Unpeeling the Sustainability of Certified Bananas: The Vulnerability of Certification Schemes to Ineffectual Auditing and Climate Change
Seven communities in southwestern Guatemala have always lived with the threat of floods causing seasonal damage. However, since 2004, large mono-plantations of bananas have been making major alterations to the ecosystems by removing wetlands, removing/rerouting rivers, altering riverbank heights, building dams, and increasing the amount of agrochemical runoff into the waterways. According to the communities the result has been an increased severity of flooding and a decrease in water quality. Before they were able to reap two harvests every year but now they are lucky to obtain one. In 2010 the floods destroyed the communities’ only harvest and created widespread health problems. When the communities sued for damages their claim was thrown out by the courts based on a one page unsupported statement made by the Guatemalan government’s environmental agency stating that the floods were caused by global warming. It was later discovered that the banana plantations in question have been certified “sustainable” by the Rainforest Alliance, a third party certification scheme. This discovery became the foundation for this study by creating an opportunity to conduct an engineering based critique of third party sustainability using these communities as a case study.
The purposes of the study are four-fold. First, to determine if there is any evidence to support the communities’ claims that their situation has been caused by the plantations and not due entirely to climate change; second, if there is evidence to support the communities’ claims, determine if the Rainforest Alliance’s standards included provisions to account for these types of atrocities and whether or not the plantations in question do not fulfil them; third, if there are standards and the plantations do not meet the requirements, determine how the certification process ‘missed’ appropriately assessing them; and fourth, provide suggestions to improve the standards so similar human rights violations do not occur again.
To conduct the study, three trips to the area have been made with the fourth and final trip occurring the last week of July 2012. During the site excursions water quality tests, interviews, and visits to see the land use changes and see some of the damage caused by the floods were made. To analyse historical land use changes historical satellite images were used. The results of these studies were compared against the standards used by the Rainforest Alliance to look for discrepancies.
The results of the studies have shown that these plantations are in clear violation of many of the Rainforest Alliance’s critical criteria. To resolve these violations and to make sure that they are not happening elsewhere it is suggested that the Rainforest Alliance alter their standards by increasing the scope and methods their auditors use to carry out audits. In addition, an increase in scientific training and time to conduct more in-depth background research is strongly advised. Another aspect of the study has shown that climate change will have an increasing role in the communities’ future as Guatemala and other Central American countries will be greatly affected. This presents an opportunity for the Rainforest Alliance and other third party certification schemes to expand their standards, making them more dynamic and adaptable to regional changes to reduce the vulnerability of agricultural infrastructure.