Swaziland: fires in certified plantations spark national emergency

The government of Swaziland declared a national emergency earlier this month after fierce fires swept northern parts of the country, killing dozens of people and livestock and destroying hundreds of homes. The fires started in the FSC-certified plantations run by the Mondi company in the Piggs Peaks region, and also affected part of an FSC-certified plantation owned by another South African pulp and paper conglomerate, Sappi.

Local environmental campaigners have been warning for years that the plantations were environmentally damaging and a disaster waiting to happen. Already dry areas which are naturally savannah ecosystems and subject to an ecological regime governed by regular fires, have been further desiccated by the planting of dense monocultural stands of thirsty ‘fastwood’ pine trees, which are not native to this area.

The latest plantation fires have been a disaster for local people, but they once again raise questions about the extent to which FSC’s certifiers have been issuing certificates to companies that do not comply with the FSC’s Principles and Criteria. FSC’s Principle 10, which deals with plantations, has been highly controversial, not the least because of its vague wording which leaves much scope for ‘interpretation’ by the certification bodies. FSC Criterion 10.4 requires that “The selection of species for planting shall be based on their overall suitability for the site and their appropriateness to the management objectives”, whilst Criterion 10.7 requires that “Measures shall be taken to prevent and minimize outbreaks of pests, diseases, fire and invasive plant introductions.”

Clearly, the choice of species and ‘forestry’ techniques which have rendered the plantations so vulnerable to catastrophic fires indicate that neither of these have been complied with. 80% of the 19,500 hectare Mondi plantation is reported to have gone up in flames, and around 7% of Sappi’s. Mondi’s certifier, SGS , noted in their original certification assessment that “Inherent in good silvicultural practice is the physical management of fire risks and the implementation of fire controls supported by well-trained and well-equipped fire-fighting teams.” Now that one of Mondi’s plantations has burned to the ground, claiming several lives, SGS will no doubt have to conclude that they were not managed according to ‘good silvicultural practice’.

The company itself seems to have been aware of its shortcomings, but dismissed these on the grounds that FSC allows for ‘continual improvement’, rather than actual compliance with the FSC’s requirements at the time of certifcation. In 2004, in an interview with FSC-Watch contributor Chris Lang, the Mondi Natural Resources Manager, Peter Gardiner, acknowledged that there had by then already been persistent problems with company’s Swaziland operations, stating that “what’s happened is that we had some serious fires there and the sawmill was burned down and it’s only just in the process of being rebuilt. But what FSC demands is that there’s a continual improvement. So they will accept the odd bad patch.” It is, of course, in the interests of certifers to promote the ‘continuous improvement’ vision of FSC – even though this is strictly non-compliant with the FSC’s rules – because this opens up a much bigger market for their certification services; under this ‘vision’, almost any logging company is certifiable. In the case of Mondi, it appears that whatever ‘improvements’ were made were not sufficient to prevent an FSC certified operation from going up in smoke.

Sappi is reported to have blamed the fires on ‘arson’, though savannah grassland-cleaning by fire is one of the agricultural activities longest known to humankind, and could have been practiced in this region for several thousand years before the pine trees arrived.

SGS’s up-coming certification re-assessment of Mondi will be the chance for it to recognise the company’s lack of ‘good silvicultural practice’ and to cancel the company’s certificate.

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