This year marks the 20th anniversary of the original Rio Earth Summit and the 25th anniversary of the Rainforest Alliance. The Summit and the Alliance have followed parallel trajectories in the last two-plus decades. Both originated at a time when the world was waking up to the destruction of 35,000 acres of Amazonian rainforests a day from logging, mining and agriculture, and beginning to understand the consequences of this loss for biodiversity. Both the Summit and the Alliance have since learned to view the imperative to protect forests and biodiversity as inseparable from the imperative to green the economic forces affecting them.
The 1992 Earth Summit responded to biodiversity loss and other acute sustainability threats with an ambitious call to action, producing Agenda 21, the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, the Statement of Forest Principles, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.
Around the same time, the Rainforest Alliance set its own agenda aimed at keeping forests standing and ecosystems intact. Even as a fledgling nonprofit, we quickly realized that achieving those goals entailed more than the cordoning off protected areas or ramping up legal and regulatory enforcement. The scale of the problem was too vast and the needs of stakeholders too complex for such an approach to have worked. Instead, protecting forests and biodiversity on a global scale required the proactive engagement of businesses, NGOs, scientists and citizens around the world to change practices on hundreds of millions of working forests and farms, in thousands of major companies, and among hundreds of millions of consumers.
Rights vs. Incentives
So for more than two decades, the Rainforest Alliance has been harnessing the power of markets to arrest the major drivers of deforestation and environmental destruction: timber extraction, agricultural expansion, cattle ranching and tourism. It does this primarily by certifiying and verifying farms, forests and tourism businesses according independent standards, which producers and companies adopt voluntarily.
In order to comply with the required criteria for certification, forests, farms and tourism businesses inevitably become more sustainable and usually more productive and efficient, which empowers people and communities to take control of their land and resources. Sustainability certification is an outstanding example of incentivizing businesses, communities and consumers to fulfill environmental and social goals by aligning economic forces with them.
Today the Rio process is doing something similar, pursuing the rights and goals laid out in its 1992 treaties and declaration partly through recognizing the economic value of resource-based livelihoods and environmental resources, and building a green economy with the incentives to manage them sustainably. Some citizen sector organizations are critical of putting a monetary value on forests or biodiversity or ecosystem services or working with business leaders and IFIs to achieve sustainability. They demand a rights-based, people-centered approach.
They're both right. We need to define a green economy as one in which people and the planet both thrive, and expand our view of sustainability to include sustenance and sustainable livelihoods for everyone. Two billion people depend on resource-based livelihoods, and over a billion are unemployed and/or live below the poverty line. At the same time, sustainable livelihoods and a sustainable environment are basic rights that needs respecting as such.
Valuation vs. Values
Forests' value is beyond economic; it's intrinsic. Covering just 4% of the world's surface, forests harbor the vast majority of the world's biodiversity, and absorb about a fifth of its carbon emissions. But they also have gigantic economic impacts we can't ignore. Forty percent of the global economy-especially agriculture, forestry and pharmaceuticals-depends on forests, while 1.6 billion people rely on forest-based livelihoods. Ecosystem services and other benefits forests provide are priceless, but it's possible to calculate the costs of losing some of them to deforestation, which The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) report puts at $4 trillion a year.
Numbers like these show at a glance why the REDD+ goal of raising $100 billion a year for forest preservation in developing countries isn't just viable; it's something we can't afford not to do. Forests are beyond price, but we also know their estimated "value" is orders of magnitude higher than the budgets of all the world's environmental ministries combined. Appreciating that difference can be a powerful force for scaling up sustainability.
So like Rio+20, the Rainforest Alliance's work to combat deforestation, biodiversity and habitat loss and climate change now hinges on building a green economy-one that values and protects the environment, while enhancing well-being, sustainable livelihoods and social equity for people. Treaties, policy, regulation and enforcement can't do this alone, though they are critically important. It requires tapping the scale and power of markets to build sustainability into what we produce and price it into what we consume.
Growth vs. Change
Certification is successfully tapping market forces to drive not just growth, but change. Markets for certified goods and services have exploded since 2000 and continue to grow rapidly. Sustainability standards in general now cover 10% of the global economy, while Rainforest Alliance CertifiedTM products now cover large swaths of global markets, including 9.4% of tea, 3.3% of coffee, 2.7% of cocoa and 15% of bananas sold globally. That means there are now over 150 million hectares of sustainably managed forests worldwide, plus thousands of downstream manufacturing operations, in the Forest Stewardship Council regime, which the Rainforest Alliance co-founded in 1994 as means of establishing a rigorous and credible accreditation organization for forestry certification.
In a relatively short time, this growth of sustainability certification has transformed way forests are managed and crops are grown, realigning resource-based livelihoods with sustainability. Today, Rainforest Alliance Certified forests and farms protect ecosystems, increase yields, improve conditions for farmers, foresters and workers on a scale government action couldn't have accomplished alone.
The track record demonstrates the case for connecting the stated goals of treaties, laws and regulation with market forces to drive global-scale adoption of sustainable practices in key markets like agriculture, forestry and tourism. That case is generalizable and applicable to the rest of the global economy. As the ISEAL Alliance stated in its contribution to the outcomes of Rio+20, certification is on "solid ground to expand the application of sustainability standards into new commodities and sectors such as…other food and biomass crops, cattle, mining, tourism, carbon, water and electronic waste." In fact, new crops and