WWF forest scheme accused of allowing firms to greenwash

global witness map
Map showing overlap between Ta Ann concessions, Heart of Borneo project areas and known orang-utan habitat. Image: Global Witness

A new report launched today has accused conservation group WWF of failing to uphold standards in its forest scheme, which is allowing member companies including a Malaysian-listed timber firm to get away with deforestation while branding itself as sustainable.

Global Witness, a London-based organisation that investigates environmental and human rights abuses, published its findings from an investigation on international non-profit WWF’s sustainable timber trade scheme called the Global Forest and Trade Network (GFTN). The report, Pandering to the Loggers, found that widespread problems with monitoring and transparency have allowed several of the scheme’s member companies to continuously flout GFTN rules.

The report cited several case studies that showed GFTN members illegally clearing forests or trading in illegal timber, including one in Malaysia which has been clearing the habitat of orang-utans and clouded leopards.

“When a landmark scheme created in the name of sustainability and conservation tolerates one of its member companies destroying orang-utan habitat, something is going seriously wrong,” said Tom Picken, forest campaign leader at Global Witness.

The company in question, Malaysian logging company Ta Ann Holdings, has licenses to clear-cut 156,000 hectares of rainforest in Borneo, much of which lies within the boundaries of a signature WWF sustainable forest project called “Heart of Borneo.” The report alleges that as of the end of 2010, more than 30,000 hectares of this forest has already been cleared.

Ta Ann’s license covers forest that has already been selectively logged, and as such is considered degraded forest. But an Environmental Impact Assessment commissioned by the company in 1999 found the land to be inhabited by several endangered species, including orang-utans, Bornean gibbons and clouded leopards. The presence of such species, confirmed by a 2009 study by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), raises the status of the forest from degraded forest to forest of high conservation value.

Global Witness comparisons of WWF maps and satellite images found that since the time Ta Ann and WWF announced the firm’s inclusion in GFTN in 2009, the company has converted nearly 11,000 hectares of the identified organ-utan habitat to plantations and cleared large amounts of the 12,800 hectares of the orang-utan habitat that falls under its timber harvesting licence.

A representative for Ta Ann group told Eco-Business in an e-mail that since 2003, all of the timber sourced or used by Ta Ann has been independently verified as from licensed timber areas and legally sourced.

No orang-utan has ever been sighted or identified in preoperational or operational work in coupes that were developed by Ta Ann, said the Ta Ann representative, adding, “Global Witness’s view that ‘one of its member companies (is) destroying orang-utan habitat‘ therefore is incorrect and misinformed.”

According to the representative, Ta Ann concessions that lie within the Heart of Borneo project area are being assessed for area of high conservation value, and they expect about 70 per cent of the licensed areas to be kept for buffer zones, biodiversity conservation and wildlife corridors.

Under GFTN rules, trade members (companies that deal in forestry products) and forestry members, who physically manage forest concessions, hold separate status. Trade members have five years to cease trading in timber that is illegally sourced or associated with human rights abuses. Forest members must confirm that they are operating legally and commit to certifying their first sustainable forestry operation within five years. They have 10 years to certify all of their forestry operations.

Ta Ann’s status is unclear, according to Global Witness. Its report quotes recent contradictory statements from WWF International and WWF-Malaysia, one saying the firm was not accepted as a forestry operator because it was not certifiable under Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) standards, and the other saying the company was accepted as both a trade and forestry member under a three year agreement from 2009. WWF has since clarified that the discrepancy was a miscommunication. Only Ta Ann’s mills, operating as trade members, are part of GFTN.

According to a Global Witness statement accompanying the report, GFTN’s lack of transparency and member information available to the public undermines the scheme by allowing firms to use the WWF logo and reputation without any clear monitoring of their performance.

The statement criticised GFTN for its low entry standards for memberships, standards meant to be inclusive of any company committed to sustainable forestry management. The Global Witness report author writes that GFTN standards are often below legal requirements now that both the US and Europe have prohibited the import of illegal timber.

In an official response issued today to the Global Witness report, the Head of GFTN George White said, “Pandering to the Loggers contains a number of errors and misleading statements, and WWF rejects Global Witness’ main allegations.” He added that Global Witness gave GFTN and WWF only five working days to respond to the allegations made in the report and refused requests for more background information and extra time to address the allegations appropriately. Mr White said that the final report took official responses out of context and thus misrepresented the facts.

“Nonetheless, as with any criticism, WWF is taking the allegations seriously and we intend to examine Global Witness’s recommendations in detail. Should we find any of them to be justified we will respond appropriately, as we are constantly striving to improve our performance and accountability wherever possible,” he noted.

GFTN isn’t the only sustainable forestry organisation struggling with the dilemma posed by including members who haven’t yet established a good track record for good voluntary forest management.  FSC recently held a meeting to determine whether it should include companies that have deforested land since the start of the FSC guidelines. Supporters of the move said that excluding such companies severely limited the FSC’s potential impact on the industry, while opponents say allowing companies with recent destructive practices will destroy the FSC’s credibility.

“This (Global Witness) investigation raises bigger questions about the underlying strategy and efficacy of such voluntary schemes. To protect the world’s remaining forests and avoid duping consumers, initiatives should focus on reducing overall demand rather than certify ever-expanding areas of forest being felled,” said Global Witness’ Mr Picken.

In other case studies involving GFTN member companies cited in the Global Witness report, UK building supplier Jewson was found to have failed to eliminate illegally sourced timber 10 years after joining the scheme, and a subsidiary of the Danzer Group, a Swiss-German timber firm, has been implicated in multiple human rights abuse cases involving local communities.

Global Witness is calling on donors to demand more transparency within the scheme. Government and aid agency grants are GFTN’s largest source of funding, making up 27 per cent of its operational funds.

In addition to grants contributing to the US$7 million annual budget, government grants are earmarked for specific projects. Ta Ann, which pays US$5,000 per year for membership, has a grant for US$29,000 from the US Responsible Asia Forestry and Trade (RAFT) programme for assessing its operations and developing an action plan. The funding is received through WWF-Malaysia.

Global Witness argues that some member companies, which contribute 14 per cent of GFNT operating costs in fees, use the scheme as a greenwashing tactic. “For some prominent GFTN members this is little more than gloss – a camouflage for highly destructive activities directly resulting in human rights abuses and loss of some of the world’s most valuable biodiversity,” writes the report’s author.

“WWF should publicly disassociate itself from any company using timber from illegal or unethical sources. It’s shocking that one of the world’s most trusted conservation groups deems it acceptable to take money from such companies,” said Picken.

Editor’s note: Click here for an official response to the Global Witness report from WWF.

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