The (de)evolution of Rainforest Alliance shade criteria

by JulieCraves on March 7, 2014

[Update: Newest 2020 standard discussed here.]

Periodically, the standards criteria of coffee (and other) certifications undergo an overhaul, as they should. The criteria used for Rainforest Alliance certification (the Sustainable Agriculture Network standards) are now being worked on.

Coffee is a major and perhaps the best known RA-certified crop, and one of nine ”agroforestry crops” certified by RA (those that can be grown with a shade tree canopy). However, RA now certifies over 100 crops. This is likely a major reason why the SAN Standard has been modified over time to be more simple and generic — completely understandable.

The proposed Standard, which will replace the current 2010 Standard, continues the trend in this direction. This is the main component (or generic standard), but actually the overall standards and development process is fairly complex. You can read more on the SAN web site.

I am going to try to focus here on the ”shade criteria” which is very important for coffee, especially as it relates to birds. This is the criteria many people have in mind when they are looking for “shade coffee” that is eco-friendly and provides habitat for birds and other biodiversity.

In 2005, the SAN standard did have critical criteria that required a conservation program that included establishment and maintenance of shade trees for traditional agroforestry crops. There was no specific canopy, tree, or shade requirements. Those were included in a separate coffee standard. Here is the original 2005 shade standard included in this separate document; it is criteria #2.8:

2.8 Farms located in areas where the original natural vegetative cover is forest must establish and maintain, as part of the conservation program, permanent shade distributed homogenously throughout the plantations; the shade must meet the following requirements:

a.  A minimum of 70 individual trees per hectare that must include at least 12 native species per hectare.

b.  A shade density of at least 40% at all times.

c.  The tree crowns must comprise at least two strata or stories.

A farm without shade can be certified once it has a shade establishment or expansion plan and shade established in at least 25% of the production area. Shade must be established in the remaining 75% of the production area within five years. Farms in areas where the original natural vegetation is not forest must dedicate at least 30% of the farm area for conservation or recovery of the area’s typical ecosystems. These farms can be certified once they have a plan to establishment or recover natural vegetation within ten years. Vegetation must be re-established or recovered in an equivalent of 10% of the total farm area (one-third of the 30%) during the first three years of the plan.

The separate coffee standard seems to have disappeared by the time the 2008 generic standard was issued. The new 2008 generic standard included the #2.8 shade criteria. The introductory wording slightly changed to “Farms with Agroforestry Crops located in areas where the original natural vegetative cover…” but that was minor.

In the 2009 standard, the language relevant to shade was watered down. The three bullet points changed to:

a.  The tree community on the cultivated land consists of minimum 12 native species per hectare on average.
b.  The tree canopy comprises at least two strata or stories.
c.  The overall canopy density on the cultivated land is at least 40%.

Importantly, the requirement for a minimum of 70 individual trees per hectare was deleted. 

This language was kept in the (latest) 2010 standards.

While not as strong as the original 2005 coffee standard, criteria #2.8 at least sets out some sort of shade and tree diversity requirements. Some of this language change probably occurred to accommodate all nine agroforestry crops. Meanwhile (I said this was complex!) in order to have more specific coffee requirements, SAN had individual countries put together “interpretation guidelines” [now gone from the website] that are used for specific crops. I think this is actually a great approach — coffee growing conditions are different in many regions (perhaps not in every country) and a customized standard might be good from a conservation viewpoint as well as a practical matter for farmers. However, there are only nine countries that have them for coffee. In Latin America, they are Brazil, Colombia, Peru, El Salvador, and Honduras. None are in English, but translations reveal they vary widely in their guidance, and they are not binding for certification. Further, countries such as Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, and West Indian producers, do not have such guidelines. Do they just default to the generic standards? If so, we must again be concerned with the changes that have taken place with “shade” criteria #2.8.

And alas, criteria #2.8 is no longer included in the proposed standard in its present form. It has been replaced by two new criteria:

2.4  A five-year plan shall be documented and implemented to conserve or restore a tree cover of:
a.  At least 20% of the total farm area for farms where the majority of the production plots are occupied by shade-tolerant crops.
b.  At least 10% of the total farm area for farms where the majority of the production plots are occupied by non-shade-tolerant crops.

Such areas may consist of any combination of:

“¢  Area set-aside for conservation of existing natural ecosystems or areas under restoration, including movement and dispersal corridors for animal and plant species;
“¢  Tree-covered agroforestry or silvopastoral production plots, gardens, live fences, or border plantings with native plant species; or
“¢  Off-site compensation areas located outside of the farm.

