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Rainforest Alliance: Championing sustainability in Sri Lanka’s tea sector

13 December 2023 12:02 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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The Rainforest Alliance certification supports farmers in turning their farms into profitable, resilient businesses that respect workers and the land 

 

  • The Rainforest Alliance has been creating a positive environmental and social impact on land coming under the purview of plantation companies
  • In Sri Lanka, the programme has been active since 2008, predominantly in the tea sector

 

The introduction of tea as a crop to Sri Lanka transitioned the pace at which the country’s export economy was growing. However since the introduction of tea to the island since the 1800s, the tea sector has largely drifted away from sustainable practices to a more profit-driven sector. Practices such as growing trees in areas where forest lands were cleared to grow more tea don’t exist today. 

 

This is why institutions such as the Rainforest Alliance have now come forward to empower the estate community, plantation companies and other stakeholders to work together. The Rainforest Alliance has been operating in Sri Lanka for over a decade and creating a positive environmental and social impact on a vast expanse of land coming under the purview of plantation companies, bringing them under more sustainable agriculture practices.


Certification as a tool of sustainability

The Rainforest Alliance certification program is one of the key tools for driving sustainability at scale. Working alongside partners in diverse sectors including bananas, cocoa, tea, and coffee across 58 countries —it helps maximise the positive social, environmental, and economic impact of agriculture, while offering farmers a framework to improve their livelihoods and protect the landscapes where they live and work.


In Sri Lanka, the programme has been active since 2008, predominantly in the tea sector. Of the 20 privately owned companies in the country, 18 have since received Rainforest Alliance certification, now following criteria spanning aspects such as biodiversity conservation, better labour practices and integrated pest management. This certification extends to approximately 170 estates, marking a significant stride towards environmental and social responsibility in Sri Lanka’s tea industry. Independent, third-party auditors evaluate farmers against the Rainforest Alliance’s requirements before rewarding or renewing certification.


The Rainforest Alliance believes that workers around the world should be paid enough money to provide a decent life for themselves and their families. Currently, tea producers face challenges and have insufficient profits to meet their increasing cost of production and act in compliance with requirements and workers’ demands. “The cost of production is high and producers feel that they are not adequately compensated with corresponding prices. Herein lies the imperative for shared responsibility along the supply chain,” observes Dr. Madhuri Nanda, Director South Asia at Rainforest Alliance. “For genuine sustainability in supply chains, the costs and benefits of production need to be evenly distributed between farmers and buyers, so that both are rewarded for their efforts to embrace more sustainable practices,” said Dr. Nanda.  Often, only a small part of the value of production reaches the farmer, though they bear most of the risks, burden of sustainability compliance, and impacts of climate change. Jehan CanagaRetna, the Rainforest Alliance’s Country Representative for Sri Lanka shared that the tea smallholders account for 70% of Sri Lanka’s exports and a challenge arises in terms of certification. “Because of who Sri Lanka exports to and ships to; 80% of our exports go to countries such as Iran, Iraq and the Middle East, Russia and Turkey where certification is not as important when compared to the West. This is a challenge we face on a day-to-day basis,” says CanagaRetna. He further adds that the increased demand for commodities carrying certification from the West and other regions could not only enhance market value, but also encourage positive changes in production practices, ultimately creating a bigger impact on the ground.


To help overcome the economic challenge for producers, Rainforest Alliance has introduced two key requirements for companies in its certification program. “One is the Sustainability Differential, which is a mandatory additional cash payment made to certified producers over and above the market price of the commodity. The other are Sustainability Investments which are mandatory cash or in-kind investments from buyers of Rainforest Alliance certified products to certified producers for the specific purpose of helping them meet the farm requirements outlined in the Rainforest Alliance’s Sustainable Agriculture Standard,”
he explains. 


One of the other benefits of the certification programme seen in Sri Lanka is crop diversification, a strategy that has helped retain labour during off seasons. “Crop diversification, as part of our standard, has led estates to overcome losses and become more profitable over time,” explains Dr. Nanda. “It allows workers to harvest different crops during the off-season, providing additional income, motivation, and better wages on tea estates,” she adds. 


