Photo via Rainforest Alliance

New App Aims to Save the Rainforest Without Leaving Local Farmers Behind

The new tech empowers local farmers to take care of their communities and save the rainforest byproducts you use on a daily basis.

|
Jul 21 2017, 6:00pm

Photo via Rainforest Alliance

We depend on forests to balance the climate, produce oxygen, and filter the air, but for all the crucial benefits forests provide, they're in danger of being wiped out because of human activity.

Deforestation is the process of clearing a forest, whether by slash-and-burn or logging, both of which add to carbon emissions and speeds up the effects climate change. The biggest reason for clearing trees is to create farmland. According to the Rainforest Alliance, an independent international nonprofit dedicated to conservation and sustainable living, agriculture is responsible for 90 percent of tropical deforestation.

But it's not all the fault of the farmers. Their actions are driven by a cycle of poverty and a demand of consumer goods from wealthier nations. None of these actions take place in a vacuum. Although the destruction has had a huge impact on the environment and public health, there's still a chance for a comeback.

Since 1987, the Rainforest Alliance has operated in more than 70 countries in collaboration with hundreds of local partners in environmental activism. Their newest initiative is the development of an app that trains farmers on how to practice agriculture sustainably while also driving the economy.

VICE Impact got the chance to talk with Jessie Baker of the Rainforest Alliance's Landscapes & Livelihoods team. She gave us the lowdown on why we should care about the rainforest, the Farmer Training App and how locals are being empowered to take care of their communities.

VICE Impact: Why should people who don't live near the rainforest or who aren't farmers be concerned about sustainable agriculture?

Jessie Baker: Nearly everything we consume has some connection to a rainforest. Coffee, chocolate, tea, avocados, bananas, sugar, vanilla, spices, beef, and lots of other everyday food products are tropical crops. Items like mattresses, shoelaces, rugs, car tires, and clothing can contain fibers or products from tropical forest trees. Often, these products come from farms or regions where forest was cleared to make room for intensive, industrial agriculture. Consumption without consideration of the items' origin in part drives deforestation.

On the other hand, intact forests produce air, water, soil, and provide habitat for medicinal plants. About one out of five oxygen molecules in the atmosphere was produced in the mighty Amazon rainforest, and about 76 percent of earth's freshwater originates from forest sources. Forests are also home to a staggering amount of biodiversity, and millions of humans.

Why did the Rainforest Alliance develop the Farmer Training app ?

The Rainforest Alliance works to protect forest and wildlife and to improve the livelihoods of the communities in and around the forest. We do this through providing technical assistance and training to communities, but resources are often limited and there are never enough technicians to go visit every farmer.

We began looking at different tools to improve our training capacity, connect farmers and give them more tools to prepare for the effects of climate change. Together with a community in the western highlands of Guatemala, we developed this app to ensure the end product would be something farmers liked and would actually use.

As of this year, our certification standards have been upgraded, and this means that over 1 million farmers will now have to learn about the new requirements. We are using the Farmer Training App to help them get up to speed with the updated standards, and are uploading new training materials onto the app as we develop them.

How long did it take to develop the technology for the app?

After several months of research and development, we commenced work on the first iteration and pilot of the app in 2014. During the pilot phase, the app was developed as a new communication tool to help farmers connect with each other, share information, ask questions, and learn how farmers' actions are impacting the global environment.

We conducted pilot testing with coffee farmers in Guatemala with the eventual goal of helping farmers exchange information, increase their yields and incomes, and better manage their farmlands. The pilot reached 600 smallholder coffee farmers. Now in 2017, we have redesigned the Rainforest Alliance Farmer Training App to support the roll out of the recently revised certification standard.

Who contributed to the development? Was this just a tech industry project or did the farmers have input too?

Throughout the pilot and initial development of the app, we met with the lead farmers on different occasions, and incorporated their feedback into the design and content of the app. In addition to direct interaction with the communities, we also ran two field assessments in the areas where we were already working.

The assessments showed that digital skills, literacy rates and incomes were low in the regions where we planned to work. Keeping that in mind, we decided to go with a platform and design that was not purely text-based and worked offline. We also realized we needed to invest time in digital skill development and training out in the field.

Just as we did during the design phase, we're working to make sure the communities we work with feel invested and see value in in the Farmer Training App – this way we know they will continue to use it and transform their agricultural practices.

A farmer using the app. (Photo via Rainforest Alliance)

What void does the app fill that would otherwise be unmet?

We're working in some of the world's most remote and vulnerable regions to conserve forests, protect rivers, and nurture healthy soil. With an increasingly unstable global climate, farmers are faced with a growing challenge to produce enough for their families and for our planet.

Connecting rural communities to climate-smart agricultural practices, each other, and the world is an important step towards climate adaptation and food security. The training app can reach millions of farmers and allows us to share valuable training information easily. Traditional training methods rely on a technician to travel to farms around the world. Not only does this traditional model take much longer, but there are often a limited number of technicians, making it difficult to ensure each farm is getting information in a timely fashion.

How does this app enable farmers to make more sustainable choices in cultivating their land? How will that affect the larger issue of climate change?

By giving farmers access to information on climate-smart agriculture practices through the app, we allow them the opportunity to increase their yields without expanding farmland or destroying fragile ecosystems. The app gives farmers access to training on agriculture best practices and examples from how farms across the world apply those best practices on their farms. Through providing technical assistance and training to farmers we can increase the adoption of sustainable practices and decrease the adoption of practices such as deforestation, that fuel climate change.

Using the new app in the field. (Photo via Rainforest Alliance)

Where is this app being used now? Is there a possibility for expansion to other regions?

We developed and piloted the first versions of the app in the highlands of Guatemala. We have now soft launched the tool in Guatemala, Peru, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Kenya, Tanzania, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and the Philippines. The full scale is limited to English and Spanish speakers currently but we are actively working to launch the app in Chinese, French, and Bahasa Indonesian – once we have the app available in these additional languages we will deploy the tool more broadly across the world.

What's a final word that you want to impart about the need for rainforest protections?

This app has been very valuable to promote gender equity on farms and indirectly, and to help improve digital skills and literacy rates amongst our farmers.

Female farmers (who make up 40 percent of the agricultural workforce on average) who may feel intimidated to attend a training, or may have to skip training day because of a sick child or other reason, is provided equal access to information when delivered through the Farmer Training App.

This technology is accessible to everyone, regardless of age or gender. And because the information is presented in videos, photos, and graphics, farmers of all literacy levels can use the app, too.

If you're interested in supporting the mission of Rainforest Alliance, the most direct way is by donating to their work—here's how to donate specifically to the Farmer Training App.

Also, when shopping look for products bearing the Rainforest Alliance Certified seal—these products come from Rainforest Alliance Certified farms and meet strict criteria for environmental and social sustainability.