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Nigel Sizer, new president of Rainforest Alliance, has big plans to improve transparency in agricultural supply chains
Nigel Sizer, the recently appointed president of Rainforest Alliance, 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,” he 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 smartphones, 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 mobile money.”
During a recent interview with Ethical Corporation at Rainforest Alliance’s London office, Sizer spoke about the role of technology in helping companies to tackle deforestation in their supply chains, a theme he returned to during his keynote speech at the Responsible Business Summit this month.
There are few people more qualified to talk about the subject. Sizer, who took the top job at the non-governmental organisation in February, 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 2bn 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 Global Forest Watch database has been transformative since its launch in 2014, bringing transparency into the notoriously opaque palm oil supply chain. It was satellite images from the project that allowed the Dutch sustainability consultants Aid environment to blow the whistle on deforestation by one of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil’s founder members, Malaysian palm oil producer IOI, leading to its suspension from the group. This led Unilever, Nestlé, Hershey’s, Kellogg’s, Colgate-Palmolive, Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble, and SC Johnson to cancel contracts with IOI.
Sizer said he would look to take the work he’d begun at WRI and develop it to expand the reach of the New York headquartered Rainforest Alliance, whose green frog certification badge is found on products from bananas, coffee and tea, to chocolate, cut flowers, furniture, and 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 [ensure] they are connected down through the supply chain to the farmers directly,” says Sizer.
Phones to the rescue
Smartphones will be key, he says. “Connecting farmers with each other so that they can share learnings with each other means innovation will spread more quickly in these communities.” He says smartphones 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 says this has already been done by other organisations in east Africa as part of the UN’s results-based payments for afforestation, 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 says Rainforest Alliance supports REDD+ but realises 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,” he says. “We would not be associated in any way with any efforts that are not respecting the rights of local people. 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, on both the environmental and social sides.”
As for what else is in store for Rainforest Alliance under Sizer’s leadership, 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.”
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 lower incidences of fire than in the area of the reserve where forests are supposed to be 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 that of 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 Rainforest Alliance logo with as little as 30% of its being from certified farms, product (compared to 100% for Fairtrade), 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 market-driven approach to conservation. “I visited an area where over the last three years we trained 18,000 coffee farmers in the Nescafé supply chain,” he says. “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 says the benefits are not only environmental. “There’s been an elimination of child labour and forced labour as well.”
He adds: “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. 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 working with members of the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) to meet its commitment to 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 Sizer 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,” Sizer says.
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 the US, and holder of undergraduate 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 developing technologies to help them address deforestation in their supply chains,” he says. “But it was a handful of big ones. At Rainforest Alliance it’s literally thousands of companies and over one 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
1990 forest operations are managed under Rainforest Alliance certification to FSC standards
41 million acres of forest land is under Rainforest Alliance certification to FSC standards