Forests are life. Source of air, water, food, shelter, medicine: they are critical to the survival of every living thing on Earth. From the the rainforests of the tropics to the snowy boreal forests circling the northern hemisphere, these ecological powerhouses support the livelihoods of 1.6 billion people and host 80 percent of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity. Their ability to generate rainfall is vital for millions of farmers around the world—as well as global food security. And, as the fight to stave off climate change escalates, forests could be our most important natural climate solution.
The world’s leading climate scientists agree that it is still possible to keep global warming below the critical 1.5 degree danger line—but this requires "rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society". This not only means slashing greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 but also drawing down carbon dioxide that has already been released into the atmosphere. Thankfully, nature has already invented the best carbon-capture technology there is: trees.
Trees: nature’s carbon-capture technology
As they grow, trees absorb the carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming, converting them into pure oxygen. Forests also play a critical role in cooling the planet, regulating local micro-climates by providing shade and transpiring water. All told, forests are an incredibly powerful natural climate solution, with some studies estimating that conserving forests could cut 7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide each year—the equivalent of getting rid of every car on the planet.
Trees as rainmakers
Trees make it rain. They suck moisture out of the soil through their roots and release it into the air through their leaves—creating rainclouds and shaping global weather patterns. Scientists have observed that air that has passed over tropical forests produces twice as much rain as air that passes over less densely vegetated areas. These forests create giant "rivers in the sky" that generate rainfall hundreds to thousands of miles away. But without forests, experts warn that continental interiors would turn to desert, and streams and even huge rivers like the Nile could run dry.
And yet, global deforestation rates are still accelerating—robbing us of our best defense against climate change, threatening global food security, and causing extreme hardship for farming and forest communities around the world.
What is driving global deforestation?
The statistics tell an alarming story. The tropics lost 12 million hectares of tree cover in 2018, including 3.6 million hectares of irreplaceable primary rainforest. This destruction not only costs us their huge carbon-storage potential, but also creates further greenhouse gas emissions, when the felled trees are burned or left to rot. Studies show that tropical forest loss is responsible for 8 percent of the world’s annual carbon emissions. In fact, if tropical deforestation were a country, it would be the world’s third-biggest emitter, behind China and the United States.
The drivers are all part of a global economy built on the exploitation of natural resources: logging, mining, and land-grabbing for agricultural expansion. The last, alone, is responsible for a staggering 80 percent of tropical forest loss. From Brazil to Indonesia, big agribusiness is razing huge swathes of pristine forest to make room for lucrative animal pasture and cropland. And in doing so, slash-and-burn deforestation (the quickest way to clear forests) is setting our world ablaze triggering an ecological chain reaction of increased emissions, rising temperatures, and devastating forest fires, like those still raging in the Amazon.
How we work to protect forests
The fight to protect the world’s forests is at the very heart of the Rainforest Alliance’s mission. Together with farmers, scientists, Indigenous forest communities, governments, responsible businesses, and citizens, we are working diligently in more than 60 countries to cultivate sustainable, rural economies—the most widely-proven strategy to keep our forests standing.
Here are our main approaches to conserving tropical forests around the world:
Protecting forests through sustainable agriculture
Conventional farming methods are highly intensive; they strip soils of their nutrients, steadily reducing crop productivity season after season. In desperation, subsistence farmers across the tropics—most of whom live in poverty—are then driven to clear nearby forests in search of new fertile earth. If we are to keep our forests standing, we need to help farmers break this vicious cycle by promoting more sustainable agricultural practices.
We focus on key crops linked to tropical deforestation (such as coffee, tea, cocoa, and bananas); to date, there are more than two million farmers in our agricultural certification program who are practicing more sustainable growing methods. These techniques are designed to maximize the productivity of existing farmland in order to prevent encroachment into the forest, including: boosting soil health through composting, integrated weed management, crop rotation, and climate-smart techniques for conserving water and preventing diseases.
Community forestry as a conservation strategy
The best guardians of the forest are those who make their living from it. That’s why we partner with forest communities from Mesoamerica to Southeast Asia, advancing sustainable landscape strategies that support local livelihoods in harmony with the health of the forest.
While harvesting timber from protected forests may not seem like a sound strategy to tackle deforestation, the conservation successes speak for themselves. One of the most inspiring examples of this is our work in the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala. Here, in an area suffering some of the highest rates of forest lost in Central America, nine community-run forestry concessions have achieved a near zero-deforestation for the past 14 years. Not only that, the concessions have a drastically lower incidence of forest fires than neighboring protected areas.
