Green/Eco: People: Standardizing Green
For today’s environmentally conscious consumer, there’s an almost dizzying array of companies laying claim to the word “green”. Fortunately, independent eco-certifying organizations like the Rainforest Alliance exist to set some basic standards and benchmarks. This 21-year-old international non-profit does the field work helping farms and forests, primarily in the Western Hemisphere, develop sustainable practices. Products that come from these areas are then awarded an official Rainforest Alliance label—a seal of approval for earth-lovers across the world (or at least it should be). To better understand the certification process, Indagare interviewed Ronald Sanabria, the Rainforest Alliance’s Director of Sustainable Tourism. A Fulbright scholar and a Costa Rica native, Sanabria has worked on a number of certifying projects throughout the Americas. Below he discusses eco-tourism, the economics of green labels and the need to further certify the travel industry’s existing certifiers.
According to the Rainforest Alliance, agriculture is the number one cause of species loss and eco-system destruction worldwide. Yet farming is a major source of income for many people, some of whom can’t afford to implement more environment-friendly methods. How do you address this issue? Farms that earn Rainforest Alliance certification must meet some 200 criteria that are social and economic as well as environmental. For instance, owners must provide worker housing and health care. But investments in better management usually pay off in the long run, as farm owners often get a premium price (due to the fact that they are selling a certified product). They also often save money through higher productivity (20 percent higher on some coffee farms in Colombia, for example), reduced agrochemical use, and less worker turnover. It’s these market forces that have the potential to offer a wide-scale solution to sustainability problems.
The Rainforest Alliance certifies sustainably run farms and forests; products that come from these areas are then awarded a Rainforest Alliance seal. Is there a similar seal for hotels and travel companies? Since there are dozens of tourism certifications already in existence, the Rainforest Alliance decided not to add one more to the mix. Instead, our sustainable tourism program works with certification agencies in the Americas on sharing information and coming up with common baseline standards. There are currently twelve certification programs in Latin America that are working together in an alliance called the Sustainable Tourism Certification Network of the Americas. The Rainforest Alliance has served as technical secretariat of this network since its inception in 2003.
There are so many eco-awards and labels in the tourism industry. What differentiates the valid ones from the bogus awards? As certification gets more widely used as a way of backing up green claim, it will become absolutely necessary to establish some internationally approved guidelines. In other words, it will become more necessary to set a mechanism to certify the certifiers. For that reason, the Rainforest Alliance has been coordinating an international initiative called the Sustainable Tourism Stewardship Council since 2000. It’s a council that will accredit credible certification programs and is set to launch sometime in 2008.
What are your Green Globe Awards? Have any hotels or tour operators been the recipient of one? Our Green Globe Awards go to businesses that demonstrate an extraordinary commitment to furthering sustainability; they are honored at our annual gala. However, because in tourism there is a certification program called Green Globe 21, in order to avoid confusion, we do not grant these Green Globe awards to tourism companies. Instead, we have another award called the corporate sustainable standard-setter award. In 2006, we honored Costa-Rica based Horizontes Nature Tours (www.horizontes.com) with our standard-setter award. This year, Lapa Rios, a lodge that educates guests about conservation and regional culture and only employs local residents, won one. For our 2008 gala, one of the corporate sustainable standard-setter awards will go to the Costa Rican regional airline Nature Air (www.natureair.com), the world’s first carbon neutral airline.
What are some recent trends in eco-tourism? In the past few years there’s been a tendency to add more sophistication to traditional green itineraries. Eco-travelers also want to eat gourmet-style meals, drink nice wine and have access to the Internet—eco-lodges have to adapt and provide services to satisfy this more demanding clientele.
We have also seen that ecotourism rimes well with other types of activities that are more culture-based. For instance, travelers want to see pristine forests but they also want to interact with local people and learn about local cultures. I like this trend and the fact that people are looking for experiential vacations that will teach them something about the place they are visiting.
You’ve worked extensively in both Ecuador and Costa Rica. Any hotel or tour operator recommendations there for the high-end green traveler? In Ecuador: there is Ecoventura (www.ecoventura.com), which does small luxury cruises in the Galapagos. In Costa Rica, I would recommend Lapa Rios, Finca Rosa Blanca (www.finca-rblanca.co.cr), Si Como No (www.sicomono.com) and Pacuare Lodge (www.pacuarelodge.com) for hotels and Horizontes (www.horizontes.com), Vesa Tours (www.vesatours.com), Camino Travel (www.caminotravel.com) and Swiss Travel (www.swisstravelcr.com) for tour operators.
Some feel that carbon offsets have allowed people to pollute with impunity. What are your thoughts? Carbon offsets give people the chance to neutralize some of their greenhouse gas emissions. To reduce global warming though, it’s important that both carbon offsets and carbon reduction take place. So people should first reduce their emissions as much as they can and then seek offsets for what they cannot cut.
How can travelers best reduce their carbon footprint? Buy carbon offsets. When you can, take direct flights instead of ones with multiple legs. Use public transportation (instead of renting a car and stay longer in one destination rather than taking several short flights. Seek out tour operators and hotels that are certified by a sustainable tourism certification program and, finally, eat fresh, local foods.
What are some of your most pressing projects at the moment? Ramping up consumer support for farms, forests and tourism operations that use sustainable practices.
For more information on the Rainforest Alliance’s efforts to promote sustainable tourism, visit www.rainforest-alliance.org/tourism.