Ireland: embarrassment mounts for Soil Association

More than three months after its most recent surveillance visit, Soil Association Woodmark has still failed to produce a Public Summary report stating whether, or under what conditions, it believes that the Irish state forestry company, Coillte, can remain FSC-certified.

Soil Association Woodmark took over the already controversial certification of Coillte’s 400,000+ hectares of mostly exotic plantations from SGS in 2004. Since then, increasing evidence has been presented to Woodmark about Coillte’s non-compliance with the FSC Principles and Criteria. Even since Woodmark’s surveillance visit in November 2006, more damning information has emerged.

One of the underlying problems with the certificate has always been that, with its operations spread out across the entire country, difficulties with Coillte are localised, but diffuse and widespread. Local communities have had little means to publicise their concerns. Woodmark seem to have been content that Coillte have complied with the FSC requirements simply by introducing new policies or procedures. But Irish ‘stakeholders’ have always known that the reality on the ground can be very different from what appears on pieces of paper emanating from Coillte headquarters.

For example, in one recent case, at Nowen Hill, County Cork, Coillte allowed a contractor to drive a road across land leased to local farmer, Walter Evans, even though this was not permitted under the terms of the lease. Coillte’s 24-hour guards are now denying Walter access to the land, along with another farmer who privately owns land nearby. Also recently, local environmental group Friends of the Irish Environment visited four clear-fell sites in Cork and Kerry counties, and found poor environmental management, leading to blockage of streams and heavy soil erosion. The resulting pollution of the River Sneem was affecting the habitat of the rare and legally protected species, the fresh water pearl mussel, Margaritifera margaritifera. In yet another recent case, this time in South Galway, Coillte has clear-felled a beech wood, which is habitat for the threatened red squirrel.

In February, Coillte also found themselves in the High Court, facing a demand for the 1,900 acres of land in the Curraghmore Estates to be returned to its owners. The estate, which is described as important in terms of its architectural heritage and ecology, is leased to Coillte by Lord Waterford, whose lawyers claim that Coillte have been guilty of ‘persistent breach of the lease’ of the estate. The estate is said to have fallen into ‘considerable disrepair’, despite Coillte having been served with a legal ‘forfeiture notice’ in April 2005. Another February Court case of interest to Coillte is that of the European Court of Justice, which ruled that Ireland has failed to fulfil its obligations under the EU Habitats Directive by omitting to take all the requested measures for implementation of the system of strict protection laid down in Article 12 of the Directive. One of the key areas of failure to prevent damage to biodiversity in Ireland has been in the terms of the country’s forestry policy, implementation of which is largely due to Coillte.

In addition to all this – and curiously for an organisation that putatively exists to encourage organic land-use – Soil Association Woodmark has been responsible for facilitating a request to FSC for a derogation across Ireland on the use of an FSC-banned pesticide, alpha-cypermethrin. This pesticide, which is known to be highly toxic if it enters aquatic systems, is widely used by Coillte for the treatment of its plantings of mostly Sitka spruce seedlings. Under the FSC’s rules, pesticide derogation requests are supposed to be rejected unless they are approved by the national FSC initiative – but no such approval for the derogation has been granted by the recognised FSC body, the Irish Forest Certification Initiative.

So Soil Association Woodmark continues to maintain the certificate of a company that is in serious dispute with local people, has been landed in court more than once in recent months, and is using an FSC-banned pesticide without a valid derogation. FSC-Watch has several times reported on this important test case for the integrity of both WoodMark and the FSC. As the Soil Association continues to ponder the outcome of its surveillance visit last December, it will no doubt be considering what is more valuable to them: its contract to certify Coillte, or its credibility as a certifier.


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