FSC in Russia: ‘sustainable forest management’ or simply money and politics?

FSC-Watch has been sent the following article by Svetlana Alekseeva, Chief Editor of “Forest Certification”. It raises a number of serious questions about the motivation of various ‘stakeholders’ involved in FSC certifications in Russia.

Students of the history of global forest management and policy will recognise some of the underlying themes and concerns of this article. Over the last 100 years or so, wherever large ‘forest frontier’ areas come under extensive exploitation, the addition of new (often legal) requirements for ‘sustainable forest management’ are skillfully used by the larger interests to squeeze out their competitors, enabling them to consolidate their land-holdings and reduce their competitors’ market share. For example, the 1975 Pearse Royal Commission on forestry in British Columbia showed how the monopolistic winners in this scramble for land and resources had, through ‘sustained yield’ policies, consolidated their power to such an extent that they had become largely ungovernable – leading to poor economic returns, poor environmental management, and perversion of public policy making.

Some observers of the FSC have realized the potential for FSC certification to be used in precisely the same way: larger companies can gain a market advantage over their smaller (often local) competitors, by being more able to afford expensive certification; by having the support of international interests; and by being more adept at manipulating (and funding) ‘partnerships’ with NGOs (who thus bring public credibility). The following article suggests that what we are now witnessing in Russia is the use of the FSC as a mechanism for this kind of consolidation of landholdings and ‘market capture’ – and it might have little to do with better forest management.

The article also, once again, raises questions about the role of WWF. In a February 2007 statement, WWF claimed that there is a “revolution in Russian forestry”, pointing to the exponential rise in the number of FSC certificates issued there. However, one respected Russian forestry expert – who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals – has told FSC-Watch that “there is no revolution in Russian forestry”. Moreover, we are told, “there are contradictions between the FSC’s requirements and Russian law”.

In February, WWF pointed specifically to the far-eastern Russian company Terneyles, as an exemplar of this new ‘revolution’, exclaiming “In 2002, Terneyles, the leading timber exporter in the Russian Far East, came under attack by international environmental organizations for logging a virgin forest that is home to endangered tigers. Sensitive to the NGO attacks and pressure from its Japanese trading partner, Sumitomo, which wanted environmentally sourced wood, Terneyles turned to WWF for help. As part of its commitment to FSC certification, the company altered its logging practices to minimize impact in tiger areas…Today, Terneyles is a member of the Russia [Forest and Trade Network], with millions of hectares of its concessions now FSC certified”. However, as is rightly pointed out in the article below, Terneyles’s certifier, SGS, has failed to produce any reports from its surveillance visits in September 2005 and 2006, in contravention of FSC’s requirements. Russian stakeholders, wondering whether WWF’s claims for Terneyles are justified, have sought to obtain these reports, but to no avail. The report of a 2006 FSC Secretariat accreditation inspection of SGS’s certification of Terneyles has similarly failed to materialise. WWF has not stated publicly how much money it has received from Terneyles for its ‘membership’ of the WWF Russia Forest and Trade Network.

Far from WWF’s misplaced hype about a ‘revolution’ in forestry, what appears to be taking place is more akin to the shady backroom deals that many Russians now suffer as ‘public life’ in their country.

FSC and High Conservation Value Forest in Russia

The declaration of large areas of forest as ‘virgin forest’ by Russian NGOs is giving rise to more and more conflicts. Underlying this conflict is ‘research’ into the forest which seems to serve the interests of specific interests. How this works is that NGOs have agreed with large Russian industrial companies about research into the status of virgin forest in some region of Russia, or across all the country. After the ‘research’, NGOs have published maps of the “virgin” forest for some region. Later on, the maps are used by auditors for FSC certification assessments. It is clear that the virgin forest is High Conservation Value Forest (HCVF) according to FSC’s requirements (Principal #9). In order to accomplish FSC certification, a forest company should refuse from harvesting in the area, or carry out special protection measures. It is big disadvantage for the company.

The first such Russian project was supported by IKEA in 2001-02. The main executor of the work was Greenpeace Russia. IKEA paid $1m to Greenpeace and they developed maps of virgin forest for Russia. Later on, however, Russian experts found out that many “virgin” forest sites are situated in regions where IKEA has competitors (see “Russian Forest Newsletter” # 23 (49) June 2004). Many Russian forest industrial companies were displeased, but after a few meetings between NGOs and FSC, the conflict was suppressed.

The second conflict happened in 2004 in the Far East region of Russia, concerning the big forest industrial company “Terneyles”. USA forest companies paid to Russian regional NGOs about $5m to undertake investigations. The result of this was, as anticipated, 700,000 hectares of forest was defined as “virgin” and should be put ‘off limits’ for harvesting for the purpose of FSC certification. However, the auditor who carried out FSC certification did not recognize the area as virgin forest. The Russian forest company and auditor (SGS) were compromised after issuing the certificate. NGOs sent a complaint to the FSC. Later on (in June 2006) FSC carried out an inspection but the report of the audit was not published. SGS also carried out two inspections (2005, 2006) but has still not issued the reports. The big project (1.4 million hectares certified forest) became secret. Russian stakeholders could not get information about the results of the inspections.

The third conflict happened in Komi region of Russia between the company “Leskom” and the “Silver Taiga Foundation” in 2006, and continues at present. “Silver Taiga” is organization which was set up by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) for development of a “Model forest” project. “Silver Taiga” signed an agreement with forest industrial company “Mondi” and Forest Region Agency for investigating virgin forest in the region. Mondi is the main competitor of Leskom. [FSC-Watch note: and has come under severe criticism for its FSC-certified operations in its home country of South Africa – see here and here]. When Leskom started to undertake FSC certification, Silver Taiga declared a large part of the forest as “virgin”. The auditor who carried out certification (Control Union) did not recognize the area as “virgin”. Nevertheless, FSC took Silver Taiga’s side, and the contradictions intensified as NGOs pressed for the suspension of of CU’s accreditation. The conflict now involves many Russian NGOs (including Greenpeace, WWF, etc), auditor companies (Control Union, LesTest, Smartwood) the regional government and other stakeholders.

Now FSC tries to protect NGOs which carried out the works in Russia tendentiously and use FSC certification for that – because the National FSC Work Group, CB’s representatives, local experts and reviews of almost of all certification projects in Russia were formed by NGOs. At the present time, FSC has a confused situation in relation to development FSC in Russia. The more the FSC helps to fulfill NGO projects, the more it loses status as an independent and professional certification system. Conflict by conflict, FSC demonstrates itself as an international political alliance. Certainly, in the present moment, FSC has a high reputation in world but there are more than 17 million hectares of FSC certified forest in Russia and the area will increase soon. The loss of reputation in Russia can impact on the reputation of the FSC worldwide.

Svetlana Alekseeva, Chief Editor of “Forest Certification”

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