FSC-Watch

An independent observer of the Forest Stewartship Council

The timber may be certified: but is it sustainable?Tags: Cameroon, Brazil, Absence of national standards, All certifiers

The headline comes from a recent post on CIFOR's Forest Blog. CIFOR is the Centre for International Forestry Research. The blog post is based on research by one of CIFOR's scientists, Paolo Omar Cerutti, who was lead author of a recent paper published in Forest Policy and Economics: Legal vs. certified timber: Preliminary impacts of forest certification in Cameroon. In the paper, Cerutti and his colleagues found that

the average reduction in the annual allowable cut (AAC) of concerned FMUs is about 11% when legal harvesting rules are adopted, about 18% when the FSC rules as requested by the certifying bodies (CBs) are applied, and about 34% when the ‘FSC logic of sustainable harvesting’, as agreed upon on paper by logging companies and CBs, is used.

The researchers suggest that Cameroon should develop "a uniform, science-based standard," something that FSC has obviously failed to do, despite the fact that 800,000 hectares of forestry operations is certified in Cameroon.

CIFOR compares this paper with research carried out in Brazil and published in 2008, that found that "certifying bodies do not always apply the same level of scrutiny to logging companies during the FSC certification process."

The conclusion to CIFOR's blog post is particularly damning:

"a FSC certificate today does not necessarily mean that the timber has been sustainably harvested and that future harvests, and the forests from which they come, will be maintained tomorrow."

Coming from CIFOR, this is extremely serious criticism. Perhaps FSC will pay attention. No one at FSC-Watch is holding their breath though, given that we've been pointing out similar problems for several years.

The timber may be certified: but is it sustainable?

May 10, 2011 Written by: Manuel Guariguata

BOGOR, Indonesia (10 May, 2011) Almost 20 years ago, a new tool to promote sustainable forest management came to light - the idea of independent certification. This was primarily developed and promoted by different sectors of civil society in response to the chronic failure of national governments, and a series of intergovernmental meetings, in halting forest loss and degradation. The hope was that by complying with a set of standards covering a range of technical, environmental and social issues, timber and other forest products from “certified forests” would gain access to preferential markets and price premiums. The hoped-for result was the maintenance of the local and global benefits that forests provide over time. Yet a study from forest-rich Cameroon by CIFOR scientist Paolo Cerutti and colleagues reports that the capacity of the forest to produce the most valuable timber over the long term - that is, sustainably - can be compromised even where certification schemes have been put in place.

Logging companies and certifying bodies differ in the way they comply or interpret compliance to forest certification standards, meaning “certified timber” may not necessarily be sourced from sustainably managed forests. Photo courtesy of J.G. Collomb, World Resources Institute.

Before going further, who is involved in forest certification? There are three main actors: First are those that define the standards and provide accreditation of the certifiers. Here the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is unique in serving this role globally. Since 1993, some 140 million hectares of forests worldwide enjoy FSC certification status. In Cameroon alone, close to 800,000 hectares are currently certified by the FSC. Second are the individual forest managers, typically concession holders or owners of timber lands, who request a certificate for complying with the standards. Third are the independent certifying bodies that assess whether a forest manager’s practices conform with the standards.

While the work by Cerutti and colleagues finds that FSC certification still holds the potential to improve tropical forest management over national forest management norms, it reveals that logging companies and certifying bodies differ in the way they comply or interpret compliance to FSC standards. The result is that, at present, in only three of the 10 certified forests in Cameroon is the most valuable timber extracted and exported with the application of techniques that are likely to ensure future harvests at the same rate as today. According to Cerutti and colleagues, part of the problem is that different certifying bodies use different standards: some rely on national rules while others follow the much stricter standards of the FSC, yet all grant the same FSC seal.

To avoid the proliferation of FSC-certified “free riders” applying weak norms, and to minimize subjectivity on the part of certifying bodies, Cerutti and colleagues recommend that Cameroon develop a uniform, science-based standard. This would then ensure uniform practice by certifying bodies assessing compliance with the FSC to advance the long-term and sustainable provision of timber. Because the FSC allows adjusting their global sustainability standards to the characteristics of a particular country’s forest, this is possible and in fact, it should be a priority in Cameroon.

The findings of Cerutti and colleagues are not isolated. In the Brazilian Amazon, Mark Schulze and colleagues concluded a few years ago that certifying bodies do not always apply the same level of scrutiny to logging companies during the FSC certification process. On either side of the ocean, the take-home message is that the provision of future quantities of high-value timber from certified forests may not be sustained if the playing field is not leveled between logging companies and certifying bodies at the time they assign the FSC label. The new research in Cameroon is nevertheless the first to assess the effectiveness of FSC certification for the forests of the Congo Basin, of which some 30% of the area is currently allocated to timber concessions.

At a time where researchers, policy makers and forest managers across the tropics are wondering whether the claimed benefits of forest certification are for real, the work of Cerutti and colleagues reminds us of the need for objective assessment of FSC standards. In other words, we may distinguish a certified- from a non-certified logging company; but a FSC certificate today does not necessarily mean that the timber has been sustainably harvested and that future harvests, and the forests from which they come, will be maintained tomorrow.

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