When I first came across the ideology of voluntary forest certification, I wondered if the model was historically unique, creating a compromise between three distinct groups of people who have been in a bloody war for the same piece of treasure.
The FSC has an extremely complicated system of standards, indicators, auditors, accreditation, risks assessment, financial relations and marketing tools. It generates tons of documents, and millions of FSC-timber dollars flow around the world, with those who are making money from timber also paying for FSC logo and services.
The area of FSC-certified forests is expanding and there is a growing volume of certified timber products. Critically, FSC forests include operations in Intact Forest Landscapes (IFL) and High Conservation Value (HCV) forests, which are supposed to be protected by the FSC’s Principle 9 (which states that forest managers should manage these areas in a way that maintains or enhances their specific values).
But, despite our efforts and expenditure, despite all the standards and indicators and so on, these IFL and HCV forests are still being destroyed and degraded, even in FSC-certified forests. For example, Greenpeace estimates that between 2000 and 2013 around 10% of IFL forest loss in Canada, Russia and Gabon was in FSC-certified areas. In the Republic of Congo and Cameroon the proportion was even higher, over 20%. Furthermore, these figures might be even greater in reality, because (a) ‘controlled wood’ is not being properly controlled and (b) there is a lack of detailed information about FSC-certified concessions and areas of wood supply.
These tissues, raised by Greenpeace, became key topics for discussion during the 2014 Assembly and provided a key context for debate about the FSC’s strategic plan. The eventual approval of ‘Motion 65’ on protecting IFL and HCV forests was met with long and stormy applause. However, it has been observed by some experts that there are now two opposing kinds of forest use. One is forestry—the science, art, and craft of creating, managing, using, conserving, and repairing forests and associated forest resources. The other might be called ‘wood mining’—the practice of destructive wood extraction from intact natural forests. ‘Sustainable management’ is thus a very misleading name for forest mining in IFL/HCV forests, which needs to be stopped.
It is clear that the current situation is very different to that proscribed by Principle 9, and it will be extremely difficult to turn it around. A transition period is needed, may be several years even. But FSC must be clear that after this transition period it will come back to the initial idea of Principle 9, that management activities in HCV forests will maintain or enhance the attributes which define such forests. FSC must show that Principle 9 is no less important than any of the FSC’s other principles and criteria.
To this end another enduring problem still has to be resolved: the fact that auditors’ costs are covered by the company being certified, creating a direct financial dependence and consequent lack of objectivity. There are already many examples of auditors turning a blind eye to serious violations of required standards. Companies also use their right to choose a certifying body to choose the same friendly auditors over and over again. There needs to be an intermediary organisation involved, that selects the certifying bodies and collects and channels the certification fees. However the General Assembly rejected this proposal (although it agreed auditors should be replaced every five years).
On the other hand one positive development within the FSC is its increased regard for forests’ ecosystem services. Although valuing forests can be complex, lessons learned in World Bank institutions many years ago may be learned and adapted to the FSC’s framework of standards.
In conclusion, the FSC, as with any system invented by human beings, is not perfect. A key lesson here is that standards, even very strict and detailed standards, will never work properly without constant and professional pressure, especially from civil society and local communities. Its efficacy will continue to depend on all of us, those of us who live with the forest, by the forest, for the forest or thanks to the forest.
By Anatoly Lebedev, Bureau for Regional Outreach Campaigns, Russia