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Rainforest Alliance

In conversation with Madhuri Nanda, Director South Asia,
Rainforest Alliance

World’s Highly Regarded Non-profit Organization Empowering Livelihoods 2024

The impact of climate change on our environment, health, and communities is profound and extremely costly. Issues like increasing sea levels, harsh weather, changing wildlife populations, and changing habitats cannot be ignored. As they say, there is always a solution to a problem. For issues involving nature, several global nonprofits are spearheading the change with their missions and noteworthy initiatives.

The Rainforest Alliance, an international non-profit organization headquartered in New York with three and a half decades of impact across nearly 60 countries, emerged as a revolutionary force in building a better future for people and nature by making responsible business the new normal.

Working on its mission “to create a more sustainable world by using social and market forces to protect nature and improve the lives of farmers and forest communities,” the Rainforest Alliance’s journey exemplifies an unwavering commitment to sustainability and positive impact.

Established in 1987 by American environmental activist Daniel Katz, the Rainforest Alliance became a pioneer in the field of sustainability standards and third-party certification, working across the economy in the natural resources, built environment, food and agriculture, consumer products, and climate sectors.

The Rainforest Alliance is enacting significant changes on some of the most pressing social and environmental issues by bringing diverse allies together through its landscapelevel interventions. The aim is to amplify the voices of farmers and forest communities, improve livelihoods, protect biodiversity, and help people fearlessly and effectively mitigate and adapt to climate change.

What has been the key driving force behind this remarkable journey? We reached out to Madhuri Nanda, Director, the Rainforest Alliance’s Director of South Asia, the inspiring woman leader who has played an instrumental role in expanding the impact of Rainforest Alliance across India and Sri Lanka.

What has been the key driving force behind this remarkable journey?

We reached out to Madhuri Nanda, Director, the Rainforest Alliance’s Director of South Asia the inspiring woman leader who has played an instrumental role in expanding the impact of Rainforest Alliance across India and Sri Lanka.

Here are the edited excerpts.

Can you provide an overview of how Rainforest Alliance’s mission has influenced the lives of farmers and workers in your impact areas?

The Rainforest Alliance is a global non-profit organization with the core mission to work closely with communities, help protect the environment, and promote the adoption of sustainable practices. Instead of protecting nature from people, our alliance works to restore the balance between people and nature so they both thrive in harmony. We are an alliance of people who pledge to take action. We do this because we want to shift markets toward being net positive for people and nature. In India and Sri Lanka, we primarily work with tea, coffee, spices and cocoa through our certification program – one of the tools to support the sustainability journey of the farming community.

As an organization with a producer-centric mission, we are committed to the principles of regenerative agriculture to build climate resilience among farmers, especially women and smallholder farmers. Our certification standard inculcates environmental and social practices among producers, as well as encourages sustainable sourcing commitments of supply chain actors.

Globally, we work with more than 4 million farmers through our certification program and our interventions at the landscape level to address wider regional issues such as land degradation, biodiversity loss, among others. Today, agriculture, food, and forestry supply chains are contributing to the triple crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss, and inequality. Unless this is addressed at the farm level, as well as the wider landscape level, the damage cannot be controlled. In addition to environmental conservation, sustainability is routed to improve the livelihoods of the farmers and producers through a vision of shared responsibility across the supply chain.

What inspired the creation of the organization?

The key inspiration behind the formation of the Rainforest Alliance was deeply rooted in Daniel Katz and other cofounders’ genuine concern for the future of tropical forests and all the animals that lived within them. We launched the first global forestry certification program with just a handful of volunteers, and we were able to closely work with companies in making a change.

Over time, the organization developed and evolved, with the help of its partners and alliance members expanding its scope to include other types of tropical forests and diversifying into agriculture to work with farmers and forest communities in the interest of creating harmony between humans and nature. In the current times of significant global challenges, such as biodiversity loss, climate change, and deforestation, and inequality, we are concerned for the local communities who face extreme poverty and lack of respect for their human rights. You would be surprised to note that 80% of people who live in extreme poverty are in rural areas.

As an alliance of farm and forest communities, companies, governments, civil society, and millions of individuals, we work to protect forests and biodiversity, take action on climate, and promote the rights and improve the livelihoods of rural people. Our true power lies with our allies. The Rainforest Alliance is a collective of millions of people from frontline communities, companies, partners, and dedicated supporters around the world. Together we are using social and market forces to protect nature and improve the lives of farm and forest communities.

Could you describe the company’s culture and values that guide your team’s work?

The Rainforest Alliance’s organizational ethos revolves around cultivating a collaborative, diverse, and mission-driven culture characterized by a shared dedication to making responsible business the norm rather than the exception. Our global team, comprising talented individuals from various linguistic and cultural backgrounds, embraces collective efforts to create a more sustainable future where businesses emphasize environmental stewardship and social responsibility in equal measure.

Our skilled workforce thrives in an environment that fosters value, respect, and the utilization of diverse talents and perspectives. This inclusive culture is at the heart of our organization, driving creative problem-solving and innovation. All our efforts to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) go beyond our internal operations to our partnerships and programs to drive success and sustainability in the long run.

What proud accomplishments would you like to reflect on?

In more than three decades of its existence, the Rainforest Alliance has impacted 4 million farmers globally through its certification program with a presence in nearly 60 countries. We are uniquely placed to work across the supply chains as we bring 6,000 companies together who are committed to sustainability with us. We also work with nearly 8,000 donors to try to bring institutional finance to the areas where we work.

