and safeguard local water supplies
  • Monitor and protect the animals that live on or pass through their properties
  • Facilitate access for workers to clean water, housing, and healthcare, and education for their children
  • Prevent children under age 15 from working, except for the purpose of maintaining local culture and family tradition, and help ensure safe working conditions for all employees
  • Operate their farms efficiently and profitably and pay their workers at least the legal minimum wage

Rainforest Alliance certification is a powerful tool for advancing positive change across the world’s most vulnerable landscapes, creating positive synergies within communities.

Take Myleydi Araya, for example. Araya’s Rainforest Alliance Certified coffee farm belongs to the same Costa Rican cooperative as the Vega brothers’. After inheriting her father’s farm, she began to plant avocado trees on her land. The trees provide shade for the coffee bushes and help to protect a nearby creek by preventing erosion and topsoil runoff, which can be a huge problem in Tarrazú’s mountainous terrain. What’s more, the leaves of the avocado plants fertilize the soil, and the sale of the fruits generates additional income for her family. “I basically created a new work system for my farm,” she says, “because it had almost no shade trees, the ground had been cleared, and agrochemicals used to be applied without control.” Since halting the use of these substances—a step that also saves money—Araya has observed an abundance of birds on her property. She is now helping her sister prepare for certification as well.

Myleydi Araya, coffee farmer

Myleydi Araya at her coffee farm in Costa Rica.

The Triple Bottom Line

Since the Rainforest Alliance’s earliest days, we have understood the inextricable links between environmental protection, social responsibility, and economic stability. The environmental health of a rural community will suffer if its farmers are unable to earn a decent living or if farm workers are mistreated. Dangerous working conditions are not only unethical, but they also result in health complications and crippling employee turnover. Poverty leads to desperation, which in turn may drive people to logging, hunting, or other illegal activities in an effort to feed their families. For these reasons and many others, the Rainforest Alliance considers social justice and economic viability to be just as critical to the health of an ecosystem as planting trees, stopping poaching, reducing chemical use, and protecting the local water supply. It’s what we mean when we say that Rainforest Alliance certification is good for the “triple bottom line.”

We see this triple bottom line in the farming communities of Kenya’s Nyanza Province. The tea that husband and wife Simon and Esther Langat produce on their two-acre farm goes to the Momul Tea Factory, which in 2009 became the first smallholder tea factory to earn Rainforest Alliance certification. While the Langats also raise cows and cultivate vegetables, tea is their main cash crop and generates employment for three workers. Some of the money the couple earns is reinvested in the farm—a case of good practices feeding further improvements. “I have bought personal protective equipment for my tea pluckers, and they are happier,” says Simon.

It’s no leap of logic to say that happier workers equal less turnover, and that a safe, healthy, stable, and well-trained workforce is a more productive and efficient one. In a study that compared certified and noncertified coffee farms in Brazil, employees on certified farms had greater knowledge of agrochemical safety and applied this knowledge more effectively than their peers.

Few things provide rural workers with a stronger incentive to remain loyal to their employers than access to education for their kids. Although the Langats’ own children have attended college, even grade school is out of reach for many children who grow up on farms. In contrast, SAN audits have shown that school-aged children on Rainforest Alliance Certified farms had nearly universal access to education. One study in Côte d’Ivoire found that significantly more children on certified cocoa farms were studying at the appropriate grade level, compared with children on noncertified farms. And in Colombia, the children of certified farm owners and workers had significantly higher levels of education than those on noncertified farms, with a median educational achievement that was two years higher than that of their peers.

Guatemalan boy in school

Guatemalan boy in school

Photo credit: Charlie Watson

These anecdotal results of sustainable farming are echoed by the research data gathered on an array of farms around the world. A recent report on the impacts of Rainforest Alliance certification found that certified farms contribute to the protection of local water resources and healthier natural ecosystems, not just on the farm but in the surrounding landscape—leading to greater protection of wildlife and increases in tree cover.

Sustainability Boosts Productivity

Sometimes, however, it’s the least showy of changes that can bring about the most dramatic improvements. Rainforest Alliance certification requires farmers to adopt management systems and monitor their performance. Farmers are trained in financial literacy at our field schools. When coffee producers in five countries were asked to com­pare conditions before certification and three years afterward, 87 percent said that their farms (and even their homes) were better organized. The ability to track expenses and revenues, for example, helps farmers spot red flags or weak spots in their operations and prevents middlemen from taking advantage of workers and farmers.

Langat, the Kenyan tea farmer, has come to appreciate the value of good recordkeeping: “Now I always record my daily green leaf harvest,” he says, “and that encourages me to improve.” By recording his harvests, he documented the doubling of his farm’s yield after switching to longer intervals between plucking—something he also learned in one of our training programs.

The Langats’ results are in keeping with what numerous studies have demonstrated: Certified farms typically produce higher yields than noncertified farms. A Rainforest Alliance Certified cooperative in Peru produced 326 lbs. more coffee per hectare than its noncertified peers—an increase attributed to proper soil conservation practices, integrated pest and herb management, and other steps promoted by certification. And in two separate examinations of cocoa farms in Côte d’Ivoire, certified farms out-produced their noncertified peers by nearly 50 percent in one study and 72 percent in another, generating nearly four times as much net income for the farmers in the second study.

Simon and Esther Langat

Simon and Esther Langat

Photo credit: Caroline Irby

Since coffee farmer Araya began applying the sustainable practices that she learned in the Rainforest Alliance trainings, her yield has nearly quadrupled, jumping from five to six fanegas (110 lbs. of green coffee) per acre to 20 fanegas. “I am successfully managing my own farm,” she says, “and now it’s green, healthy, and profitable.”

The Only Viable Path

Farming has always been a difficult endeavor, and farmers must contend with many variables they cannot control, such as floods, droughts, crop diseases, and fluctuating global markets. Today, even beyond the perennial challenges, they find themselves on the front lines of a new global battle: climate change. Farming communities are being destabilized by the increased frequency of extreme weather events, temperature shifts, and outbreaks of destructive pests and crop diseases. At the same time, conventional agriculture and its associated land-use changes contribute up to 25 percent of all global greenhouse gases—creating a vicious cycle of hardship for farmers.

For their benefit and ours, farmers must reduce emissions through the sustainable management of their natural resources, while also building resilience to the climatic changes they are already experiencing—changes that threaten their income and the future of their farms and communities. The Rainforest Alliance’s approach is to equip farmers to succeed on all counts through reforestation, crop diversification, the efficient use of energy and water, recycling, composting, and other steps that cumulatively improve climate resilience, safeguard their livelihoods, and protect our planet.

More than ten different studies across various crops found that Rainforest Alliance Certified farms have implemented sustainable practices at a higher rate than noncertified farms, including measures related to environmental management, worker health and safety, and farm productivity. And as certified farms remain in the system for two or more years, their sustainability practices have been documented to improve over time.

There is still much work to be done, and certification alone cannot solve systemic global problems, but this last finding points the way to a better tomorrow. In today’s world, “business as usual” is no longer a choice. As coffee grower Jonathan Vega puts it, “Sustainable farming is not an alternative anymore. It is the present and the future of farming.”

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