Debate over forest certificatio­n speaks of change, challenges

Bogor palm oil
Under its current rules, FSC is having limited effects on the conversion of vast tracts of forests to oil palm plantations.

Change is brewing at one of the world’s most trusted forest monitoring organisations, one that sets standards for forest clearing and certifies wood and paper products as sustainable.

Members of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) will begin a review of plantation policies that could eventually loosen certification criteria to allow more companies to receive its established FSC seal of approval.

If it does, savvy consumers who put trust in the FSC label may be able to choose from a wider range of products, but some environmentalists say the relaxing of rules may jeopardise a brand image that relies on strict adherence to sustainability criteria.

On 1 July more than 400 people from environmental groups, forest-related businesses and indigenous people’s organisations gathered in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, for the FSC’s general assembly, an event held every three years to bring together members from each of the council’s three chambers –environmental, social and economic.

The FSC is widely considered the most rigorous wood certifying body because it attempts to balance the interests of businesses, communities and forest activists from the developed and developing world.

Members, including environmental organisations, woodworkers unions, national forestry departments and individual forest consultants, set policy and govern the group. Forestland owners or companies that hold FSC certification do not have the right to vote (though some, such as IKEA and Kimberly-Clark, are also members).

Spokespeople for the council highlight its democratic structure, since it tries to ensure full participation at its meetings and pushes consensus in decision making. Those factors, however, remain contentious among some members who say their voices are under-represented or feel that consensus tends to stall or water down important policy changes.

A hot-button issue

One of the changes that raised hot debate at this year’s assembly was a motion to grant sustainable certification to companies that have cleared natural forests since 1994, the year the FSC first drafted its principles and criteria on certification.

The FSC currently does not certify plantations that have committed deforestation since 1994, and critics of changes to its standards say they could threaten the council’s credibility and possibly lead to more forest loss.

Supporters want to do away with the rule, so that companies that have legally engaged in forest clearing after 1994 could receive certification. They say if the FSC is to have a greater impact and remain relevant in the face of changing forest laws, it has to include companies that have previously cleared forests for plantation activity, the driver of much of the deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia.

“We’re looking at how the FSC can have an impact on all the world’s forests, and [now] it’s really having very little impact in Malaysia and Indonesia,” said Grant Rosoman, a forest campaigner for Greenpeace New Zealand.

Less than 1 million of Indonesia’s 120 million hectares of forest are FSC certified, and officials with the World Wildlife Fund Indonesia said the lion’s share of plantation companies there are excluded from certification under the 1994 rule.

“I think it’s very important that the FSC also has a role on plantations that are developed after ’94,” said Aditya Bayunanda, a coordinator with FSC member World Wildlife Fund Indonesia.

He said a change to certification standards is vital to curbing deforestation in Indonesia, where, according to Indonesia’s National Council on Climate Change, up to 20 per cent of the forests could be felled by 2030 if businesses continue operating as usual.

“FSC has the potential to increase its influence and that is something we desperately need in situations where there is still corruption and preconditions are difficult to manage,” said Mr Bayunanda.

The birth of a market-driven mechanism

The FSC was conceived in 1993 due to pressure from environmental activists who pushed wood and paper companies to create a mechanism aimed at reducing the impact their operations had on the world’s forests.

Members propose topics they wish to address ahead of each general assembly. These topics then become motions that are tweaked and “finessed” among those in attendance. The chance to participate in person is one reason members travel to remote forest locales, such as Malaysian Borneo.

The FSC recently certified more than 200,000 acres of public forestland in Malaysia and granted a Malaysian firm the rights to develop FSC-approved national standards for forest management. Board members say holding the summit close to significant forest areas provides opportunities to advance change in the region.

As for the motions, on 1 July council members agreed to determine exactly what kind of vegetation, and in what condition, can be converted to plantations for certification. That decision came after days of divisive debate during which the proposal went from one that would have opened the door to certification for companies that have legally cleared natural forests since 1994, to one that calls on the FSC to “look in to stakeholder concerns relating to plantation certification.”

The FSC will now create a working group of people from each chamber to complete an earlier plantations review and investigate the value of its current principles. Whether that group decides to tackle changes to the 1994 rule has not yet been decided.

Mr Rosoman, a backer of the original proposal, voted against the final version because he said it was so broad that it no longer addressed the specific issue – certifying a wider range of companies and thereby expanding the FSC’s influence over forest management.

Alistair Monument, Asia director of the Forest Stewardship Council, says it’s the strength of FSC certification and consumer demand for eco-friendly products that creates incentives for change. Even with the council’s strict rules and requirements, big forest management companies realise they need to get into the market or they will suffer financially, he said.

The value of change

In the United States and Europe FSC certification is seen as a standard tool for appealing to ecologically concerned consumers. But many markets still don’t demand the FSC seal of approval, and in heavily forested nations such as Indonesia, it remains more profitable to exploit the forests for palm oil plantations or agricultural use, especially with food prices soaring.