Most importantly, we are working with farm and forest communities at the landscape level with more than 80 projects globally, which helps address various sustainability issues beyond the farm level. I believe our key strength lies in bringing diverse stakeholders together on a common agenda of sustainability in the interest of farmers and other vulnerable communities. This is so crucial given that nearly half of Earth’s original forest cover has already been lost and agriculture expansion drives almost 90% of global deforestation, thus accelerating the climate crisis.

What is the approach adopted by the Rainforest Alliance in India? What were the major challenges that the organization aims to overcome?

We are fortunate to be working in the key biodiversity hotspots in India, namely in north-east, Assam and nearby regions, and in the eastern and western ghats, which are the primary tea and coffee growing belts of the country. Our interventions were initially focused on certification program for the tea and coffee sector, and we worked across the supply chain with producers and buyers.

This provided us insights to better understand the ground level challenges, for instance, land degradation in western ghats and overall adverse impacts of climate change. The need for resilience building was key, which is why we started working at the landscape level to bring diverse stakeholders together to support the sustainability journey of the producers, including smallholders, which are more vulnerable.

Since May 2022, the Rainforest Alliance has been working in the Eastern and Western Ghats (known for their cultural and ecological significance, recognized as global biodiversity hotspots) through its GEF funded project named SABAL, for Strengthening Sustainable Agriculture and Biodiversity Across Landscapes in Eastern & Western Ghats of India.

The project aims to address challenges related to land degradation and biodiversity loss by collaborating with farmers and communities, governments both at the central and state levels and, the private sector aiming to enhance livelihoods while restoring degraded land and conserving biodiversity. We embrace a “continuous improvement” approach to sustain the commitment of our partners to the journey toward sustainability.

Though the road ahead may be arduous, there remains optimism in leveraging the collective will and talents of industry stakeholders, fostering better living standards for workers, incentivizing change in tea estates, enlightening buyers on the value of responsible sourcing, and engaging proactive government officials. Reflecting on our journey from addressing issues in the banana industry to our current endeavours in Assam, we’re reminded of the transformative power of collaborative efforts in steering industries toward sustainability.

It is great to hear about your positive experiences on the ground. Could you share one of the impact stories with our readers?

From our SABAL project, some stories have already started emerging, for instance, in August 2023, we launched the Seed Ball Campaign, engaging children of Andhra Pradesh schools as environmental stewards. Children are the drivers of change in any society. These children distributed seed balls and learnt about indigenous plant species, fostering a sense of ownership in nurturing our planet. The project has also initiated the eco-farm ponds program managed by women self-help groups (SHGs) to combat water scarcity and boost family nutrition and income through fish cultivation and horticulture.

The ponds have provided additional income to the farmers and their families while also catering to their own nutrition needs. All these activities are planned and executed keeping in mind that sustainability of every kind is our end goal. With this project, 770,000 people are expected to benefit across the two states of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, of whom 765,000 are farmers and agricultural labourers.

How does your organization approach innovation and staying ahead in a rapidly changing market?

While the Rainforest Alliance primarily focuses on sustainable agriculture and forestry, technology plays a vital role in enhancing the impacts and effectiveness of our efforts. Technology-led solutions have proven to be incredibly valuable in supporting farmers and promoting sustainability practices. Mobile applications, online training modules, and digital resources from and Rainforest Alliance provide farmers with valuable insights, best practices, and market information to promote sustainability practices.

The shift in value generation derives from regenerative production systems, or win-win models, which benefit both people and the environment. Producers have enhanced incomes and are better equipped to adapt and strengthen their resilience by adhering to sustainability norms. This, in turn, helps global citizens build trust in the brand and confidently use their choices responsibly, which inspires companies to strengthen their supply chains to achieve greater stakeholder trust, shareholder confidence, consumer loyalty, and sustainability goals. It mobilizes investors to support its market-based impact model because governments, philanthropists, and institutions see a higher return on investment from protecting and restoring nature than from degrading it.

Our strategy is to accelerate the speed and scale of impact through a producer-centric approach where more sustainable farmers lead to more committed companies and consumers, leading to more investment and support for farmers, and the flywheel is set in motion on its own. In the end, our vision is that people and nature will thrive in harmony.

Could you share your personal experience working the organization and what vision you hold as a leader?

As a sustainability professional, I always wanted to represent an organization that upholds the interests of communities. Tangible impact on the ground was always important for me to achieve my professional satisfaction. I am fortunate to be working with such an organization where we build partnerships and support farmers, producers and buyers to better understand and navigate the current challenges.

We drive our motivation in the field visits where we can witness the impact and engage with the communities. One such example is the inspiring story of Sushena Devi from Kalpetta in Wayanad, Kerala whose 32-acre farm thrives without harmful pesticides. She cultivates coffee, pepper, and more, all following sustainable practices. Though content with her labour of love, she desired to make her produce more credible – the Rainforest Alliance certification seemed like the best fit to her.

Sushena Devi (One of the Rainforest Alliance certified farmers from Wayanad Region of Kerala in India)
Sushena Devi (One of the Rainforest Alliance certified farmers from Wayanad Region of Kerala in India)

After extensive consultations with our representatives, Sushena became convinced of the value of certification. With her coffee now adorned with the Rainforest Alliance seal, Sushena’s commitment to sustainability has only deepened with a better premium of her produce and, at the same time inspiring, other farmers who are showing keen interest in our certification program.

As an organization, we are committed to bringing this transformation, especially given the pressing needs of today’s world where climate change is a reality we all are facing. Resilient and empowered farmers are needed to survive the impacts of climate, and this is particularly relevant for vulnerable communities.

The world is reaching a tipping point, and we need to repair the damage at a speed and scale never seen before. We strive to motivate our generation to leapfrog from a ‘do no harm’ sustainability mindset to a ‘repair and restore’ regenerative mindset. This transformation is necessary for a just and sustainable planet.

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