Helping forest communities build sustainable enterprises
When forests are managed responsibly, communities that live in and around them can cultivate thriving businesses out of a rich assortment of non-timber forest products: from honey to flowers and fruit. The Rainforest Alliance offers training in business planning to help forest communities build sustainable enterprises. We also run technical assistance programs to help communities boost the commercial value of these products—and ensure that they are produced in line with strict forest management plans.
In the Andean Amazon, we have worked with the Indigenous communities of Madre de Dios to revitalize local Brazil nut production. The nuts, which grow naturally in the rainforest and cannot be cultivated, are a valuable commodity—and a strong incentive to keep forests standing in a region where deforestation (linked to illegal mining) has been rampant. Traditionally, whole pods were sold in bulk, but we have worked with the communities there to develop a more dynamic business model. Today, the nuts are processed locally into gourmet oils and confectionary rather than sold to middlemen—bringing in revenues of nearly US$31 million.
Market strategies to protect forests
An impactful and long-lasting sustainability transition requires significant investment. But the cost of making farming and forest enterprises more sustainable shouldn’t fall upon rural producers alone. Companies are ideally placed to support farmers and forest communities by contributing to upfront costs and paying more for commodities that have been produced more sustainably. And all of us, as consumers, can encourage businesses to do this by making better choices ourselves—for example, by choosing to buy products that have been Rainforest Alliance CertifiedTM.
That’s why certification can be a powerful tool in the fight against deforestation—if applied in combination with long-term investment by companies and rigorous government policies that support change. Building on decades of experience, we are working to reimagine certification to better harness the power of the market for environmental, social, and economic change across the entire supply chain. The Rainforest Alliance is also a co-founder and board member of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), a world leader in forest management and certification.
Responsible business from forest to shelves
At the Rainforest Alliance, we think of ourselves as a critical friend to companies that, like us, want to make responsible business the new normal. We provide expert advice to these companies on how to source raw materials (such as cocoa, coffee, and oil palm) more sustainably and work with them on their sustainability journey to eliminate deforestation and human rights abuses from their supply chains—all the way from forest to shelves.
In June 2019, we co-launched the Accountability Framework Initiative (AFi) together with a coalition of 14 other environmental and social NGOs. The AFi aligns a wide range of existing monitoring tools and standards—such as certification—and provides companies with a clear and harmonized approach to measuring and meeting their sustainability commitments.
Influencing policy to support healthy forests
With more than 30 years of experience in fighting deforestation, the Rainforest Alliance is uniquely positioned to advise governments and companies on how to implement meaningful change in support of healthy forests. Our advocacy team works at both the regional and national levels to shape more responsible corporate policies and encourage far-reaching legislative action globally.
Through our Sector Partnerships Program, we are strengthening the advocacy capacity of local civil society organizations in nine countries across Central America, West and East Africa, and Southeast Asia. Focusing on complex issues, such as deforestation and gender equality—which require a sector-wide approach—we support partner organizations in their efforts to lobby local decision makers and business leaders. With our support, for example, the Kalimajari Foundation in Indonesia is transforming local cocoa supply chains for the better—training farmers in sustainable growing practices and ensuring that there is a reliable market for their crops. Kalimajari’s model for quality cocoa has now even been adopted by the Indonesian government.
From forest conservation to reforestation
One natural climate solution that can and should be used in conjunction with strong initiaives to stop deforestation is large-scale reforestation. That’s why we approach sustainability as a journey, providing farmers with a roadmap from conservation to restoration. Planting new trees is a win-win for nature and farmers alike. Growing shade-loving crops (such as coffee and cocoa) alongside trees—a practice called agroforestry—helps regulate temperature and humidity levels, while also enriching soils. And if fruit-bearing shade trees are planted, farmers can also gain a valuable extra source of income.
In West Java, agroforestry has helped coffee-growing communities recover from tragedy. When deforestation led to a deadly landslide back in 2004, eight farmers were inspired to reforest; and so together they founded the award-winning Klasik Beans cooperative. A decade later, the cooperative has grown to 516 members and plants sixteen different varieties of shade trees over 548 hectares of farmland. As one farmer, Rony Syahroni, explains “We don’t plant coffee in the forest—we design our farms to become forests.”