Since certification does not apply to many plantations in Indonesia, there is also little leverage for the FSC to push them to improve their operations.

Forest campaigners who support a loosening of certification rules say that by taking a purist approach, the FSC limits its influence over the forests. Critics argue that extending certification to more companies is merely a channel for the FSC to make money, since the more companies it certifies the more revenue it earns.

Mr Monument disputed those claims.

“FSC has a policy of association designed to protect the integrity of its name and logo,” he said.

Allegations that Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), was engaged in large-scale deforestation in Indonesia forced the FSC to drop the company in 2007. APP’s association with Mattel now threatens that company’s reputation after Greenpeace claimed in May that packaging provided indirectly by APP for Mattel’s Barbie dolls contained fibres from destroyed forests in Sumatra.

“In the case of Asia Pulp and Paper, we disassociated from them back in 2007 to protect our name and logo, and because of reports that companies like APP are engaged in forest practices that don’t comply with our rules, we’re maintaining that disassociation,” said Mr Monument.

In addition to its many principles and criteria, the FSC is the only sustainability certification scheme that requires a company to engage with the community and other social groups before it can gain the council’s seal of approval.

In April this year the FSC suspended paper company APRIL’s certification based on evidence of forest destruction and ongoing conflicts with local communities.

Nicholas Mujah, the secretary general of an indigenous Dayak association in Malaysian Sarawak and a first-time attendee at the general assembly, said the FSC’s inclusion of indigenous interests is a sign of progress. But he felt the voices of forest communities were still too limited.

“Even the social chamber has been monopolised by sponsored corporate groups trying to shore up what the real indigenous people are saying,” he said, noting that the FSC arm debating social issues was filled with people from companies’ social responsibility departments rather than indigenous community members.

Mr Mujah, who attended the FSC summit as an observer, said he has seen little effort to engage with his own community in Malaysia and worries that certification is merely part of a business strategy to limit indigenous people’s access to their traditional territory.

Some groups have left the FSC because of the perceived imbalance. Others, such as the Rainforest Action Network, say it’s better to campaign for the forests from inside the group than outside it.

No silver bullet

Certification mechanisms can improve forest management by reducing the number of trees that are cut, say experts at the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in Bogor, Indonesia. But they are not a silver bullet for forest management, largely because their impact depends on compliance.

A recent CIFOR study on forest certification in Cameroon found that certifying bodies, particularly those under pressure from logging companies, do not apply standards consistently.

“An 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,” writes CIFOR’s Manuel Guariguata on the centre’s forests blog. (

Similar concerns in other countries have led environmental organisations to question the transparency of the auditors who certify timber operations. Others say the FSC’s stamp means little in countries like Indonesia, where corruption, lack of transparency and poor policing drive deforestation.

FSC members recognise there are issues the council needs to overcome. Timothy Synnott, an independent consultant who backed the motion to reopen debate on plantation policies, said the move is meant to clear up uncertainties on the council’s policy toward forest conversion.

“There are several issues and controversies surrounding FSC’s policy and surrounding plantation practices,” he said, referring to the terms the council uses to define forests as an example. “The current policy says natural forests shall not be converted; however, we have a very poor definition of natural forests.”

A range of players needed

Governments have a role to play as well, particularly since politics plays a hand in illegal logging. A recent joint study by the London School of Economics and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology revealed that illegal logging increases dramatically in the period leading up to local elections.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono recently signed a decree that prevents permits from being issued for the development of natural or primary forest and peatland for two years.

The decree, which is part of a US$1 billion agreement with Norway aimed at reducing Indonesia’s greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, applies to roughly 64 million hectares of such land, and has been welcomed by many FSC members. It is notable for highlighting the need for better governance and including a map of areas that should not be deforested.

But, forest activists say it bends too much toward corporate interests by including exemptions for existing permit holders and industries of “vital national interest,” such as geothermal, mining and rice and sugar cane development. Like the FSC, the Indonesian government also has not legally defined the terms primary natural forest and peatland.

A combination of players are needed to make forest management work, say FSC members, who passed a raft of motions at the general assembly, including an agreement to support certification and the promotion and marketing of certified products from communities and small-scale timber operations.

As the FSC works to evaluate its policies on plantations and certification criteria, it will continue to struggle with how it can limit the impact businesses and communities have on the forests. But one key to sustainability is ensuring that commitments are met, say members.

“It’s really more about forests than forestry,” said Rosoman. “So the efforts are about how FSC can evolve the system to capture some of that value and return it to the forests.”

Like this content? Join our growing community.

Your support helps to strengthen independent journalism, which is critically needed to guide business and policy development for positive impact. Unlock unlimited access to our content and members-only perks.

Most popular

Featured Events

Publish your event
leaf background pattern

Transforming Innovation for Sustainability Join the Ecosystem →