Dr. Ximena Rueda’s interest in sustainability certification began more than a decade ago, when she worked for the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation as its strategic marketing director. Now, as a professor and head of the sustainability area at the School of Management at Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, she examines sustainability certification and the challenges facing smallholder farmers through a scientific lens.
Some of her studies have focused on the impacts of Rainforest Alliance certification, a program that first drew her interest due to its emphasis on the protection of natural ecosystems. Rainforest Alliance staff member Deanna Newsom sat down recently with Dr. Rueda to talk about her findings and the value of partnerships among farmers.
Deanna Newsom: One of your studies found that farmers with certified farms experienced more peer-to-peer learning, more frequent visits from extension workers and local cooperatives, and more funding opportunities than those whose farms were not certified. Can you tell us more?
Ximena Rueda: The Colombian Coffee Growers Federation is a strong association that is committed to sustainability. This commitment and the fact that the federation’s extension agents are evaluated on whether the farmers they serve pass their certification audits mean that farmers whose farms are certified receive an exceptional amount of support. Also, the national reach of the federation gives farmers access to research outcomes from Cenicafé (the federation’s research center), as well as resources from the government, international organizations, and credit agencies that support farmers’ efforts to improve quality, productivity and sustainability. This partnership of farmers—the federation and all of its associated resources—has been a key factor in the adoption of sustainable farming practices in Colombia.
DN: The certification standard prohibits children from participating in farm activities that hamper their ability to attend school. Your research has found that children on certified farms in Colombia achieved significantly higher levels of education than those on non-certified farms. Why do you think this is?
XR: We know that many smallholder coffee farmers are not very educated. They have, on average, only elementary education. We wondered about the detailed record-keeping that is required for Rainforest Alliance certification. How do these farmers manage it? It turns out that their children are helping with record-keeping, as they are more educated than their parents. We did not know whether our findings showed that households with certified farms had better-educated children to begin with, or whether parents on certified farms saw the value of their kids’ education and decided to keep them in school longer. The extension agents who we consulted believe it’s the latter, and that makes sense: Parents see that school attendance is valuable for their children, but also for the farm. We saw in our fieldwork that, as the kids grow up, they are trusted with more and more farm management decisions, which is a great source of pride to both the parents and the children.
DN: Many Rainforest Alliance auditors and technicians have observed that, over time, the neighbors of certified farms often start voluntarily implementing sustainable practices, too. One of your studies confirmed these observations, concluding that “certification processes are generating spillover effects on adjacent farms and communities through emulation of practices and improved transparency and traceability.”
XR: When we looked at regions in the Andes that had many certified farms, we saw that tree cover was recovering. And while certified coffee farms were leading the movement, sustainable practices were also being implemented on non-certified farms because farmers saw the benefits of protecting water sources or increasing their resilience to El Niño. We also observed cases where farmers dropped out of the program—maybe they were disappointed by a lack of price premium, or were tired of having an auditor show up every year—but they kept implementing the practices. What they’d learned was obviously valuable. Additionally, having certified cooperatives in a specific location improved transparency and traceability for all coffee farms, as prices and premiums were publicly displayed and certified coffee was kept separate from non-certified coffee. Farmers could see that this was the case, improving the credibility of the certification program.
DN: What’s next for your research program?
XR: We have observed that some climate change adaptation strategies—such as the use of disease-resistant coffee plants—are not being adopted homogenously across the landscape. Why are some farmers using these strategies and others aren’t, despite incentives to do so? Are there alternative strategies that we aren’t aware of? Or are variable local microclimates the explanation? I’m also interested in the effects of the surrounding landscape on farm-level biodiversity. Does proximity to a protected area influence on-farm biodiversity? These are the questions I’d like to focus on in the future.