The appeal of landscape-level certification to enhance biodiversity conservation and community development

Cusuco coffee landscape

Many major coffee-growing areas are located in the most biodiverse regions of the world – especially the high-quality coffee regions

Landscape-level certification schemes have the potential to deliver conservation benefits and enhance community development efforts. Researchers at the University of Nottingham have been investigating the viability of landscape-level ecosystem conservation and community development in the context of coffee production, consumption and trade. Can these ideas be incorporated meaningfully into verifiable standards for ethical/sustainable commodity certification schemes?

Since the idea of sustainability found its way into the global business agenda, the number of different standards, labels, certifications and verifications has climbed substantially, much to the confusion of consumers and business professionals alike. Certification labels are intended to assure consumers that a set of social and/or environmental considerations were in practice during the production, processing and trade of a product. That the resulting increased consumer loyalty may increase market shares for the certified producers and industry stakeholders makes these approaches attractive in the competitive, increasingly globalized and highly volatile coffee market.

Many major coffee-growing areas are located in the most biodiverse regions of the world – especially the high-quality coffee regions. Coffee growing provides livelihoods for 25 million small-holder households and employment for over 100 million seasonal workers every year. It is globally the second biggest traded commodity, after oil, both in terms of volume and value, and is grown in more than 60 countries, many of which are among the world’s least developed.

When compared with other commodities grown in the tropics (rice, bananas, tea, etc), coffee stands out for its potential to contribute to long-term environmental conservation, provided that it is cultivated in an environmentally conscious way. In many coffee-growing countries, agricultural production dominates the economy, meaning that the need for immediate income will often override the longer-term investments typically required by environmental projects.

Coffee certification schemes

A holistic approach is needed, where strategic planning and monitoring adopt a bird’s eye view of landscape-scale issues while delivering benefits on the micro-level, reaching all significant stakeholder groups in a given area

Ethical certification schemes typically operate on the assumption that consumers will pay more for products certified as meeting certain ‘ethical’ or ‘sustainability’ standards. For conservation-related schemes, a second assumption is that individual producers can protect threatened ecosystems beyond their own farm boundaries.

Neither assumption is, in practice, well supported, and evidence for significant change has been limited (Tallontire et al, 2012). Even where schemes achieve on-farm environmental benefits, it does not follow that the surrounding forest is protected. A serious problem is that the rate at which old-growth forests are disappearing around farms – many of which are certified – far exceeds the rate of protection, either by certification schemes or by other conservation measures (Baker, 2012). Fragmented plots of ‘sustainable’ farms in an unsustainable landscape are far from what is needed to deliver significant positive impact on conservation or local livelihoods. As Baker (2013) put it, when discussing the link between climate change and coffee production: “It is no good having a sustainable farm in an unsustainable landscape”.

One shortcoming of existing product certification schemes is that they work either with individual producers or producers’ cooperatives, rather than benefiting all members of a given community or region. Standards tend to be binding only on an individual farm level and not on a wider landscape scale.

Further, the notion of static, harmonious local communities often jeopardizes the success of community-based conservation efforts (the ‘idealization of the undivided local community’; Kumar, 2002). Although participation of indigenous communities in environmental conservation is frequently promoted, current sustainability-related certification schemes do not take into account the diverse interests of individual members of a given ‘community’. The ecosystem and biodiversity monitoring data collected annually by Operation Wallacea volunteers for the last decade in biodiversity hotspots around the world have shown that illegal activities such as logging, hunting and forest clearance in protected forests around coffee farms tend to continue despite the supposed incentives provided by environmental certification. This is usually because the main offenders are not members of producers’ cooperatives, and thus have nothing to lose from their standards-defying activities.

‘Landscape labelling’

Ghazoul et al (2009) proposed ‘landscape labelling’, whereby payments for ecosystem services are merged with product certification and community-based conservation in order to extend the economic, social and environmental benefits of certification beyond the certified farms. In practice, because of the various social, cultural and political complexities and specificities of each individual situation, the implementation of sound principles and guidelines into measurable global standards that would ensure the conservation of whole matrices of ecological systems is a complex and difficult process. The effective application of such conservation is highly dependent on local socio-cultural and geo-political circumstances.

Ways forward?

Data collected in biodiversity hotspots around the world have shown that illegal activities such as logging, hunting and forest clearance in protected forests around coffee farms tend to continue despite the supposed incentives provided by environmental certification

In order to understand the dynamics of ethical/sustainable commodity production and consumption, the conflict of short-term economic benefits with long-term sustainability goals needs to be reconsidered. In particular, we need to reassess the basic assumptions underlying approaches to sustainability and fairness in agricultural commodity production, consumption and trade.

A holistic approach is needed, where strategic planning and monitoring adopt a bird’s (or satellite’s) eye view of landscape-scale issues while delivering benefits on the micro-level, reaching all significant stakeholder groups in a given area. Certification schemes are currently operating the other way around: focusing on helping selected groups of people while ignoring the impacts of their potential success on a significant number of people who fall outside the boundaries of their well-defined participation criteria. Furthermore, the environmental consequences of these popular schemes tend to be overlooked because their effects lie outside the certified farms and therefore escape the monitoring and impact assessment practices of current certification schemes.

In order to achieve significant improvements in both conservation and community development, we need to move towards a more coordinated approach that integrates the social and ecological aspects of interconnected systems within a broad enough socio-geographical scale. The landscape approach is the next crucial step towards achieving true sustainability of agricultural commodity production in environmentally sensitive areas.

References

Baker, P (2013) Extreme resilency? Risk and reward in Central American coffee farming. CABI – conference presentation https://s3.amazonaws.com/Presentations_LTC_2013/11-01-Extreme_Resiliency-Cabi-Baker.pdf – Accessed on 22nd November 2013.

Baker, P (2012) The market is not going to save the planet. http://www.caffeculture.com/2012/11/26/market-save-planet/ – Accessed on 30th November 2012.

Ghazoul, J, Garcia,C and Kushalappa, C G (2009) Landscape labelling: a concept for next-generation payment for ecosystem service schemes. Forest Ecology and Management 258: 1889–1895.

Kumar, S (2002) Does ‘participation’ in common pool resource management help the poor? A social cost-benefit analysis of joint forest management in Jharkhand, India. World Development 30: 763–782.

Tallontire, A, Nelson, V, Dixon, J and Benton, T G (2012) A review of the literature and knowledge of standards and certification systems in agricultural production and farming systems. NRI Working Paper Series on Sustainability Standards No. 2.

 

Acknowledgements

We thank Andrew Berry and Dave Smith for helpful reviews of this paper, and the Operation Wallacea Trust and the University of Nottingham for funding the research.

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