When the Rainforest Alliance was founded 30 years ago, the mainstream environmental movement was primarily concerned with the protection of vulnerable ecosystems through the creation of natural reserves. Most international environmental groups working to stop deforestation did not focus on the economic and social well-being of people living in and around the forest.
When the Rainforest Alliance's founders established our first office in the tropics, however, it was clear to them that the health of a forest could not be viewed in isolation from its surrounding communities. Deforestation is a human phenomenon with clear, though highly complex, causes, mostly having to do with economic pressures. In those early years, we observed that subsistence farmers in the tropics could squeeze but so much from poor-quality soils before they had to cut down more forest and move onto the next patch of earth. Many forest communities lacking access to education, business training, or financing chopped down precious old-growth trees to meet their basic needs. Industrial farms razed large swaths of forests for new cropland after wearing out existing fields with conventional, agrochemical-dependent cultivation methods.
Of course, these pressures continue to drive deforestation. But in the areas where we work, we've begun to document significant transformation as a result of the innovative conservation model we developed—an approach based on the philosophy that the health of the forest is inextricably tied to the strength of its surrounding communities. In practice, this means that the training and certification programs we've developed over the past three decades protect the health of downstream communities, indigenous land rights, the families of farm workers, and the economic well-being of rural communities in and around standing forests.
In agriculture, our training and certification programs advance methods to minimize the environmental impacts of farming on surrounding communities, while optimizing beneficial social and economic practices for farm workers. These methods protect the local ecosystem and conserve natural resources on which farmers and their communities depend, such as fresh water. We employ a "training the trainers" approach that enables us to reach a greater number of farmers—1.2 million thus far—with tools to boost the productivity of existing cropland and reduce the pressure to encroach upon standing forest. Farmers also learn how to restore degraded land and build resilience to climate change, pests, and disease. The large farms we work with are required to provide workers with the full range of benefits, including fair wages, decent housing, access to schools and health clinics, potable water, safety and security, gender equity, and freedom from discrimination.
The Rainforest Alliance has also placed community well-being at the center of our forestry work. Our forestry training and certification programs emphasize the provision of decent worker housing, strict requirements for the use of personal protective equipment, and access to education and healthcare. Over the decades, these programs have catalyzed a sea change among sustainability-minded forestry businesses: a 2009 study of certified forestry operations in Brazil confirmed excellent compliance rates regarding the use of protective gear (74%), the provision of medical care in case of injury (100%), and regular medical examinations (94%).
In tourism, the protection of indigenous community autonomy, protections for children, and women's rights are focal points of our training programs, in addition to the protection of local ecosystems, wildlife, and waterways. The certification standard we helped develop, maintained by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, also requires tourism businesses to follow practices that respect the cultural traditions of indigenous communities and encourage sourcing from local businesses whenever possible.
There is perhaps no better way to improve the long-term well-being of communities than to educate their children. Even grade school is out of reach for many children who grow up on farms, but Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) audits show that children on Rainforest Alliance CertifiedTM farms have nearly universal access to education. An independent 2012 study in Côte d’Ivoire found that significantly more children on certified cocoa farms were studying at the appropriate grade level, compared with children on non-certified farms. And in Colombia, the children of certified farm owners and workers had significantly higher levels of education than those on non-certified farms, with a median educational achievement two years higher than that of their peers.
In addition, our environmental education programs, which are integrated into landscape conservation projects in areas that are particularly vulnerable to deforestation and climate change, provide teachers with curricula and other pedagogical tools to integrate conservation into a child’s formative learning years. This is one of the most critical long-term conservation interventions we can make, and one we continue to invest in.