2.5. The shade density of shade tolerant crop production plots shall be managed to reach optimal levels depending on local production systems, climate, altitude, soil characteristics, and slope levels. The tree canopy of these production plots shall be composed of 12 different native shade tree species.

Obvious shortcomings jump out:
  • Requirement has gone from 40% canopy density to 20% tree cover, reduction of shade to a level that is far less beneficial to birds and other taxa. While 2.5 indicates shade density should be managed to optimal levels, it defers to local guidance, presumably given in the interpretation documents mentioned above, which are lacking for many countries, vary widely, and are not binding for certification.
  • ”Tree cover” is not the same as ”canopy density” or “overall canopy density.” Conceivably, a farm could have a limited number of scattered trees and come up with 20% tree cover. Ecologically speaking, these terms are very different.
  • The requirement is to conserve or restore a tree cover of at least 20%. What if there is already 60% cover, for example? Does this give the farm room to REDUCE tree cover (perhaps in the name of higher yield)?
  • There are no strata requirements. These strata are the various “layers” of trees, seen in the shade diagram here. This type of structure is critical to biodiversity in ecosystems; the more the better.
  • ”12 different native tree species” is not the same as ”minimum 12 native tree species per hectare on average.”

That’s just a start — many of the other criteria being proposed trouble me greatly. But already you can see that there are real problems here just pertaining to the shade criteria applicable to coffee.

The criteria for shade for agroforestry crops has been weakened.

There are no over-arching coffee-specific shade standards.

Only a few coffee producing countries even have non-binding coffee growing guidance documents. These are quite variable, and they are not easily accessible by English-speaking consumers.

And perhaps most of all:

This is all very confusing to coffee consumers!

This generic, diluted, convoluted, piecemeal approach has the potential to make the Rainforest Alliance seal useless for consumers looking for “shade coffee” that is eco-friendly to birds and other diversity. It will be truly difficult for me to recommend Rainforest Alliance certified coffee under these circumstances — am I supposed to tell people to check the country of origin then look up, translate, and evaluate the coffee guidelines for that country (if they exist) and see if they exceed the insufficient generic standard?

There are some good additions to the proposed standard. Overall, I applaud the work of Rainforest Alliance and their efforts to bring so many producers of so many products under sustainability guidelines, as well as their excellent public education campaigns. But these changes are truly disappointing to me.

On the bright side, this is not yet a done deal. I will be making many comments online, and you should, too, if only on some of the criteria. Or you can write to SAN at The deadline is only a few days away, but I am hopeful further comments will be accepted. I’ve always found RA to be responsive to my inquiries and concerns, so even after the deadline I think it’s worthwhile to give them your thoughts at


Revised on July 28, 2020

Posted in Certifications,Rainforest Alliance

Anna Clark March 17, 2014 at 6:05 pm

Hi Julie,

The SAN Standard strives to balance coffee productivity and optimum shade tree levels. The 40% shade level criteria of the 2010 version of the SAN Standard has proven to be a challenge in many coffee producing regions, especially areas with heavy cloud cover, high rainfall and high humidity. The proliferation of coffee rust infestations over the past few years has created additional challenges. To address new challenges such as coffee rust, farmers require some flexibility in farm management options. While the SAN and its training partners continue to strongly promote diversified shade canopies for shade-tolerant crops, it is necessary to introduce a level of flexibility in response to farm-level realities.

The proposed new approach still prioritizes on-farm tree cover, but offers farmers additional options to incorporate trees on coffee farms. These include live fences (hedgerows), riparian zones and conservation of forested areas, as well as an optimum shade level for agroforestry crops such as coffee.

Additionally, the new standard proposal includes stricter rules for continuous improvement to support progress toward non-critical criteria such as the ones mentioned. Collectively, these measures are designed to increase tree abundance and diversity on certified coffee farms.

The SAN Standard revision process is still ongoing. The SAN is very appreciative of the wealth and diversity of comments received during the latest public consultation period. Taking this feedback into account, the SAN will develop and consult stakeholders on a third draft of the standard, before preparing a final version, anticipated for the first half of 2015. The process will include a strong focus on ensuring that the new standard delivers on key ecosystem conservation outcomes.

Feel free to reach out to me with questions.


