Center for Fair & Alternative Trade

Colorado State University

"Exploring the New FairWild Certification and Work as a Development Practitioner" Maureen DeCoursey

Presented by Maureen DeCoursey, Private Consultant and CFAT Associate

On September 26, 2011, Maureen DeCoursey, Private Consultant and CFAT Associate (Masters of Forestry, Yale University) presented “Exploring the New FairWild Certification and Work as a Development Practitioner” to CFAT faculty, associates, and students. DeCoursey discussed practical details for those seeking a career in development in the first part of her presentation. For the second part, she outlined key elements of the new FairWild certification and facilitated a group discussion on current challenges and conundrums.

As a private consultant, DeCoursey has garnered extensive international experience in the field of environmental development. Her primary area of expertise concerns non-timber forest products (NTFPs) — botanical resources harvested in a wild or semi-wild form from state, community, private or other types of tenure regimes.  This industry has ancient origins and involves thousands of plants from all over the world, however up until about twenty years ago it was largely ignored by the conservation and development profession.  DeCoursey began her career in Nepal in the 1980s when little was known about the trade in Himalayan NTFPs and their role in rural livelihoods and biodiversity conservation, a topic which she examined as part of her MF thesis. Work in community forestry and protected areas management led to her involvement in sustainable enterprise development with projects in Asia, the Russian Far East, the Balkans and parts of Latin America and Africa.   This trajectory inspired numerous collaborations with the global business community, particularly in the natural products sector.

According to DeCoursey, a value-chain perspective is necessary if development experts are to better utilize markets and protect wild resources.  While improving business capacity and market connectivity are critical aspects of sustainable rural livelihoods, there is a distinct need for researchers and practitioners to more accurately measure community well-being as a result of these interventions.  Those considering a career in development must possess a set of core skills that are in demand, as well as demonstrate adaptability to meet the differing needs of evolving development agendas. Not only do practitioners require project management experience and grant writing skills, they must be able to negotiate complex political and bureaucratic considerations. DeCoursey stresses that overall demand for independent contractors is on the decline, and that competition for contracts is increasing. Future practitioners would do well to begin their careers within established organizations to develop contacts and obtain experience.  In view of the waning effectiveness and sometimes extreme politicization of conventional development aid (as practiced by USAID, World Bank and other mainstream organizations), DeCoursey is a staunch advocate of “outside the box” approaches as well.  Working through the private sector and fostering triple bottom line businesses in communities that are economically distressed and/or highly dependent on the natural environment can offer a rewarding alternative with lasting positive impacts.

DeCoursey began the session on FairWild certification by outlining the history and scope of the current trade in wild-harvested plant products.  The international trade (including seeds, flowers, bark gum resin, and oil and other plant parts) has been well-established for centuries. People in the “Global North” have always placed high importance on market access to exotic or tropical botanical substances imported from afar, even waging war for access and control of the production and trade of high value plants.  Corruption, collusion, and mafioso business practices were not uncommon.  Government actors charged with protection and management lacked the capacity for effective action.  Historically, the global trade in herbs, spices and other botanical resources has neither been transparent nor equitable.

A deeper look at sourcing practices today reveals similar patterns.  Globally, more than 400,000 tons of medicinal and aromatic plants are traded annually, with the great majority of these species harvested from the wild.  Out of the 50–70,000 plant species used medicinally world-wide, around 15,000 are thought to be threatened by over-exploitation and habitat loss.  Although accurate statistics are difficult to obtain, an estimated 3,000 species are presently traded in global markets destined for a wide range of commercial uses as components of foods, aromas, flavors, dyes, dietary supplements, natural health products, medicines, and textiles.

The majority of these species are wild-collected without effective management, often by women, children and marginalized groups living in or near forests and other ecologically intact habitats.  As a result, many species have been extirpated from their natural range and wild populations are on the decline.  Some are close to extinction.  Rural collectors suffer from low prices, labor exploitation, insecure tenure and access rights, and boom/bust cycles.  Eighty percent of the world’s population continues to rely on herbal medicines.  Plants for traditional healing are increasingly difficult to obtain due to scarcity and high pricing.  And traditional knowledge — often a key aspect of production management, and cultural identify — is also waning as younger generations move away from this enterprise due to the low and irregular income streams.

