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The other side of Rainforest Alliance – Exposing Green Capitalism.

The other side of Rainforest Alliance – Exposing Green Capitalism.

Supermarket shelves are filled with the ever more popular and lucrative “Ethical Green Products.” A quick visit to Tesco, Marks and Spencer, Waitrose, Sainsburys etc. will show you this. The modern shopper likes to feel that he is buying something that doesn’t damage the environment and the various organisations that have created Green Logos trade in this “feel good” factor.

Green means business and groups like Rainforest Alliance know it only too well.

This organisation, initially and activist group, has decided to work “with the capitalists” rather than against them believing that by being nice to them they will gradually change things from within.

With this idea over the recent years they have initiated a series of projects in different parts of the world. One of the products with which they are working most is coffee, one of the most important and lucrative commodities on the planet.

Rainforest Alliance gives its seal of approval to coffee producers that meet their standards of environmental friendliness. Colombia is one of the countries where Rainforest Alliance have been most active, sponsoring many groups of coffee producers.

Tesco, Kenco and Coffee Nation are just a few of the companies selling Rainforest Alliance (RA) approved coffee.

If you check out R.A. on You Tube, or their website you will see that they have developed a slick message about doing good deeds for poor farmers and their local environment but is it really true?

The area of Huila, Southern Colombia, where we live, is an area that has seen a number of R.A projects and our neighbour is the President of one of those groups. For the past 2-3 years that neighbour has been sending his contaminated waste water onto our land, polluting a natural spring and a series of fish ponds that we have dug in order to supply our ecological community with fresh fish.

The process of washing coffee produces an acidic and chemical sludge that is usually washed away in the water, entering streams and rivers. Thousands upon thousands of peasant farmers dispose of their contaminated water this way.

Rainforest Alliance champions filter systems and the processing of the sludge in order to make by-products from it including paper and compost.

R.A. farmers are supposed to dispose of their sludge without causing ecological damage but our neighbour began to dump this wastewater on our land without permission. He did install a filter but it didn’t function properly and one of the representatives of Fundacion Natura (F.N), the Colombian entity that reports to R.A. in Costa Rica, told us that they know that the filters don’t function well. He told us that the only country that has learnt to make good reliable filters is Japan… After first having made complaints to Rainforest Alliance and filming videos that amply demonstrated the contamination despite the so called filter, we received, over the course of roughly 6 months, 2 visits from R.A. reps although in reality they weren’t from R.A. one was from F.N. and the other from the auditors that they sub-contract… This chain of command; auditors sub contracted by F.N., in turn contracted by R.A. Costa Rica, is set up so that they are all separate legal entities. The ones that appear and visit can’t do anything because they can only observe, infact no-one in Colombia, it seems, can act quickly or effectively and all are covered by narrow mandates that limit their accountability in the case of legal problems.
Further more, we discovered, R.A don’t actually even visit each farm in the projects to make sure they actually do comply with the regulations… They sometimes visit selected farms but relatively few. What they do is give the seal of approval and wait and see if there are any problems. If no one complains, nothing happens and about the only thing that seems to be fulfilled is that little signs are put up on the farms indicating the functions of the different instalments. In reality what the farmers are given are some guidelines on organisation of the farms along vaguely ecological lines and encouraged to plant a few trees although when one sees how many trees have to be cut down to make way for the coffee in the first place it is scant compensation for Mother Nature.

For well over a year we notified R.A. of the problem after first having no luck with local environmental agencies. After some months R.A. wrote to our neighbour and gave him a deadline to stop the contamination, which he eventually did, sending the contaminated water to another local stream!!
Meanwhile he refused to retire the filter, that he constructed illegally on our land and he sends contaminated water onto our farm at night or at times when we are not there because his alternative instalment was not adequate. All this makes a mockery of R.A. system of auditing and their policy is to be “diplomatic” with the farmer that contaminates because they “don’t want to lose a client” and “because if he wasn’t in the project he would be contaminating anyway”. Clearly R.A. prefer that he continues to abuse the situation because profits are being made on R.A coffee.

In reality we are one of the few people that would complain about contamination because we have Ecological awareness, in the majority of cases the farmers that join these projects are the more aggressive businessmen and not the poorest people. The really poor campesinos work for them at low pay rates and are usually other neighbours with smaller farms. They don’t generally have the know how or education to confront a system and make a complaint and if they did, as we have discovered, in the case of our neighbour he is expert in intimidation and bullying, he has attacked us, made death threats and generally people are scared of him. This is not an isolated case, a short tour of Huila would show you that the R.A. farms pay lip service to the rules and as there is very little check up and even when there is there is very little pressure to change so nothing happens except that the companies selling R.A. justify a higher price because of the seal of approval. 

This kind of “solution” is an illusion, its not an ecological solution, it only treats the symptoms and not the cause. Contamination resulting from coffee farming is responsible for up to 50% of all pollution in Southern Colombia and farmers are much too dependent on one product that is not even a product of primary necessity. They are dependant on market forces and these kind of projects only encourage continued dependency on coffee when it would be more intelligent, ecologically to encourage diversity and a local economy. They also teach the farmers to use all the cynical tricks of capitalism, tricking the customers because its more expensive to really install proper filers and as cutting costs means bigger profits the $ incentive rules the day. In reality the “city ecologists” of R.A. and Fundacion Natura have no idea about Ecology, they have never worked the land and are only Ecologists of the theories in the books they carry around.

Our farm is an Ecological Community Farm working on self sustainability, Reforestation etc. We are real Ecologists working the land for over 20 years. We imagined at the beginning of the problem that R.A. would be pleased to make a special effort to ensure that the problem was solved swiftly thereby supporting fellow Ecologists and if they had done so they would have been able to demonstrate that they support all Ecological initiatives. This would have been more intelligent of them and would have done nothing to “damage business” but it seems that they are not that interested, they have been damaged by the same short sightedness as the Capitalists they claim to want to guide in the direction of “saving the planet”. 

Meanwhile we are in a drawn out legal struggle with our neighbour who continues to abuse our rights. So much for R.A. policy of ensuring good community relations.


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