Interview with Sabrina Vigilante, Marketing Manager, Rainforest Alliance

Interview by Melissa Krenke, Rainforest Alliance

“Being Rainforest Alliance certified is not just about a badge that you wear in order to get a better price for your coffee. It’s about managing your farm and your land, it’s about the relationships you have with surrounding communities, and it’s about the relationships you have with your workers.”

The Rainforest Alliance’s Sustainable Agriculture Program provides training on best management practices to farmers and companies that grow coffee, cut flowers and ferns, citrus, cocoa, and bananas. The Rainforest Alliance is the international secretariat of the Sustainable Agriculture Network, a coalition of nine leading conservation groups in Latin America. The SAN awards the Rainforest Alliance Certified seal of approval to farmers who demonstrate their commitment to environmental and social sustainability on their farms.

In her position with the program, Sabrina Vigilante markets agricultural products that the bear the Rainforest Alliance Certified ecoseal and connects farmers in Latin America to rapidly growing green markets in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Japan.

Question: What are the advantages of a certification program that works through a network, rather than just one organization?

Vigilante: The Sustainable Agriculture Network, or SAN, is unique and progressive. The Rainforest Alliance standards for agriculture were not developed in the North and imposed on the South; the standards were developed by a North-South coalition, and that coalition consists of scientists, NGOs, governments, farmers, industry, agribusinesses, all of the key stakeholders and opinion leaders. The SAN is a network of nine NGOs, all nonprofit conservation and rural development organizations, based in the countries where our work is concentrated. They are committed to working with farmers to improve land stewardship and social and environmental practices, and the tool they use to make all this happen is Rainforest Alliance certification.

The SAN partners are Interamerican Foundation of Tropical Research (Fundación Interamericana de Investigación Tropical, FIIT) in Guatemala; the Institute for Agricultural and Forestry Management and Certification (IMAFLORA) in Brazil; the Institute for Cooperation and Self-Development (Instituto Para La Cooperación y Autodesarrollo, ICADE) in Honduras; the Nature Foundation (Fundación Natura), in Colombia; the ProNatura Chiapas A.C., in Mexico; SalvaNATURA in El Salvador; the Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (TIDE) in Belize; and Conservation and Development (Conservación y Desarrollo) in Ecuador. As the International Secretariat of the Network, the Rainforest Alliance is responsible for coordinating the network; growing markets for RA certified products; overseeing the associated legal work; and handling certification administration.

The great advantages of working through local partners are cultural sensitivity and low costs. They know the farmers, and they have relationships with policy makers and local businesses. They are all well established and reputable organizations. But I think the most important thing is that they understand the realities and challenges of farmers in a particular region and country.

Q: How do the standards take into account the radically different situations that farmers in each country face?

Traditional Shade Coffee Farm in GuatemalaVigilante: There is no “one size fits all” model, so it would have been impractical to develop a single set of generic standards for each crop and say: ‘This will fit Colombia and Brazil’, because the realities of farming in Colombia and Brazil in contrast to Central America are vastly different. So the SAN partners slightly adapt the standards to each crop and country, to better reflect the reality in the region. The SAN’s standards for Sustainable Agriculture have been reviewed multiple times. They are open to public comment and have served as an invaluable reference and base document for global, national, and industry discussions around supply-chain management and issues related to the sourcing of raw materials. We continue to review and refine the standards and slightly adapt them to reflect the changing realities of each country.

It’s a strict set of standards, but pragmatic and applicable to the country where they are being implemented. Let’s say for instance, you are working in a country like Guatemala, where coffee is traditionally grown under a lush forest canopy, versus Brazil, where coffee grows naturally in the savannah, where there never was a forest. The SAN standards may require reforestation in Antigua, Guatemala, while restorating the natural savannah ecosystem might apply to a farm in Minas Gerais, Brazil.

Q: Most people in the North associate coffee with Colombia. What are the realities of coffee farmers in that country?

Vigilante: The average Colombian farm is only 1.5 hectares, or about 3.7 acres. There really are very few big coffee farms in Colombia. People have this misconception, because of the Juan Valdez image, that there are all of these big, rich farmers in Colombia, and it’s just not the case. It’s almost all small landholders. On the other end of the spectrum, we recently certified the Da Terra coffee estate in Brazil, consisting of 3,304 hectares, or 8,200 acres.

I recently visited Colombia as a guest of the Colombian Coffee Federation. The Federation is committed to helping farmers achieve Rainforest Alliance certification, and they led the first group of farmers, Grupo Kachalú, through the process. The Colombian Coffee Federation employs more than 500 extensionists around the country, and they have agreed to provide the technical assistance necessary to help the smallholders achieve Rainforest Alliance certification.

Working with smallholders can be challenging — the environmental education process is a very important component of the program. Farmers cannot be expected to embrace sustainability and be good stewards of the land if they don’t understand how agricultural practices can have a negative impact on the environment. However, I have found, during my travels through the coffee lands, that the small farmers can be the most conscientious adherents to the program. They are closely connected to the land and extremely proud of their coffee plants. The agronomists and biologists in the Network have years of experience. Certification can be a platform for exchanging information in best-management practices and passing on knowledge handed down from generation to generation.

Q: Currently, the price of coffee is at historical lows and many farmers are facing severe economic hardships. They might not be able to afford to make the necessary improvements to their farms to achieve Rainforest Alliance certification. Are you changing the standards at all to face that reality?

Vigilante: No. We do adapt the standards to the realities of each country, but that doesn’t mean that because of economic hardship or other reasons, we are willing to reduce these standards.

