Nature, and the forest in particular, provides so much for us: the water we drink, the clean air we breathe, the food we eat and medicinal herbs and plants to cure our ailments. Unfortunately, there is only a fraction of our world's forests left. Some of the top drivers of deforestation include agricultural production of commodities like soybeans and palm oil, beef production and livestock ranching and logging. It is imperative that we protect these havens of biodiversity and take action to reduce deforestation and reforest the land. Organizations like the Rainforest Alliance are working to protect forests while improving the livelihoods of farmers and forest communities, promoting their human rights, and helping them to mitigate and adapt to the climate crisis. Mikuna is working with the Rainforest Alliance to divert protein production from areas like the Amazon Rainforest, protecting forests, ecosystems, and biodiversity.
First, let's take a closer look at what is driving deforestation. Afterall, we can't find solutions without fully understanding the problems. The World Wildlife Fund classifies the top causes into a category called “forest conversions.” This is essentially any practice which necessitates clearing the forest for another kind of land use, often converting the land to fields to grow crops or to ranch livestock. Unfortunately, agriculture is the largest single cause of deforestation and in most places large scale livestock ranching and plantation style agriculture are overtaking small scale farming through this widespread land conversion and deforestation. And why are farmers doing this? To feed their families, make a profit, and most importantly to meet demand.
Soy is a prime example of how demand for food can increase deforestation: As the demand for soy continues to rise, large scale operations continue to deforest land to grow their production capacities and profits to meet demand. In many instances, expanding these operations not only harms the ecosystem but also the local communities. In Brazil, for example, poor people are lured from villages and put to work on soy farms often in inhumane conditions “sometimes at gunpoint, with no chance of escape.” This kind of worker abuse is also prevalent in areas around the Amazon Rainforest, where there is lots of agricultural expansion into forested lands. Other crops driving deforestation include palm for palm oil and commercial timber for paper production. Soy and palm oil are found in many products, such as breads, plant milks, proteins, meat substitutes, oils, sweets, cosmetics, fertilizers, etc, and timber for paper may become toilet paper, paper towels, paper in your printer, etc. Every day, we unknowingly contribute to deforestation through consumption of any of these products.
When going to the market and looking for products that don't contribute to this deforestation and decimation of natural ecosystems, you may be overwhelmed. This is where the Rainforest Alliance comes in. The Rainforest Alliance is an international non-profit organization with a presence in over 85 countries. They provide guidance and support to farmers and entrepreneurs to receive their certification, the Rainforest Alliance Certification, which indicates that a product is produced in ways that promote forest health. Like Mikuna, they understand that sustainability is a multifaceted issue as their approach to sustainability “recognizes that the essential elements of this dance are inseparable: ecosystem health, human rights, and improved rural livelihoods.” The “green frog seal indicates that a farm, forest, or tourism enterprise has been audited against rigorous certification standards that require meaningful steps toward long-term environmental, social, and economic sustainability.”
So, what are these standards? The Sustainable Agricultural Standard has two parts: the farm requirements and the supply chain requirements. Within these requirements, there are two subtypes: the core requirements which all must meet, the improvement requirements which are meant to further promote and measure progress. The improvement requirements can be either mandatory (required by Rainforest Alliance to receive the certification) or self selected (chosen by the certification holder to achieve their own sustainability related aspirations.
Although the standards differ for small farms, large farms, and group managed operations, there are many standards that are universal for most. The core requirements include: collective bargaining agreements, lists kept of all workers and their personal information including wages and hours, the translation of materials from Rainforest Alliance provided to workers, keeping of records, up to date maps of the area including natural ecosystems, agroforestry shade cover, and protected areas, risk assessments, a management plant with areas for improvement, services provided to workers such as trainings, awareness raising activities, etc. the implementation of an internal inspection system, the creation of a system to file grievances without fear of retaliation, a commitment to promoting gender equality with actionable steps, recording of crop produced, and records of sales transactions.
The Rainforest Alliance is in the process of implementing policies that will necessitate increasing sustainability and improvements yearly on the part of the certification holder. This will be done using Smart Meters, or targets set by the producer themselves (similar to the self selected improvement requirements) with defined actions that will be taken to achieve the goals. Producers will annually reflect on progress and set new goals, creating a “feedback loop so that they can continuously improve their practices.” (cite). Through data driven auditing, the Rainforest Alliance will ensure that producers are hitting their targets and achieving their goals.
There are a few different kinds of audits, or check ins/ inspections that the Rainforest Alliance conducts. The Certification Audits occur to ensure that a producer is ready to be certified. Their must be an in-depth risk assessment of the farm including a gender assessment, child labor assessment, a forced labor assessment, and an assessment of discrimination and workplace violence and harassment. Areas of improvement will be identified and there are yearly inspections to check on improvements and to gather data from the smart meters. There are also Surveillance Audits, which occur in the two years between Certification Audits. These audits seek to verify that there is compliance with Rainforest Alliance standards and to check on progress towards the set goals.
The Rainforest Alliance expects numerous outcomes from compliance with their certification program: In terms of the people involved in producing the product, there is an improvement in their livelihoods, protection of their rights, their health, and their communities. Children are not exploited, workers are not exposed to forced labor, rights of the workers are protected, discrimination and harassment are banned, wages increase towards a living wage, and work and living conditions are safe. In terms of the management of the farm, there is strengthened group management, increased positions of female farmers and female workers, increased awareness and learning on sustainability issues and data collection. In terms of the ecosystems, farms become more resilient and productive as soil health and fertility improve with the safe and responsible use of fertilizers and pesticides. Additionally, the health of the forest and surrounding area is protected and enhanced, there is increased resilience and productivity, wildlife is protected, there is increased energy and water use efficiency including reduced waste and waste water, climate change is mitigated and biodiversity is promoted and increased in the area.
Mikuna grows our Chocho on 3,000 Acres of Rainforest Alliance Approved farmland in the Sigchos region of Ecuador. We employ locals from the area to plant, tend to, and harvest our Chocho. We are hoping to divert protein production (like soy and cattle) from ecologically imperiled and ever precious regions such as the Amazon rainforest to protect biodiversity and our planet's lungs. By producing our Chocho in ecologically sound and forest friendly ways, we can reduce deforestation elsewhere while stewarding the Andean mountainsides. We look forward to seeing the positive impacts that Mikuna Foods has on the local ecosystems and communities. As we continue to grow with the new demand for our Chocho, we hope we can expand our impacts in Sigchos and beyond.