FSC-Watch

An independent observer of the Forest Stewartship Council

Things not improving in Rio Platano, Honduras - more questions for Rainforest Alliance and FSCTags: Honduras, Legality, Certifier conflict of interest, Rainforest Alliance SmartWood

Last week saw the distressing announcement by UNESCO that the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve had been put back on the organisation's 'In Danger' list, at the request of the Honduran government because, it said, of "the combined threats of illegal logging, fishing and land occupation, poaching and the reduced capacity of the State to manage the site". Covering 500,000 hectares, and being one of Central America's most important protected areas, Rio Platano has also gained fame as being a source of mahogany used in the manufacture of Gibson guitars.

Coming in the run-up to the FSC General Assembly, UNESCO's decision on Rio Platano might well have sounded warning bells, because of the involvement in the Reserve of FSC's largest certifier, Rainforest Alliance Smartwood - which has been certifying community-based logging operations there since 2005. A number of Smartwood-certified forestry cooperatives and companies operating in Rio Platano are listed in FSC's database, including five of which were issued in 2010. But a statement provided to FSC-Watch by Frank Löwen, a forest expert previously employed in Rio Platano, alleges that some of Smartwood's operations may have contributed to the Reserve's problems, rather than helping overcome them.

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Rio Platano - is certified logging helping?

Rio Platano was on the World Heritage 'In Danger' list before, but was removed in 2007, even though UNESCO's decision to do so noted that problems concerning illegal logging remained to be solved. Rainforest Alliance SmartWood has long argued that the certification of community-logging operations have played a role in helping to reduce illegal logging. In a statement in response to a US government investigation into the alleged use by Gibson Guitars of illegally-sourced timber, Rainforest Alliance noted that "Gibson Guitar sources mahogany from community-managed forests in the Rio Plátano and Maya Biosphere Reserves, where tropical forest areas have been set aside by the Honduran and Guatemalan governments, respectively, to conserve their unique natural and cultural heritage. In the Rio Plátano Reserve, illegal harvesting has been greatly reduced. There are now five community cooperatives in process of FSC certification and another 12 are collaborating with Rainforest Alliance and Honduran authorities to pilot a Verified Legal Origin system for timber from the Rio Plátano".

However, as FSC-Watch has previously reported, Rainforest Alliance's assessment of 'legality' is highly questionable. The following statement once again raises serious questions about SmartWood's certification programme.

Promoting sustainable forest management or camouflaging forest degradation?

A few remarks on Rainforest Alliance FSC certification activities in the "Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve of Honduras"

Declared in 1982 a World Heritage site by the UNESCO, the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve covers about 7% of Honduras national territory and includes the largest tropical rainforest area left in Central America. To preserve the integrity of one of Central America's key areas for biodiversity conservation, for many years actions have been implemented to strengthen sustainable natural resource management in the buffer zone of the biosphere reserve.

In 2005 Rainforest Alliance (RA) joined efforts by starting to assist some legally acknowledged forest cooperatives to prepare and export prefabricated mahogany pieces to Gibson Guitars Corporation in the US and by assisting the forest user groups in obtaining FSC certification.

Despite all efforts implemented over the past decade by numerous actors until the present, illegal timber trafficking (which is mainly targeting the area's last remaining Mahagony, Swietenia macrophylla, stocks) and forest conversion into pastures remains endemic in the Biosphere. The Global Witness Report "Illegal Logging in the Río Plátano Biosphere reserve: A Farce in Three Acts", published in January 2009, provides ample evidence that also several legally registered forest user groups have been actively involved in severe irregularities and abuses. Some of the presented cases refer to forest user groups, which are supported since 2005 by Rainforest Alliance.

It comes therefore as a surprise that Rainforest Alliance in its June 2010 report "The impacts of training, technical assistance and new export markets on lumber cooperatives in the Platano River Biosphere of Honduras", comes to the conclusion, that "Applying the principles of good forest management and sound business practises by 2008 we see that the cooperatives (supported by Rainforest Alliance) have achieved increased productivity, competitiveness and income as reflected in the sustained production of high quality pre-dimensioned pieces for guitar production...".

"Applying the principles of good forest management"....? The report contains a detailed description of efficiency gains and income increases obtained for local community members from improved processing of Mahogany wood, which was finally sent to Gibson Guitars. This is of course not bad information, but lacks a sound analysis of the silvicultural situation, which is obviously inadequate to back a statement that the results have been obtained "... under application of good forest management practises".

In practice, right from the onset, RA interventions in the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve put emphasis not on promoting and strengthening sustainable forest management but on assuring the production and timely delivery of sufficient amounts of precious wood to Gibson Guitar Corporation. In this context Rainforest Alliance has also not been reluctant to send large amounts of mahogany pieces from forest user groups which even after starting to cooperate with RA have continued to be active in the field of illegal timber trafficking. The "Agroforestry Cooperative Sawacito", which is operating in the southern part of the Biosphere is just one appalling example in this context.

Even in the case of forest user groups with a stronger commitment to work in line with approved forest management plans, Mahogany stocks are often submitted to a process of constant decline. Severe irregularities tend to occur both during the planning stage (e.g. through frequent overestimation of existing usable tree volumes to "justify" high timber extraction rates) and/or during the implementation stage (e.g by neglecting to apply established forest rehabilitation and thinning schemes outlined in the forest management plans).

Despite the occurrence of severe irregularities which are compromising basic principles of sustainable forest management, with Rainforest Alliance support some of smaller forest concessions operating within or in close vicinity to boundary of the buffer zone of the Biosphere Río Plátano have already obtained their FSC certification under the SLIMF scheme, whereas for the larger forest concessions the process is still in process.

RA proudly claims to be one of the world's largest certifier of sustainable forest operations according to the FSC standards. From such an organisation one should expect a sound understanding of the different dimensions for sustainable forest management. However, in the present case, apart from helping rural communities to temporarily obtain additional income from the use of a highly endangered species, Rainforest Alliance has mainly supported Gibson Guitars Corporation - assuring the companies ongoing supply with increasingly hard to find "legal" Mahogany wood.

By the way: one of the board members of Rainforest Alliance was till 2009 Henry E. Juszkiewicz, CEO and Chairman of Gibson Guitar Corporation. After Gibson Guitar Corporation being raided in 2009 by the US Fish and Wildlife Service for supposed violation of the Lacey Act, within a context not related to the company's activities in Honduras, he suspended his position as Board member of RA!

Rainforest Alliance is keen to draw attention to the organization's "efforts and achievements"....but ends up raising more questions about whose interests the organisation is actually serving. Their forest certification practises in Central America demand an urgent, independent review.

Frank Löwen (former Forest Advisor to the Biosphere Río Plátano Project)

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