A great leap forward for the little frog

On the eve of the Responsible Business Summit 7-8 June, Ethical Corporation’s editor Terry Slavin speaks to one of the keynote speakers, the Rainforest Alliance’s new President Nigel Sizer, about his big plans to improve transparency in agricultural supply chains and step up the fight against deforestation

Nigel Sizer realised the huge role that mobile phones could play in helping to fight deforestation on a recent visit to a community producing coffee for Nescafe in Sumatra.

“I got out of the car and nearly all of the farmers took out their smartphones and took pictures of me and of me with them,” the new president of the Rainforest Alliance says. “And they we sharing pictures with each other, too, showing how they’d been working with different types of trees on their farms. It was amazing.”

Even farmers in the most remote corners of the globe, who by most standards would be considered quite poor, have smart phones, he says. "I realised it’s a huge opportunity for us to deliver services, and even incentive payments to farmers [who help conserve landscapes] through [the use of] mobile money.”

Sizer will be speaking about the role of technology in helping companies to tackle deforestation in their supply chains during his keynote speech at Ethical Corporation’s Responsible Business Summit next week.

There are few more expert people in the world to talk about the subject. Sizer, who took the top job at the non-governmental organisation in February, is only 50, but has 25 years of international experience in natural resources management. As global director of the World Resources Institute’s forests programme he launched the Global Restoration Initiative, an international effort to bring 2 billion hectares of degraded forest and farm land back to productivity, and Global Forest Watch, an online platform that combines hundreds of thousands of satellite images and high-tech data processing with crowd-sourcing to provide near-real time data on the world’s forests.

The publically available database has been transformative since its launch in 2014, bringing unprecedented transparency into the notoriously opaque palm oil supply chain. It was satellite images from Global Forest Watch that allowed the Dutch sustainability consultants Aidenvironment to raise the alarm that one of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil’s founder members, Malaysian palm oil producer IOI, was contributing to deforestation. This led to IOI’s suspension from the group, and Unilever, Nestle, Hershey’s, Kellogg’s, Colgate-Palmolive, Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble, and SC Johnson to cancel contracts.

During a recent interview with Ethical Corporation at Rainforest Alliance’s London office Sizer said he would be looking to take the work he’d begun at WRI and develop it to expand the reach of the New York-headquartered NGO, whose green frog certification badge is found on products from bananas to coffee and tea, chocolate, cut flowers, furniture, even tourism lodges.

“We want to really enhance our investment in cutting-edge technology and apply it more effectively across our entire systems, such as in the auditing systems to ensure that the companies we work with are able to get more near- real-time information from satellite based information, and [ensuring] they are connected down through the supply chain to the farmers directly,” says Sizer.

Smart phones will be key, he said. “Connecting farmers with each other so that they can share learnings with each other means innovation will spread more quickly in these communities.” He said smart phones could also be used to run training programmes and provide ongoing support as well as provide financial incentives.

“It’s a very big deal in East Africa, using mobile phones to send cash in tiny amounts. You could use that to transmit incentive payments to farmers who have increased tree coverage on their farms and are therefore sequestering carbon.”

He said this has already been done by other organisations in East Africa as part of the UN’s results-based payments for afforestation, known as REDD+. “For us what’s interesting is integrating that with the sustainable agriculture story. …. It’s all about driving that money down the supply chain, to give farmers more reason to be engaged in becoming sustainable, and get a virtuous upward spiral of improving performance on these farms.”

Asked about criticisms that REDD+ projects can disadvantage forest dwellers without land rights, such as indigenous people, Sizer said the Rainforest Alliance supported REDD+ , but realised that not all REDD+ projects were a force for good.

“One of the risks of large REDD+ initiatives is that local people and communities can suffer unintended consequences. There are documented cases of that. … We would not be associated in any way with any efforts that are not respecting the rights of local people.” He added: “The data is clear, and we passionately believe, that when local people and indigenous people are given a recognised right to manage these resources you get much better outcomes, both on the environmental and social side.”

