In the mid-1980s, when deforestation in Latin America had reached crisis levels, most conservationists believed the way to save the world’s rainforests was a complete boycott of tropical wood. But the founders of the Rainforest Alliance took the unconventional view that such a boycott would ultimately fail — because it did not take into account the needs of well over 1 billion people who depend on forests for their livelihoods. From the very beginning, the Rainforest Alliance understood that in order to succeed over the long term, the environmental movement must work with the people who use forests for their shelter, sustenance, and livelihoods — for they have the strongest incentive to conserve them.
And so our unique approach to forest conservation was born. Over the past 30 years, we’ve formed a kaleidoscopic and global alliance of forest communities, conservationists, farmers, scientists, multi-national companies, governments, and ordinary citizens. We’ve collaborated with these allies to develop and advance a rigorous sustainability standard for forestry management and a separate standard for agriculture — one of main drivers of deforestation then and now. Both standards are based on the principle that true sustainability must support the environmental, social, and economic health of rural communities.
As awareness of the global deforestation crisis grew (due in part to the Rainforest Alliance’s work with journalists) so did the market demand for responsibly produced timber and wood products. In 1993 we co-founded the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), the first independent global forestry certification system, to connect responsible forestry businesses with burgeoning markets for sustainably sourced timber (FSC certification includes a method that allows buyers to trace the wood to its origin).
Sustainable forestry certification proved to be such a powerful conservation tool that we soon expanded beyond Latin America’s rainforests — and saw a proliferation of competing certification schemes. Today, more than 113 million acres (45.7 million ha) of tropical, temperate, and boreal forestland around the world are under FSC certification.
As the demand for sustainably sourced timber grew, however, it became clear that forest communities needed additional support in order to fully access the benefits of certification and compete with established forestry companies. We developed comprehensive training and technical assistance programs — covering accounting, processing, quality control, business administration, and marketing — so that forest community enterprises would be better prepared to participate in the growing market, and we began extending those services to communities that weren’t certified, too. As our relationships with forest communities deepened, we worked with them to develop supplemental revenue streams, including the harvest and processing of non-timber forest products (such as Brazil nuts), ecotourism ventures, and forest-carbon projects. These additional forest-based activities are now an important part of our integrated landscape approach to conservation.
We’ve been on the vanguard of developing sustainable forest economies for 20 years, always working in partnership with local communities. Beginning in the early 2000s, when governments around the world began to grant land rights to indigenous and forest communities, we seized the opportunity to use our unparalleled experience to help communities make the most of their newly acquired land tenure. Building on our highly successful work in Guatemala, Ecuador, and Peru, we have adapted our model to partner with forest communities in Cameroon, Myanmar, and Indonesia.
As the devolution of land rights to local and indigenous peoples takes hold around the world, we’re advancing a new, highly effective model for conservation through our long-term partnerships with these communities. Working with more than 100 forest communities and small- and medium-sized enterprises — from smallholders in temperate zones to communally-owned tropical forests in Cameroon, Indonesia, and the Amazon — we have changed the way forest conservation is approached all over the world.
Originally published at www.rainforest-alliance.org.