Anna (Rainforest Alliance)

JulieCraves March 18, 2014 at 1:08 pm

Hi, Anna — thank you so much for responding here. I’m very glad there will be another draft and stakeholder consultation. That’s great news.

As for your explanation of the revision of the ”shade” criteria, I completely understand the hardships of farmers (particularly in this time of coffee rust outbreaks). I also ”get” the Rainforest Alliance philosophy of being more inclusive and getting as many producers as possible under the tent of sustainability. However, isn’t a certification meant to differentiate a product as better or more special — by definition produced under higher standards? I am all for pushing as many producers toward the goal of sustainable growing methods — but the strategy should be helping producers achieve high standards, not lowering the bar to make it easier to achieve certification. That strategy, in my opinion, just dilutes the value of the certification and makes it more confusing to consumers.

It’s my understanding that the scoring method for certification is the flexibility you speak of — the fact that the shade criteria was/is not critical/required and certification could be achieved without it has compensated for some of the challenges or unique situations confronted by some farmers. Also, previous shade criteria already included ”stricter rules for continuous improvement” for meeting shade cover– rules which have been relaxed since 2009. The current and proposed criteria don’t seem to even get us back to those old levels.

Further, if the proposed criteria will permit the shade/tree requirements to be outside the production area as you mentioned, then there is less justification to reduce the amount of shade required for coffee in the standard. Also, why the elimination of the guidelines for number of canopy strata, and minimum number of native tree species? These should not pose a real hardship, especially if the criteria are applied outside of the production area.

A Rainforest Alliance brochure states that ”Rainforest Alliance certification requires reforestation with native tree species, the conservation of forestland and a diversity of tree species on farms.” RA has promoted a public perception that Rainforest Alliance certified coffee is eco-friendly, ”shade” coffee that helps ”save the rainforest.”

Should the proposed standard be adopted, the Rainforest Alliance seal — while it may appear on more coffee labels — doesn’t really represent that in reality, and what it does represent is not easily determined or understood by the public. I’m afraid this will just serve to tarnish the Rainforest Alliance ”brand” and foment distrust in certifications in general.

T R Shankar Raman May 2, 2014 at 2:31 am

Hi Julie,

I think you have raised very pertinent and appropriate concerns. The response from Rainforest Alliance, as you have correctly inferred, does not adequately address the concerns you have raised. A few key points for the discussion:

In the effort to provide flexibility to some farms that may have difficulty with the 40% criteria, it does not make sense to lower the bar for all farms across the board. The present (proposed) criteria are abysmally low for some traditional coffee farms in south India, for instance, and there is little to either penalize a drift to poorer shade or further incentivize maintenance of high shade diversity and density. The SAN Standards and Rainforest Alliance criteria on shade have been slipping continuously since their inception, first removing the tree density per hectare criteria, now relaxing the shade canopy density, even the criteria on number of species, all of which you have discussed in your post. Our best efforts to bring the latest studies of conservation biologists and agro-ecologists to inform Standards development has been like pushing against an inertial mass of industry/producer reluctance to change. This is part of a wider problem now plaguing sustainability standards across crops and certification systems. See:

A deeper issue is about conviction in the premise and purpose of sustainability. In our experience in India, stakeholder consultations bring producers to the table, who often refer to practices promoted by commerce-oriented boards and research institutes (Tea and Coffee Boards, tea research institutes) following a now-outmoded industrial-agriculture model. They have little experience with sustainability per se, have done hardly any research into growing various crops under different native shade tree species and densities, and have very little *ecological* perspective (i.e., multi-year, cyclic, prey-predator and tree-weed interactions etc.). So when Standards and certification systems weaken their criteria to be more responsive to producers/stakeholders who are relying on outmoded science and older practices, they may be doing something self-defeating and failing to channel the best sustainability knowledge and results to benefit producers. It is almost as if in the clamour of voices of people who wish no change or dilution of Standards, our own voice is silenced and our objectives and convictions forgotten.



JulieCraves May 4, 2014 at 9:57 am

Shankar, thanks for the terrific and insightful comment. I am awaiting more feedback from RA, which has indicated it’s forthcoming shortly. Let’s keep up the dialog!

Readers, the report referred to in the link provided by Shankar is the 2014 State of Sustainability Initiatives report, available for download here. It is lengthy, but covers many commodities. The coffee section has a great deal of informative statistics, many of which I have already added to this data table. It’s very revealing, and worth a read.

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