As for Sizer’s other plans for Rainforest Alliance, he says: “You’ll see us launching a series of very ambitious efforts on landscapes around the world linked to major agricultural commodities and forest conservation, forestry and landscape restoration, and community development.”

The Rainforest Alliance is already the world’s largest certifier of Forest Stewardship Council wood, working in more than 70 countries with all types of forest. One of its biggest successes has been in the 2.1m hectare Maya biosphere reserve in Guatemala, where the government’s controversial decision to allow FSC-certified, community-based forestry within one zone of the reserve has paradoxically resulted in lower deforestation rates and incidences of fire than in areas of the reserve where forests are supposedly completely protected. “And these projects are enhancing the livelihoods of these communities at the same time,” says Sizer. “We want to do much more of that kind of work and we can imagine doing that not only around forest products, but across coffee landscapes and palm oil landscapes.”

Rainforest Alliance’s certification programme differs from its big competitor, Fairtrade, in its focus on protecting biodiversity through farm management (rather than guaranteeing farmers a price premium) as well as the fact that a company can use the RA logo with as little as 30% of its product being from certified farms, though companies have to agree to work towards 100%.

On his trip to Sumatra earlier this year Sizer saw the impact of Rainforest Alliance’s farmer-centric approach to conservation. “I visited an area where over the last three years we trained 18,000 coffee farmers in the Nescafe supply chain. We are seeing greatly improved productivity and quality [of the coffee], with improvements in soil quality and other environmental variables. Because we are helping farmers improve both in quality and productivity they are getting increased income and are very happy with the programme.”

But he said the benefits were not only environmental. “There’s been an elimination of child labour and forced labour as well.”

He added: “We want to really expand that work – from 20,000 to 100,000 or 200,000 coffee farmers across a much broader landscape. Then you can bring in protected areas. [Then] you’ve got restoration of landscape taking place, wildlife corridors being developed between protected areas; carbon funding coming in to provide additional incentives to the farmers as they enhance forest cover and increase forest stock. You are also helping farmers become more resilient to climate change. That’s a very big issue for farmers producing these types of commodities already.”

Rainforest Alliance is a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, and is also working with members of the Consumer Goods Forum to meet its commitment to achieve zero net deforestation in soy, palm oil, paper and pulp and beef supply chains by 2020. This includes helping Unilever trace its palm oil supply chain and assess its suppliers for social and environmental risks.

But he accepts that relatively few of the hundreds of major companies that are part of the CGF are actively trying to follow through on their deforestation pledges. Partly that is because of the complex nature of the international palm oil market. “Many of them are still in the process of understanding where their products are coming from - even which countries they are coming from.”

But he says some traders and companies have made big progress by successfully tracing their palm oil back to the mill. “The next step is to trace back to the plantation and smallholders themselves,” he says. “At Rainforest Alliance we are very committed to developing tools and programmes that will help companies that make those commitments to implement them with integrity and robustness and to be transparent about it. You will see much more coming from us about this.”

For Sizer, a dual citizen of the UK and US, and holder of Master’s and doctoral degrees in natural sciences and tropical forest ecology from Cambridge University, the most exciting aspect of his new job is Rainforest Alliance’s huge reach. “At WRI we were also engaged with companies very closely, [we were] developing technologies to help them address deforestation in their supply chains. But it was a handful of big ones. At RA it’s literally thousands of companies and over 1 million smallholder farmers. To be able to make impact of that scale is really exciting.” 

Rainforest Alliance in numbers:

  • 1,200,000 certified farms

  • 3.5 million hectares of certified farmland in 42 countries

  • 13.6% of the world’s cocoa

  • 15.1% of the world’s tea

  • 5.4% of the world’s coffee

  • 500 new companies started working with Rainforest Alliance in 2014

  • 1,990 forest operations managed under Rainforest Alliance certification to FSC standards

  • 102 million acres of forestland under Rainforest Alliance certification to FSC standards

Source: Rainforest Alliance 2014 highlights


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