What It Takes to Be a Rainforest Alliance Auditor

Published: March 2013

New members of the Rainforest Alliance’s audit team recently joined executives from a local tea company and the Fengquing village council to explore tea plots just outside of a small community in China’s Yunnan Province.

All photos by Noah Jackson

The team was in Yunnan for a week-long training to introduce new auditors to the ins and outs of Rainforest Alliance certification. Led by long-time trainer and auditor Noah Jackson, the participants included Jean Zhang and Shao Meng of China Quality Mark (CQM), the Rainforest Alliance’s new certification partner in China.

In 2012, the Lincang region of Yunnan became home to the first Rainforest Alliance Certified™ farm in China: Green Fountain Tea Estate. Through trainings like this one, the Rainforest Alliance is working to expand its certification program in China with a host of new locally based auditors.

Before joining the CQM audit team, Zhang worked for years outside of China inspecting factories and ensuring the safety of factory machinery. She brings years of experience in designing management systems to her new position as leader of a team of Rainforest Alliance auditors in China.

Hu Zhengwei, another new addition to the audit team, previously worked as an organic auditor. Here, he stands next to a water tank used for irrigation during the dry season.

Mao Xiaoti (nicknamed Tete) has worked as an auditor for CQM for three years. “The Sustainable Agriculture Network Standard [which Rainforest Alliance Certified farms are audited against] involves the auditor gathering evidence based not just on documentation, but interviews with farmers,” she reflects, after participating in two audits with the Rainforest Alliance certification team. “This is different from the other standards I have learned in China.”

Tang Yi Cong, who prefers to be called Hunter, has a background in organic auditing and currently manages and schedules audits for CQM. “With other forms of auditing, you can get a lot of the work done just by evaluating documentation, like water test reports and factory records,” he says. “With the Rainforest Alliance, you’ve got to use your head. You need field experience.”

The team stopped at the home of a local farmer working toward Rainforest Alliance certification to conduct an interview. It was a learning experience for Zhang, who, like all auditors participating in the training, will eventually conduct these interviews alone as part of the formal on-farm audit process.

Auditors must learn to build trust and rapport with farmers. During the interview process, they will need farmers to open up about crop diversity, pest management, farm goals and challenges. Lead auditor and trainer Noah Jackson often breaks the ice by trading his personal collection of seeds with farmers.

To ensure that certified and noncertified tea remains separate, auditors analyze traceability records from a factory against farmer sale records. This measure ensures that products stamped with the Rainforest Alliance Certified seal actually contain Rainforest Alliance Certified ingredients.

Farm and company representatives must also carefully note any issues found on a farm during an initial diagnostic audit. They will have an opportunity to correct these issues -- which can include agrochemical use, drought and labor concerns -- before auditors return for a follow-up visit. Farms must meet the SAN’s comprehensive set of social, environmental and economic criteria before they can earn the green frog seal.

Unlike audits conducted by other certification bodies, Rainforest Alliance audits focus on all crops grown on a farm rather than individual crops. This corn is genetically modified and would not be permitted on a Rainforest Alliance Certified farm.

To diversify their output and reduce chemical inputs, many Rainforest Alliance Certified farmers raise cattle. Manure is composted and, in some cases, can completely eliminate the need for chemical fertilizer.

If all agrochemicals cannot be eliminated, farms must at a minimum learn to reduce pesticide use and eliminate any of the “dirty dozen” agrochemicals. Farmers must also ensure that their workers have protective equipment while applying chemicals. Here, a new Rainforest Alliance trainee pulls up the translation of an agrochemical during a farm visit.

Smallholder farmers in China grow more than tea. They often produce a variety of vegetables to supplement their diets and diversify their income.

Erosion is a huge problem in Southern China and often stems from new road construction and issues associated with planting on steep slopes. All Rainforest Alliance Certified farms must have an erosion control program.

New auditors must also analyze how tea farmers work and live within their community, and must understand the labor supply and demand in the regions where they work. In China, for example, there are often labor shortages caused by decades of mass migration from rural to urban areas.

At the end of a long day, new auditors enjoy a walk with tea farmers and managers to learn more about how tea is grown and farms are managed.  Auditors need to understand more than the audit process and the SAN standards. They must understand the nuances of tea, farmers and local communities.

Pictured here, Jean Zhang (front, purple), Tang Yi Cong (white shirt, right), Xioti Ma (pink jacket, center) and Meng Shao (stripped shirt, rear).

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