What Really Matters

Thirty years ago, during the height of the global deforestation crisis, a small group of young people in Manhattan came together with a singular goal: to save the world’s tropical rainforests from destruction.

Rainforest Alliance founder Daniel Katz

Rainforest Alliance founder Daniel R. Katz in the 1990s

We were a motley assortment of young volunteers—among us were a China expert, a toxicologist, a peace corps volunteer, and a masseuse—who stood on street corners, using ironing boards as tables to hawk “Save the Rainforest” T-shirts. We shouted at passersby the news that our planet was losing biodiversity at an alarming rate and encouraged people to stop and talk. Some of those people became new volunteers. Those who had actually been to a rainforest became our guest “experts” at Sunday night events we held at the New York Open Center. Within months, we formed the Rainforest Alliance, one of the first international organizations dedicated to tropical forest conservation.

It was 1987, and we were ready to change the world. At age 25, I became the first official Rainforest Alliance staff member, working out of various donated office spaces. My friends and relatives laughed at the idea of starting a rainforest conservation organization in New York City. But we held steadfast to our conviction that to save rainforests, we would be most effective by working in the media and financial capital of the world.

To that end, one of our first major accomplishments was to organize an international conference on tropical deforestation: three days of nonstop events including a concert, a food festival, and panel discussions on foreign debt, how to garner media coverage, and the critically important role of community organizations in deforestation hotspots.  Seven hundred people attended our sold-out conference, overflowing the auditorium we had booked at Hunter College. More than 50 speakers from around the world laid out what was then still a fairly obscure problem. Over the course of 72 heady hours, we discussed the challenge to which the Rainforest Alliance has dedicated itself for 30 years: the nexus of rural poverty and deforestation within the context of an increasingly global economy.

Although we began as purely an educational organization based in New York City, we quickly ventured to tropical countries to get a better understanding of deforestation through field work. We did not yet have solutions to the deforestation crisis, but we felt that we could not remain comfortably ensconced in the city while tropical forests the size of Central Park were destroyed around the world every sixteen minutes. We wanted everyone to grasp the interdependence between humans and nature— and to see how the impacts of humans reached farther than ever before. Our early experience in the field helped us to communicate to urban residents precisely how our very way of life was a chainsaw of rainforest destruction, even if we couldn’t see it from our apartment windows.

We were searching for a way to connect the average consumer in, say, Manhattan or London to farmers and indigenous communities in the world’s tropical deforestation hotspots. Nothing of the sort existed, so we developed our forestry certification project, first led by Ivan Ussach, one of our original group of volunteers, and later by Richard Donovan. After some hits and some misses, we launched the world’s first independent, third-party forestry certification program. For a group of volunteers in a fledgling organization to attempt to change entrenched forestry practices was audacious, to say the least, and forestry companies told us as much. But little by little, certification began to catch on.

Diane Jukofsky and Chris Wille interviewing farmers

Diane Jukofsky and Chris Wille interviewing farmers

We were ahead of the curve back then. So much so that the term “market-based solutions” had not even been coined. Yet Chris Wille, and his wife, Diane Jukofsky, also early volunteers, believed in the Rainforest Alliance enough to quit their jobs, pack their bags, and set up shop in Costa Rica, where they established the Tropical Conservation Newsbureau—one of the Rainforest Alliance’s first funded projects, in 1990. There, they trained local conservation organizations in communications strategies, published stories on the deforestation crisis, and worked with journalists in the region—including many from countries just emerging from civil conflicts, to investigate and report on conservation issues. They also began to build our agricultural commodities work, starting with the notoriously destructive banana industry. Within five years, the Rainforest Alliance was working with all kinds of businesses along the supply chain, from smallholder farmers and community forestry enterprises to plantations owned by global banana companies, to eliminate deforestation and labor abuse from their operations. As we built our certification programs, we co-founded the Forest Stewardship Council and the Sustainable Agriculture Network to ensure the utmost integrity in maintaining these sustainability “gold standards.”

Rainforest Alliance Certified seal on a burlap sack

Rainforest Alliance Certified seal on a burlap sack

Photo credit: Patrick Floyd

To reward producers who met the rigorous sustainability standards we promoted and to give people an easy way to make responsible everyday choices as consumers, we introduced a version of our logo, the little green frog, as a “trust mark”—a seal of approval for good environmental stewardship. Although such trust marks have proliferated in the years since, the green frog is, to this day, an iconic symbol of environmental, economic, and social responsibility.

Some of our most skilled experts on staff have remained with the Rainforest Alliance for well over a decade without ever losing the passion they evinced when they first joined the team. What enables us to stay engaged and bring fresh energy to this work day after day, month after month, year after year? Two factors come to mind: the first is that, despite progress, the deforestation crisis has not abated. In fact, we now know the urgency is even more acute, as climate change wreaks havoc all over the globe. The second is that the conservation landscape changes so constantly and so dramatically that what was once our bread-and-butter—certification—is now just one tool in our ever-expanding conservation toolbox.

Early on, we heartily celebrated every new product to which our frog seal was added. And while we still take great pride in the growing ubiquity of our frog, we’ve been investing in new ways to strengthen our impact and scale up. We’ve added robust training programs to our toolbox, as well as international research and advocacy, sustainable financing, and a range of services to assist companies seeking to implement their corporate social responsibility commitments. Today, we are focused on landscape conservation initiatives that combine community forestry, climate-smart agriculture, and ecotourism to create sustainable forest economies across entire landscapes.

As we continue to adapt to new developments and catalyze the technological innovation needed to achieve our goals, it’s my job to remind our dedicated staff that what matters most are not our “key performance indicators” or our “return on investment,” or the revenues of our partners (although we certainly want their responsible stewardship to be profitable as well as fulfilling). What matters most is positive change on the ground for the farmers, the foresters, and their families, for the forests, the oceans and the rivers, for the countless endangered species that have a right to exist. Our mission is to change a global production system that does not respect the planetary boundaries.

After 30 years in the business, what we’ve learned about the complexities of this work might have terrified that early group of bright-eyed volunteers into paralysis. When it comes to keeping a forest standing and healthy, making a farm productive and ecologically sound, or creating a buffer between thriving rural communities and abject poverty, we have amassed a valuable trove of hard-earned wisdom through experience.  We’ve learned the importance of staying flexible, sharpened our strategies, and figured out how to identify the levers of change across a multitude of countries, cultures, and industries. The secret to our success is at once simple and enormously complex: an unwavering commitment to integrity and working in alliance with the frontline communities. 

"What matters most is positive change on the ground for the farmers, the foresters, and their families, for the forests, the oceans and the rivers, for the countless endangered species that have a right to exist."

Daniel Katz, Rainforest Alliance founder

Reshaping global development priorities through the market is an ambitious, unpredictable undertaking. The victories are life-changing for the people we work with; the missteps, challenges, and unexpected shocks along the way are as tough as they are inevitable. “Resilience,” one of the more popular environmental buzzwords of the day, is the ability to absorb shocks to the system that disrupt stability. Resilience enables individuals to weather seemingly insurmountable setbacks in life, just as it prepares entire communities to weather the brutal effects of climate change. We must greet the most urgent challenge of our time—diminishing natural resources stretched beyond their natural limits to feed a global population projected to reach 9 billion by 2050—as a vibrant, energized, diligent, and resilient global alliance. Thank you for your invaluable support in building this alliance.

 

Forest canopy - photo by Sergio Izquierdo

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