Environment NGOs clash over forest scheme

Sarawak timber concessions Global Witness
Malaysian forests cleared for plantations in Sarawak. Photo: Global Witness

Conservation group WWF and environmental advocacy group Global Witness are clashing over a forest scheme run by WWF, with both organisations in a war of words on what needs to be done.

The public disagreement started last Monday with the release of a Global Witness report, Pandering to the Loggers, which claimed that a WWF initiative – the Global Forest & Trade Network (GFTN) - lacks transparency and that lax membership rules combined with insufficient monitoring allow some GFTN member companies to abuse the scheme.

WWF issued a statement the same day from the head of GFTN, George White, who accused Global Witness of giving WWF inadequate time and information to respond to allegations before releasing report. He also said WWF responses were taken out of context.

Pandering to the Loggers, a report unseen by WWF prior to publication, makes a highly selective - and therefore misleading - use of WWF’s responses. We maintain that many aspects of the Global Witness report are incomplete or inaccurate,” said Mr White in a statement.

In response, forest campaign leader for Global Witness, Tom Picken, told Eco-Business that “WWF has been providing various statements which are themselves misleading and inaccurate, since we released our report.” He added that Global Witness contacted WWF with its concerns several times over the past year, and was met with evasive responses.

Both organisations aim to preserve as much forest as possible, while at the same time, protecting the rights of the communities that depend on forests for their livelihood. Both Global Witness and WWF have a long history of tireless efforts to reduce damage to the environment.

Global Witness started in 1993 with a campaign to stop the illegal timber trafficking that was funding the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, and WWF is this year celebrating its 50th year of bringing environmental conservation to the forefront of global awareness.

But one key difference to emerge this past week between the two organisations is the conflict in approaches to companies that have less than stellar records in forest trade and management.

WWF uses what it calls a ‘step-wise approach’ for the GFTN membership - meaning that companies without a history of sustainability can join as long as their operations are legal and they commit to, and follow, a plan to improve their operations.

The end goal is to have all the timber they trade or manage be certified sustainable and have a clear chain of custody, which allows auditors and purchasers to trace timber back to its original source.

In countries where chain of custody and certified timber are relatively new concepts, GFTN members often start out a long way from this target. Mr White said these are precisely the companies that should be in GFTN.

In contrast, Global Witness wants WWF to hold members to higher standards from the beginning, and maintains that any company not yet operating sustainably shouldn’t benefit from association with WWF.

Mr Picken told Eco-Business: “Working in the forest sector is notoriously difficult, and doing so effectively requires getting the balance right between engaging those actors responsible for forest destruction, and holding them to account. Global Witness is deeply concerned the current operation of GFTN has got that balance wrong.”

According to Mr Picken, assessment of the environmental performance of GFTN members  is complicated by a lack of transparency in the GFTN system. “Considering government and aid agency grants make up the single largest source of GFTN funds, WWF have a public duty to overhaul its transparency procedures for GFTN. The public currently has no way of determining the progress of individual companies supported through GFTN or the impact of the scheme as a whole,” he said.

One company highlighted in Global Witness’s report is Ta Ann Holdings, a Malaysian logging company whose membership status remains unclear and whose forestry practices in WWF’s own Heart of Borneo (HoB) forest conservation initiative have been labelled unsustainable by Global Witness.

Heart of Borneo is a project undertaken in 2007 by WWF and the governments of Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. Ta Ann has extensive clear-cutting licenses within the project area which pre-date the start of the HoB initiative.

In response to the Global Witness report, WWF amended Ta Ann data on its website to clarify GFTN’s involvement with the firm, but Mr Picken claims that previous WWF press releases and newsletter articles contradict WWF’s recent assertions that Ta Ann is a trade member, with initial sustainability efforts focused only on two of the company’s mills.

Global Witness has called on WWF to publish all agreements signed between WWF or GFTN and Ta Ann since 2009 in order to clear up the confusion.

The lack of clarity is not limited to Ta Ann, according to Mr Picken. “Only 45 per cent of all members have any information accessible beyond the company name (on the GFTN public information database),” he said.

WWF is constrained by confidentiality agreements with GFTN members. The GFTN website contains public information documents on almost all of its members, but the level of detail varies for each.

Adam Tomasek, WWF team leader of the Heart of Borneo initiative, said, ”Balancing the ‘commercial in-confidence’ needs of GFTN members with the equally strong desire for transparency in all its activities involving approximately 300 companies and 25 sovereign WWF offices is a responsibility the GFTN does not take lightly.

Despite the difficulties of engaging with companies with poor track records, GFTN’s Mr White maintains that recruiting them to into forest conservation efforts works. He noted in his statement that since 2007, GFTN participants have been able to achieve FSC certification in over 20 million hectares of forest.

“By mainstreaming responsible forestry practices among the forest-related sector, GFTN creates market conditions that help conserve the world’s forests, while providing social and economic benefits for the businesses and people that depend on them,” he said.

Mr White has indicated WWF will take the recommendations provided by Global Witness into account.  “As with any criticism, WWF is taking the allegations seriously and we intend to examine Global Witness’s recommendations in detail,” he said.

Meanwhile, Global Witness says it is ready to talk.  Mr Picken said the organisation would like to “talk through our recommendations in detail with WWF and hope a constructive dialogue will follow in order to improve the operation of GFTN itself and to help address any limitations in the approach GFTN takes”.

Read more about the Global Witness report here.

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