As the Rainforest Alliance commences a yearlong celebration to mark its 30th anniversary, I am moved to reflect upon how this organization’s long record of achievements makes a strong case for the power of international cooperation in addressing the world’s most complex and urgent problems.
As a scientist and a lifelong conservationist who is deeply committed to human rights and social justice, I have been impressed during my first year as president by how effectively our model improves livelihoods, defends the rights of communities and workers, and incentivizes forest conservation and climate resilience for all of our many partners all over the world. In fact, our long-term success offers an inspiring, evidence-based refutation to those who champion the politics of xenophobia and isolationism, both here in the United States and abroad.
For decades now, the international community has struggled to address the daunting challenges of deforestation, mass extinction, climate change, entrenched poverty, and food security for a growing global population. Meaningful cooperation between countries of wildly varying histories, economies, and resources has been elusive due to vigorous disagreements over responsibility and benchmarks. Our progress might best be characterized as three steps forward, two steps back. It took more than 25 years for world leaders to reach an international climate accord—a feat that arguably could be seen as many steps forward—yet just one year after the historic Paris Climate Agreement was adopted, the newly elected US president vowed to make good on his promise to pull out of the deal. This despite the overwhelming, clear scientific evidence that climate change is real and already causing great harm to people and biodiversity.
Yet that disappointment has not taken us back to square one. Whenever I feel discouraged, I remind myself of the ambition, warmth, creativity, and dedication of the global movement we’ve helped build over the last three decades—as well as our remarkable accomplishments. Our alliance is necessarily broad and inclusive, for we all have a vital role to play in rebalancing our planet: farmers and foresters, visionaries and entrepreneurs, indigenous leaders and corporate CEOs, dedicated government officials, and people like you. Our approach is characterized by openness, collaboration, innovation, dialogue, and a deep mutual respect, for while our members practice all faiths and speak many languages, we all share an unshakeable commitment to a sustainable future.
During the past year, I had the honor of meeting many of our conservation partners in some of the world’s most vulnerable forest landscapes. In Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve, I listened to indigenous leaders as they described the impressive financial growth their community forest enterprises had achieved through sustainable activites, generating millions of dollars in revenues, as well as the social development of their communities. Dona Magdalena, chair of the Ramón Seeds Committee of the Uaxactún community told me, "Now many women here know how to work with ramón, xaté, and other non-timber forest products, thanks to the training from the Rainforest Alliance. Now we women are leaders in the community."
I met with cocoa farmers in Ivory Coast and Ghana who have adopted climate-smart farming methods they learned in our training programs, including the planting of shade trees, mulching, composting, and improved pruning—activities to retain moisture in the soil and boost the productivity of the bushes.
In Indonesia—a Muslim-majority country where I lived for many years—I met some of the 16,000 smallholder coffee farmers who have begun to increase their yields after implementing best practices they learned from our field staff. Better yields lead to increased income, which reduces pressure on smallholder farmers to expand their farms by encroaching on virgin forest.
On that same trip, I also met with executives from some of the world’s largest palm oil companies—a convening that gave me a clear sense of the transformation we can and must achieve in an industry that is partly responsible for Indonesia’s deforestation crisis. We’ve recently appointed our first Southeast Asia director to expand the Rainforest Alliance’s work in the region, which boasts an astonishing diversity of culture, languages, landscapes, flora, and fauna. In the spring, we will bring a group of Indonesian forest community leaders to visit our partner communities in Guatemala to study how they have revitalized their local economies by developing community-owned businesses based on sustainable timber and furniture production, the harvesting of ramon nuts and other non-timber forest products, and ecotourism.
The sheer diversity of our conservation partners, from tiny rural communities to multi-national companies, is one of the most fascinating and valuable characteristics of the Rainforest Alliance. Because we work along the entire supply chain, we’ve developed a detailed understanding of all the players involved and the mechanics of sustainable transformation. The intricacies of global supply chains are technical and not very glamorous; suffice it to say that we are well positioned to help companies implement sustainable commodity sourcing precisely because of our relationships with farmers and foresters around the world, as well as our investment in field operations and continuous scientific monitoring and evaluation of our impacts.
Our field work and robust research team have allowed us to guide sustainability-focused leaders in the private sector, where a sea change is most certainly occurring. This past year, Tesco, the UK grocery chain, has partnered with us to source more sustainable bananas, tea, cocoa and coffee. And Asda, another UK supermarket chain, has committed to sourcing 93 percent of its bananas from Rainforest Alliance CertifiedTM farms. In Germany, major retailer Lidl has also committed to sourcing 90 percent of its bananas from Rainforest Alliance Certified farms. These sustainability commitments cover tens of thousands of stores across Europe and the United States and represent the kind of mass market transformation we could have only dreamed of when the world’s first Rainforest Alliance Certified farm, a banana farm in Costa Rica, passed its first audit in 1993. (The farm is still certified and earned a score of 98 percent in its most recent audit).
We are entering into our 30th year with another significant corporate sustainability commitment here in America: the Appalachian Woods Alliance project in the southeastern United States. We’re working with our company partners and the US Forest Service to advance responsible forest stewardship and sustainable timber production on privately owned forestlands (individual landowners hold nearly 60 percent of the land). This is a critically important effort in a region of the United States that boasts globally significant biodiversity in addition to picturesque, rolling hills.
There are, of course, many more accomplishments we could celebrate, but given the immensity of the challenges presented by a new US administration that is hostile to the basic science of climate change, I believe we must direct our attention to the years immediately ahead of us. We at the Rainforest Alliance are resolute in our determination to intensify our alliance building for sustainable transformation. We’ve seen a big push for sustainability in the private sector, with public commitments by 366 companies worth US $2.9 trillion to eliminate deforestation in their supply chains. And we are part of an innovative new coalition of organizations including Greenpeace, WWF, The Nature Conservancy, and National Wildlife Federation working to create a framework of assessment and accountability for these companies as they move along their sustainability journey.
As I reflect upon these developments, I see good reason to be optimistic, even in the face of such grave threats to our environment and to the United States’ established tradition of international cooperation. Our alliance has grown large enough, and strong enough, that we cannot be derailed from the pursuit of our mission. By now there are too many of us who understand the necessity of strong, standing forests and thriving rural communities. There are too many of us in leadership positions—in business, civil society, and government—for hard-won gains to be erased. And there are too many of us who understand that what we do today will determine what the future will look like for our children and grandchildren.