Of course, we recognize that these are extraordinarily hard times for coffee farmers. To help with this, the SAN is asking coffee companies in the supply chain to seek sources of sustainably certified coffee, which gives farmers leverage and ultimately, better prices. We recently signed agreements with the three largest coffee trading companies in the world to work together to aggregate the coffee supply coming from many scattered small farms and reach out to coffee companies seeking sources of sustainable products.

In Mexico and Central America, we also have the support of aid agencies like USAID. We’ve worked with the World Bank in El Salvador to build a robust national program that has had a positive impact on hundreds of growers and their families.

Q: How are large coffee companies responding to the crisis?

Vigilante: They are becoming increasingly proactive by communicating social and environmental benefits to consumers and connecting consumers to the places where their food is grown. The supply chain should make investments, and major companies are helping farmers get certified. Green Mountain, a progressive specialty coffee company based in Vermont, offers a line of “Stewardship” coffees, representing close to one-third of all coffee purchased by the company. Green Mountain is encouraging their suppliers to the Stewardship line to achieve Rainforest-Alliance certification. Their suppliers include small landholders organized into cooperatives, and family estate farms. A legendary coffee estate farm in Guatemala, and a long-time supplier to Green Mountain, “Fincas dos Marías” is in the Rainforest Alliance certification process, and they’re very motivated. Earlier this year, a cooperative of small landholders, La Trinidad, nestled in the hills of Oaxaca, Mexico, achieved Rainforest Alliance certification with the help of Green Mountain. La Trinidad has also been certified to FairTrade and organic standards. Sustainable Harvest, a coffee importing company based in Portland, Oregon, imports La Trinidad’s coffee and connects the cooperative to interested buyers in North America.

In collaboration with the Audubon Society and JBR Gourmet Foods in San Leandro, California, we brought Finca Irlanda in Chiapas, Mexico, another legendary estate farm, into our family of certified farms. Finca Irlanda, a beautiful forested coffee farm, was the first coffee farm in the world to achieve organic certification.

Procter & Gamble just announced the launch of Millstone’s Rainforest Roast, which is 100 percent Rainforest Alliance certified coffee, available for purchase online at www.millstone.com or by calling 1-800-SAY-JAVA. Also, Citigroup, Java City, and Aramark recently announced their commitment to serving Rainforest Alliance certified coffee in 25 Citibanks corporate headquarters around the nation.

Boyd Coffee Company in Portland, Oregon, is a leading specialty coffee company in the United States. Their Rainforest Alliance certified Café Rojas is distributed to dozens of hotels and restaurants in the western United States. This partnership has been tremendous, because overnight, certified coffee is available in dozens of hotels and restaurants, and people are learning about us. The hotels and restaurants didn’t ask for it, and they didn’t have to pay more for it. Boyd is delivering added value to their customers, and helping to build consumer awareness at the same time. The next phase is to support the participating businesses in their efforts to educate their customers about sustainable coffee and how easy it is to make a difference.

And most recently we announced a partnership with Kraft Foods International. Kraft has made an unprecedented commitment to source a large volume, 4.5 million lbs in year one, of Rainforest Alliance-certified coffee and mix it into their blends and existing brands. In addition, they will launch products bearing the Rainforest Alliance-certified seal of approval in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Sweden, France, and the United States. We are excited about the Kraft partnership — here is a global food company, and one of the largest coffee companies in the world, truly committed to changing the way they do business and to building sustainability into the supply chain. Kraft will also support the expansion of the SAN Network, and help bring new farms into the certification program in order to meet the growing demand for sustainably certified products.

Q: What do you see as the major benefits that Rainforest Alliance certification gives farmers?

Vigilante: Being Rainforest Alliance certified is not just about a badge that you wear in order to get a better price for your coffee. It’s about managing your farm and your land, it’s about the relationships you have with surrounding communities, and it’s about the relationships you have with your workers. It’s about conserving forests, water, soil, and wildlife — very important things that farmers, not being biologists or agronomists, are not always aware of. So it’s a valuable service on the farm level, and it also gives them leverage in the marketplace.

I also think that they are very proud to receive the recognition certification brings. For the farmers in our coffee farm, so many of them were doing a lot of the right things before they entered the program. You have to be philosophically aligned with the program, embracing the principles of sustainable agriculture, and committed to making the required changes and demonstrating continuous improvement year after year, to really make it work.

Q: What has working so closely with coffee farmers taught you?

Vigilante: We work with conscientious farmers. I’m always inspired after visiting a certified farm, because I see the commitment to the environment and to our program. In Colombia, the Santander region that I visited was nearly completely deforested during the Spanish conquest. It’s a gorgeous region, full of all of these beautiful gorges, canyons, and mountains. But the only forest stands remaining are in coffee. The region is too arid to support coffee grown in full sun. In order for farmers to grow any coffee in this region, they need to plant trees, so they are reforesting the region in order to grow coffee! It’s an inspiration.

The Grupo Kachalú cooperative in Santander truly embraces conservation. I was impressed by the biodiversity on coffee farms in that region. I visited one farm with 112 native species of trees. I was amazed by the wealth of wildlife on one small patch of coffee farm. an oasis of biodiversity, in an otherwise arid environment.

One of the farmers, Marcos Penalosa, posted signs about the philosophy of protecting the environment all over his land. It brought tears to my eyes. Another farmer told me, “I used to harvest the bananas on my coffee farm and sell them in town in the local market just to put a few more pennies in my pocket. I don’t do that anymore, because it’s just so gratifying to watch the parrots enjoying the bananas on my farm.”

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