Certification of Forestal Venao, Peru: another FSC credibility disaster, courtesy of SmartWood and WWF

Earlier this year, we reported that Rainforest Alliance SmartWood was in the process of consulting about whether it should start a new ‘Legality Verification’ scheme for timber. Ouropinion was that the Rainforest Alliance’s previous track-record of detecting illegality had been so dismal that there is no reason to believe that they are capable of identifying even gross breaches of the law. Now we have received information of yet another case where SmartWood appears to have ‘turned a blind eye’ to serious illegalities in one of the logging companies it has certified under the FSC scheme.

In early July, flying over the western reaches of the Brazilian state of Acre, Ashaninka indigenous leaders and officials from the Brazilian Federal Environmental Agency (IBAMA) confirmed what had been suspected for some months: workers from the Peruvian company Venao Forestal had illegally crossed into Brazil, and were now felling CITES-listed mahogany there. The company’s illegal activities were captured in numerous photographs and through GPS plots, and reported on Brazilian TV. Local indigenous associations, including the Indigenous People Organization of the Juruá River (OPIRJ) and the Ashaninka Society of the Rio Amônia (Apiwtxa), reported that “Huge quantities of timber have been cut down, stacked on the margins of the road, ready to be transported”. The groups denounced these illegalities, and called on IBAMA to “take immediate action to stop the advance of this exploitation”. The groups say they intend to “appeal to international courts to protect Brazilian sovereignty, their territory, the preservation area, and the still existent biodiversity of the region.”

On the road to Brazil: logging activities on Venao’s illegal road. More pictures of the logging road are available here

Illegal logging in this part of the Peru-Brazil frontier area is widespread and almost completely out of control. What makes this case notable, however, is that the company concerned has been FSC certified by SmartWood, which awarded the certificate in April 2007 after an evaluation in September-October 2006.

Whilst FSC-Watchers are no longer surprised at such glaring failures in SmartWood’s assessments, the certification of Venao has come as a major shock and disappointment both to local indigenous communities and to respected international experts.

At the time of SmartWood’s assessment, Dr David Salisbury of the Amazon Frontiers Research Center had been researching frontier logging in region for nearly a year. He informed SmartWood of Venao’s existing extensive illegal activities, including the construction, over a period of several years, of more than 100 kilometres of illegal road, which passes through the lands of several indigenous communities. These roads had been identified through satellite images, and plotted on maps. A report in the Peruvian newspaper El Commercio confirmed that the road had been opened by Venao, and included the map below.

Venao’s illegal road through indigenous territories towards the Brazilian border was well documented

Dr David Salisbury mapped Venao’s illegal roads

Dr Salisbury informed SmartWood before the certificate was issued that “Forestal Venao is infamous in Ucayali, Peru for their indifference to laws, indigenous people, and the rainforest environment. They have built an illegal, non-state sanctioned logging road from the banks of the Ucayali to the Juruá basin on the Brazilian border. This is no small skid trail, but a network of roads whose main trunk extends over 120 kilometers.” Dr Salisbury told SmartWood that Venao “is exactly the kind of company that Smartwood and the Forest Stewardship Council should be blacklisting, NOT certifying”.

SmartWood’s astonishingly complacent response to this was merely to issue a Minor Corrective Action Request (10/07) calling on Venao to “improve the planning and construction of roads”.

The involvement of Venao in illegal logging was also well known. A study published in May 2007 by The National Association of Amazon Indians in Peru (AIDESEP) reported that Venao’s road “is being used to illegally extract mahogany trees from the interior of the Territorial Reserve Murunahua and surrounding areas (timber concessions and permits), using the laundering of the wood to get it into the formal business circuit. The magnitude of the illegal logging of mahogany in this area is alarming, occurring from Atalaya and the Yurua River all the way to the border with Brazil, with the use of heavy machinery and specialized equipment to harvest and transport this resource. Likewise, numerous secondary roads have been built, which go into untouchable regions like the Territorial Reserve Murunahua granted to indigenous people in voluntary isolation.”

Illegal loggers in the Territorial Reserve Murunahua

The revelations about Venao’s certification will, once again, come as a major embarrassment to WWF. Under the guise of the so-called Sustainable Forest Products Global Alliance, which is funded by USAID, WWF has been working with Forestal Venao to provide “technical assistance to improve their forest management as part of the stepwise approach to certification”.

One of the major concerns with Venao is the nature of it’s relationship with the local indigenous communities, some of which have not had previous contact with western society. WWF Peru is involved in a programme Certification and Development of the Forest Sector (CEDEFOR) which aims to “promote efficiency and sustainability of…permanent production forest and community forest in the Peruvian Amazon by the application of responsible forest management practices… This way, the project will directly contribute to national economic growth, the conservation of forest resources, as well as to the Government of Peru’s Alternative Development Program.” Under CEDEFOR (which is also USAID funded), WWF claimed to have “facilitated the consolidation of the commercial agreement between five forest communities from Yurua and a manufacturer in primary processing industry (Forestal Venao).”

However, other international experts had described a much more worrying situation: Venao had actually signed agreements with the leaders of two particular indigenous communities (who had probably benefited personally from this deal) but the communities as a whole had not benefited. In their report for the Roundriver Conservation Studies group, Chris Fagan and Diego Shoobridge found that “there are no indications that the community is benefiting, let alone prospering, from the sale of their trees. In fact, in an interview, the vice president of Nueva Victoria complained that the town lacked a health post with medicines or adequate schools, saying, “we have nothing here.”

The researchers also found that Venao was carefully manipulating local tribespeople to their own advantage. They found in the village of Neuva Shauaya – which had an ‘logging agreement’ with Venao – that “Forestal Venao is helping groups of newcomers from the central Amazon gain title to lands in exchange for rights to the mahogany in those lands”. They described the company’s actions as “a shrewd scheme to gain timber rights to virgin forest” and concluded that “Venao is entirely unworthy for certification”. (Further information on this aspect of Venao’s activities is available here.)

For what it is worth, SmartWood have responded to some of the above concerns by saying that they are carrying out a surveillance visit to Venao next month. Hopefully, they will be a little more rigorous than they were when they first audited Venao for the certificate. However, FSC-Watch believes that, with this certificate, SmartWood have conclusively shown that they are unfit to remain as an FSC accredited certifier, and should be removed forthwith. We call on the FSC Secretariat to cancel Venao’s certificate, and to de-accredit SmartWood.

USAID might also like to look a little closer at the WWF activities it is funding in Peru’s Amazon frontier forests; Peru is now added to a list of countries that already includes Guyana,CongoRussia, and Indonesia, where WWF has helped massage highly controversial (and sometimes illegally operating) companies through the FSC certification process, or is in the process of doing so.

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