“We need to vote with our dollars and choose products that are helping each other,” said Ana Paula Tavares, executive vice president of the conservation group Rainforest Alliance. It’s a statement that sums up her organization’s goal, but it could also serve as a call to action for all consumers from Rio+20 (The UN Conference on Sustainable Development).
Tavares works primarily out of Rainforest Alliance’s headquarters in New York, although she is Brazilian, and she gave her address in both English and Portuguese. An intimate crowd of Rainforest Alliance staffers and partners in businesses and environmental groups had been invited to the 26th floor of the Mariana Palace Hotel in Rio to celebrate the organization’s 25th anniversary.
The tony space provided impressive views of Leblon beach, where svelte young people played footvolley, a hybrid game that combines the hands-free moves of soccer with a volleyball net. In the distance, the iconic statue of Christ the Redeemer (Cristo Redentor) glowed green on the top of Corcovado Mountain, lit with efficient LEDs to mark the conference.
“Our mission is to protect wildlife and the people that depend on them by transforming business and consumer behavior,” said Tavares. “With many of you we develop standards for best practices and we work on the ground.”
She added that Rainforest Alliance is active in 80 countries, working with farmers to add value to their products by making them more sustainable, and helping them access global markets. This is largely done by granting companies the right to display the Rainforest Alliance certified seal, after a third-party audit assesses a range of environmental and worker rights criteria.
Tavares said 10% of commercially harvested forests are now certified sustainable, plus 3% of coffee farms. “We have transformed the coffee industry [with our certification program],” she said. “With the work we do with small farmers and indigenous groups, they are protecting the environment while lifting themselves out of poverty.”
Tavares added, “Our new task is to take on the cocoa industry. In five years we want to have 10% certified.”
Karin Kreider, a long-time Rainforest Alliance staffer who now serves as “scaling up director” at ISEAL Alliance in London, told the crowd that she is particularly excited about Rainforest Alliance’s success in developing a new program for certified sustainable beef. “This comes after a 15-year effort, so it’s really amazing,” said Kreider. “And it will have a domestic component here in Brazil, which is especially exciting and really important if you want to make a big impact.”
Kreider added, “We had said ‘cattle is the thing we need to work on to make an impact.’”
Mario Montovani, head of SOS Mata Atlantica—an influential Brazilian environmental group focused on protecting what is left of the country’s high-biodiversity Atlantic forest—said, “Rainforest Alliance did not take the easiest route to get funding. Their model of working on certification and with businesses was so risky that Rainforest Alliance was the first group I knew to take out a loan.”
Montovani added that his group, which often partners with Rainforest Alliance, is also celebrating its 25th anniversary, and now has 300,000 members. Montovani said his team is working on a big restoration project in Brazil. “Because we are in Brazil we can’t have small challenges. Big challenges are what moves us,” he said.
“Twenty-five years ago, the job was convincing stakeholders that sustainable development was the way to go. Now it is a fact,” said Montovani.
Kreider added, “Twenty-five years ago, businesses were saying we need [to do something on sustainability] as a PR tool. But now business people are saying we need this as part of our supply chain.”
Summing up the importance of her group’s work, Tavares said, “I don’t think they have found a way to clone this planet, and I think it’s a pretty good one.”
Brian Clark Howard is on location at Rio+20. Follow updates here.
Howard is an Environment Writer and Editor at National Geographic News. He previously served as an editor for TheDailyGreen.com and E/The Environmental Magazine, and has written for TheAtlantic.com, FastCompany.com, PopularMechanics.com, Yahoo!, MSN, Miller-McCune and elsewhere. He is the co-author of six books, including Geothermal HVAC, Green Lighting and Build Your Own Small Wind Power System.