by Yessenia Soto
“The project was successful in placing sustainability on the coffee sector’s agenda, which was essential in convincing the largest coffee companies in the world to accept the challenge of sustainability and invest funds directly in producers to help them conserve biodiversity in their ecosystems.”
Coffee grows at middle elevations, primarily between 1,600 and 5,000 feet (500 and 1,500 meters) above sea level, in a lush ecosystem located between lowland and cloud forests. For more than 150 years, farmers have grown coffee mainly under the leafy canopy of native trees. However, in the past two decades this tradition changed, leading to deforestation throughout the Neotropics. Today shade coffee farms still exist, but are far outnumbered by full-sun farms.
Recognizing the value of coffee forests, the Rainforest Alliance, with other members of the Sustainable Agriculture Network, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), and the Global Environment Facility (GEF), launched a project in 2006 to motivate coffee companies to provide market incentives to farmers who adopt sustainable production practices and obtain Rainforest Alliance certification. Seven years later, the project has engaged hundreds of thousands of producers and some of the largest companies in the world in the production and sale of certified sustainable coffee, while simultaneously helping to conserve biodiversity in Latin America’s hotspots and provide decent livelihoods for farm families.
Oscar Maroto, sustainable agriculture manager for the Rainforest Alliance in Latin America, talked with us about the achievements and challenges of the project.
Q: Did the project reach its goal of conserving biodiversity in high-value ecosystems?
Maroto: Coffee farms in the countries that participated in the project – Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Peru – lie in four biomes that are among the most threatened biodiversity hotspots on Earth: the Atlantic Forest and the Cerrado ecoregion of Brazil, the Mesoamerican Corridor, and the Tropical Andes. Rainforest Alliance Certified farms have maintained forest cover and protected various species of flora and fauna. A recent study from the Cenicafé research institute in Colombia showed that Rainforest Alliance Certified coffee farms can extend wildlife corridors when located next to natural forests and provide habitat for a variety of species. The study also found that sustainable management practices adopted by certified farms significantly improved the health of local aquifers and soil quality. Note that this impact of the coffee landscape goes beyond the boundaries of certified farms; on average, the area that benefits from coffee farm certification is 7-10 times the area of the certified farm itself. With that in mind, we can estimate that the project helped conserve 25 million to 37 million acres (10 to 15 million hectares).
Question: Can you estimate how much more coffee from Rainforest Alliance CertifiedTM is sold now, thanks to this project?
Maroto: By the end of the project, the volume of Rainforest Alliance Certified coffee sold doubled, from 62,000 metric tons in 2008 to a total of 139,856 between 2012 and 2013. During the life of the project, 704,000 metric tons of coffee were sold.
Q: How many acres of coffee forests are being conserved as a result?
Maroto: The habitat area under sustainable management increased almost nine times since 2008, reaching a total of 2,032,930 acres (822,699 hectares) across 152,457 certified farms.
Q: What percentage of certified production comes from smallholder farms?
Maroto: About 66% of all Rainforest Alliance Certified coffee comes from small farms, a number that is two times the project goal. Additionally, there are 65,000 producers in Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico that are farming sustainably (though they are not yet certified) thanks to our work with Nespresso and Nescafé.
Q: Has demand for certified coffee increased? Where are the key consumer markets?
Maroto: The demand for Rainforest Alliance Certified coffee is rapidly increasing, making us one of the fastest-growing certification seals in the world.
About one-third of coffee with our green frog seal is sold in Europe, with two-thirds sold in the United States, Japan, and Australia.
Q: Does this increased demand result in higher profits for farmers?
Maroto: Certification helps coffee growers receive better prices for their crop. Although the Sustainable Agriculture Standard does not require buyers to pay a premium, in practice market forces lead them to do so anyway. The vast majority of farmers selling coffee with the Rainforest Alliance Certified seal earn an average premium of 8-12 cents per pound of coffee, which is one of the highest rates among the major certification seals. In addition, producers receive other economic benefits such as access to larger markets, which helps them secure the money they need to continue investing in certification. They also improve crop productivity, enjoy social benefits on the farm and in their homes, have better access to education and training, gain the recognition of other producers in the community, and reap environmental benefits like soil and water conservation.
Q: How did the Rainforest Alliance engage major coffee roasters and exporters?
Maroto: Along with other nonprofit groups, we were successful in placing sustainability on the coffee sector’s agenda, which was essential in convincing the largest coffee companies in the world to take on the challenge of sustainability and to invest funds directly in farmers. During the project, the private sector invested about $110 million in sustainability. Major companies like Mondelez (formerly Kraft) and Tchibo have been engaged with the project since the beginning. We are working with Nestlé, the largest coffee company in the world, to implement sustainable agricultural practices with thousands of coffee growers in several countries through the Nescafé Plan.
Q: Now that the project has ended, will these impacts continue?
Maroto: As long as the amount of certified coffee sold continues to rise steadily and producers can get good prices for their crops, they will have resources to keep their farms certified and can continue to invest in sustainability. Certified farms are also more productive, and many experts believe they produce higher quality coffee. Large companies are continuing to support coffee growers by financing their training in best practices for production, productivity, and quality. Many have even established their own technical assistance units.
Q: Has the success of this project benefitted the Sustainable Agriculture Network’s and the Rainforest Alliance’s work with other crops?
Maroto: This project helped create the participation agreement, an innovative and successful funding model that the Rainforest Alliance uses with other certified commodities such as cocoa and tea. This system also strengthened the SAN by achieving ISO 17065 accreditation, making key advances in traceability and chain of custody systems and strengthening sustainable value chains. This project’s legacy is a guide for strengthening technical assistance in agriculture, as well as a significant amount of knowledge about sustainable growing practices that we are applying to our work with other crops.