To address these concerns and bring about more security to the global industry as a whole, fair market advocates in the public and private sector approved a set of FairWild standards in August 2010.  The effort has been led by German, Swiss and American experts with ongoing consultation with all segments of the industry, from harvester groups in developing countries to international buyers and end-users.  The aim of FairWild certification is to provide a worldwide framework for sustainable, fair and value-added management and trading system for wild natural ingredients and products.  It builds on the earlier work of the ISSC-MAPs group (International Standards for Sustainable Wild Collection of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants), GACPs (Good Agricultural and Collection Practices), organic, and fair trade standards.  Up until this point, no existing certification scheme was able to handle the complexities of ecological and social sustainability for commercial harvests of wild species.  Some key differences between Fair Trade (Fairtrade International FLO) and FairWild certification are summarized in the box below.

Fair Trade/FLO FairWild
  • Covers developing countries only
  • Covers only a few products
  • Separate hired labor and small farmer standards; smallholders must be organized into cooperatives
  • Covers products and species from all countries
  • Covers any species or product
  • Covers any kind of producer
  • Incorporates ecological sustainability in the context of ecosystem management

The FairWild Standard is divided into 11 Principles, 29 Criteria and 180 Performance Indicators/Control Points.  These are both qualitative and quantitative, with additional variables for at-risk species.  Those seeking certification are ranked according to their ability to subscribe to these criteria, with a set of minimum requirements to achieve the FairWild label and the market benefits it can confer.   Producers can expect a price that is 5% higher than the average market price and a negotiated contribution to a Premium Fund, to be used for community development and other social endeavors.  Buyers must also pay a licensing fee based on annual turnover.  At present there is only one FairWild certifier, the Swiss-based Institute for Marketecology (IMO).

FairWild Principles1. Maintaining wild plant resources

2. Preventing negative environmental impacts

3. Complying with laws, regulations, and agreements

4. Respecting customary rights and benefit-sharing

5. Promoting fair contractual relationships between operators and collectors

6. Limiting participation of children in wild-collection activities

7. Ensuring benefits for collectors and their communities

8. Ensuring fair working conditions for all workers of wild-collection operations

9. Applying responsible management practices

10. Applying responsible business practices

11. Promoting buyer commitment

FairWild Foundation. FairWild Standard Version 2.0. 2010. Weinfelden, Switzerland

While the demand for botanicals with eco-social certification remains nascent within global markets, botanical industries are beginning to focus more on sustainability.  Approximately 22 companies from various segments of the industry are actively engaged in value chains for FairWild-certified ingredients.Many are associated with conservation groups and development projects.  Notable industry participants include Martin Bauer, a German company known to be one of the largest buyers of medicinal plants in the world, and Traditional Medicinals, a California-based specialty tea company that has taken the lead in the US market.  Eastern Europe and the Middle East are key source areas for certified raw materials.

DeCoursey laid out some of the current challenges faced by the FairWild program and solicited input and ideas from seminar participants.  Some of the more interesting discussion concerned the potential overemphasis/overburden on collectors and producers, especially from developing countries.  Several participants felt that the current system as outlined places an inordinate share of the burden of sustainability on this end of the supply chain.  A more balanced approach that places greater responsibility on global buyers, perhaps through industry associations, might be helpful.   There was also some discussion about the Premium Fund and how it can best be managed and used, with some questioning how a premium amount might be negotiated without reinforcing existing inequalities, who would determine the priority projects to receive support, and who would oversee the distribution of community benefits.

With over a decade of research on certifications in various product areas, CFAT has found that promoting social benefits for producers, their families, and communities is often the most vital and most challenging aspect of product certification.  Enhancing producer wellbeing and their individual and collective capacity is important in its own right and is typically essential in furthering ecological sustainability goals.

FairWild may help ensure sustainability of a specific plant product, but the extent to which it will meaningfully curb the loss of habitat, biodiversity and other ecosystem services, and support community and industry stability, remains to be seen.   For this to become a reality, FairWild practices need to become a normal part of “doing business” for all actors in this sector.   The risk of the FairWild trademark getting lost in the eyes of the consumers is real, especially in view of the myriad certification schemes and labels present in the market today.  Like many market-based approaches to conservation and sustainable development, FairWild is a work in progress.

For more information see Special thanks to Joseph Brinckmann and Bryony Morgan of the FairWild Foundation for sharing their insights.