Advancing the Human Rights of Rural People

For the Rainforest Alliance, the advancement of basic human rights is intrinsic to sustainable land management and forest conservation.

When our earliest staff members set out for Central America 30 years ago to fight deforestation, they observed that the dignity and rights of rural and indigenous people were crucial to the health of the land. They established an office in Costa Rica and joined forces with local nongovernmental organizations across Central America to develop a conservation approach that emphasizes the well-being of rural people—including the advancement of their political, economic, social, and cultural rights—as a critical component of sustainability. We have carried forward this commitment for three decades in our training and certification programs.

The advancement of human rights is a global imperative requiring governments, citizens, and civil society groups to build upon an evolving framework of legal rights and norms, from the Universal Declaration for Human Rights, which enshrines civil and political rights, to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which articulate key social and economic human rights benchmarks (such as the right to safe drinking water). Obviously, sustainability training and certification in isolation cannot stop political oppression, eliminate entrenched socioeconomic disparities, or prevent human rights violations from occurring. However, a rigorous sustainability certification system, complemented by well-designed training programs, can serve as a powerful tool for gradual improvement across sectors and landscapes.

Ecuadorian cocoa farmer Jose Hernandez and family

Ecuadorian cocoa farmer Jose Hernandez and family

Photo credit: David Dudenhoefer

The earliest sustainability certification standards we helped develop included provisions to guard against child labor and forced labor—and to protect the land rights of indigenous people. Over the past three decades, we have worked to refine these standards, making them more rigorous and responsive to realities on the ground. Today, for example, the Rainforest Alliance Sustainable Agriculture Standard includes criteria on child labor designed to protect children's welfare while engaging group administrators and communities in continuous monitoring and prevention. The Sustainable Agriculture Standard prohibits children working during school hours or participating in dangerous activities, such as carrying heavy loads or using dangerous chemicals and tools. It simultaneously promotes measures that boost the efficiency of farms to reduce the financial pressures that drive the worst kinds of child labor.

The Standard, which achieved the highest overall social indices score in an independent 2014 study comparing sustainability certification schemes, also requires that workers and people living on larger farms have access to potable water; on plantations where housing is provided, conditions must meet basic sanitation requirements; all plantations must provide medical care. Strict worker safety requirements—such as the use of personal protective gear during agrochemical application—have been integral to the standard from the beginning. In 2017, the Standard was revised to include new criteria on the design of sanitation facilities associated with worker housing, to protect the safety of women and children.

The Rainforest Alliance has long led the movement to uphold land rights for local and indigenous people. Our very first forestry standard, created in 1989, required land tenure to be clear; a forestry operation with outstanding land claims or conflicts could not achieve certification. In the intervening years, we've observed a positive trend of governments around the world returning land rights to local people—a trend bolstered by the enduring success of our work with the forest communities of Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve (MBR). Our partner communities there won land rights and successfully built sustainable forest economies—resulting in an astonishing near-zero deforestation rate in these concessions. Today, the Rainforest Alliance is working with local and indigenous communities in Myanmar and Indonesia to help them secure land rights and develop sustainable forest enterprises, since it’s exactly this kind of long-term economic thinking that keeps deforestation at bay. The training and technical assistance we’ve provided to forest community enterprises has helped them prepare for certification to the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) standard. The standard, which we helped develop as a founding member of the FSC, requires forestry operations to provide access to medical care, respect the right to free assembly, and establish clear grievance procedures.

Women of the Alimentos Nutri-Naturales S.A. (ANSA) cooperative sorting ramon nuts

Women of the Alimentos Nutri-Naturales S.A. (ANSA) cooperative, located on the edge of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, sorting ramon nuts, an important source of nutrition and income for local families. 

Photo credit: Sergio Izquierdo

At the heart of our human rights approach is the promotion of sustainable livelihoods. We co-founded the Global Living Wage Coalition (GLWC), a coalition of six standards systems that supports the development of and promotes a new methodology for determining a basic, decent standard of living in different countries. With more than 20 benchmarks completed or underway, and as more become available, companies and industries will have a clear path to the goal of paying living wages. This year we are piloting approaches to implementing living wage benchmarks in Central America’s banana sector.


Protection of Indigenous Land Rights

When it was established in 1993, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) included requirements to uphold and protect indigenous and local rights and resources; by 2000 the FSC also required that local communities with legal or customary land tenure or land-use rights would maintain control over forest operations unless they delegated control with free, prior, and informed consent. Forest owners and managers also must study the likely social impacts of forest management activities—including its impacts on archaeological, cultural, and historical sites, public resources, and economic opportunities—and incorporate this understanding into the planning and operation of their businesses.


Co-founding of the Global Living Wage Coalition

The Rainforest Alliance, along with five other standard systems, two living wage experts, and the ISEAL Alliance, co-found the Global Living Wage Coalition in order to develop living wage benchmarks for various countries and industries. The calculation and release of living wage benchmarks is the foundation for a long-term process to address rural poverty by establishing living wage goals for workers and industry players. We define a living wage as one that allows a worker to afford a basic, decent standard of living for her or his family. Elements of decent standard of living include nutritious food, water, housing, education, health care, transport, and clothing.

People collecting dirty river water

Around the world, 1.3 billion people live on less than $1.25 a day.