The Rainforest Alliance understands the importance of its certification programme as a strategic building block for identifying and addressing root causes of systemic issues, but underscores that, it cannot be used as a standalone tool, especially when it comes to human rights.“Audits may not always uncover human rights violations such as gender discrimination and freedom of association. That’s why the Rainforest Alliance Certification Program employs an assess-and-address approach, which supports farms in developing trackable systems for preventing, identifying, monitoring, and remediating against key human rights issues,” she says. 


Dr. Nanda also explained that social issues need more delicate approaches to be effectively addressed. “Workers, for instance, may not trust auditors and making it challenging to delve into sensitive topics during audits. To overcome these challenges, we’re enhancing grievance mechanisms and transparency through partnerships with local NGOs closely connected to estate communities, which have already earned the trust of workers,” she says.


Beyond Certification…

Having been present globally for more than 35 years, the Rainforest Alliance has evolved beyond mere certification. Dr.Nanda underscores their landscape level interventions and collaborative efforts with corporate partners, like Unilever and Kirin Beverages/ Holdings who have been actively engaging in supply chain initiatives such as training and supporting tea smallholders and Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs). The focus lies on assisting these companies, and others in incorporating sustainable practices into the tea industry.
With the support from Kirin, the Rainforest Alliance has successfully trained around 200 youth from the estate sector in biodiversity issues within tea landscapes, empowering them to become champions of nature.


The youth programme has not only equipped individuals to become naturalists, but has also enabled them to train other community members. Notably, some participants have been hired by the Department of Wildlife Conservation and the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS). CanagaRetna adds: “With Unilever’s support, we have also been conducting leopard education and awareness programmes within the estates, fostering community engagement by bringing together thalaivars (male leaders), thalaivees (female leaders)  and field officers. We also did a small pilot involving forest mapping in the Sinharaja buffer zone to gain insights into deforestation issues in the region.”


The Rainforest Alliance organizes periodic stakeholder engagement events to collect feedback from its members regarding the certification program. Dr. Nanda reports: “In a recent stakeholder forum, many representatives shared their views on the standard, discussing ways to enhance its implementation in Sri Lanka. In fact, some representatives expressed interest in initiatives like leopard awareness and micro- watershed conservation within their estates, aiming to bringing tangible benefits to the tea communities”.


Through partnerships with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and supported by the Global Environmental Facility, the Rainforest Alliance is expanding its focus to landscape level issues in the Eastern and Western Ghats of India. “While certification primarily concentrates on farm level issues, interventions at landscape level provide opportunities to address broader environmental issues, such as land degradation and biodiversity conservation.


Strengthening sustainability – way forward

Regenerative agriculture is one cornerstone in the Rainforest Alliance’s approach. Therefore, good soil and weed management, integrated pest management are certain aspects to be considered in regenerative agriculture. Incorporating these practices in the long-run can increase productivity, efficiency and resilience of the tea industry “Through the regenerative agriculture approach, we could build more resilience towards climate change among vulnerable communities,” Dr. Nanda explains further. “We strive to develop contextualised solutions to improve soil health and promote adaptive capacities to address the impacts of flooding, landslides and other extreme environmental events – mostly triggered by climate change – that are impacting the tea sector,” says Dr. Nanda. 


To strengthen sustainability in the sector, the Rainforest Alliance recognises the need for greater collaboration and partnerships. To this effect, the Rainforest Alliance is actively collaborating with organizations such as the Plantation Human Development Trust (PHDT), with which it works to conserve micro watersheds within the tea landscapes while fulfilling PHDT’s mandate of developing housing and infrastructure for tea estate workers. Moreover, the Rainforest Alliance has formed a partnership with the National Institute for Plantation Management (NIPM), to jointly develop a curriculum that integrates sustainability concepts into existing courses. The Rainforest Alliance standard has been incorporated into the NIPM diploma, with the first semester commencing in July 2023. “A lot of work carried out by these organisations aligns with our standard,” she continues adding “With such partnerships we strive for a wider outreach.”


Youth engagement –The retention of youth in the sector- has become a challenge as the industry is not attractive to them anymore. “One or two regional plantation companies are innovating and adjusting job titles with the aim of motivating their workforce and enhancing the overall appeal of the roles,” CanagaRetna adds. “We understand that behavioural change is the most difficult task to bring, which is why there is a need for more incentives, motivation and a vision for the youth. We look forward to working with more youth in the future because they are the future of the tea sector in Sri Lanka,” concludes CanagaRetna. 


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