Certification of Vasto Legno/SEFAC, Cameroon; Another major blow to FSC’s credibility

FSC-Watch has received unconfirmed reports that the Italian certification company ICILA has issued a certificate to the Cameroonian Groupe SEFAC, which is owned by Italian timber company Vasto Legno. Although the Public Summary report of the certification is not yet available on ICILA’s website, sufficient details have already emerged to suggest that this will come as yet another major blow to FSC’s credibility.

The Vasto Legno subsidiary SEFAC (Société d’Exploitations Forestières et Agricoles du Cameroun), has been logging in the rainforests Cameroon’s Eastern province for more than three decades. The company drew praise from HRH Prince Philip the Duke of Edinburgh, who visited their operations in his capacity as President of WWF in 1999.

However, SEFAC also has a long record of ‘infractions’ and illegal activities. In the same year as Prince Philip’s visit, a Cameroonian government Forestry Ministry inspection of one of SEFAC’s concessions (which has now been FSC certified) found, according to Forests Monitor, “anarchic” and illegal operations, including logging outside concession boundaries and cutting undersized logs, especially Sapelli”, which is Cameroon’s most prized timber. Forests Monistor also report that in 2000, “SEFAC was fined and its activities suspended for three months. It was subsequently disqualified by the government from the allocation of new concessions in July 2000 for serious wrongdoing in its forestry activities”. A 2003 inspection by the official Cameroon Independent Observer of forests in one of the now-certified concessions noted that the company had failed to mark cut stumps as required by the law and had re-opened old tracks, also an infraction. A further inspection of one of SEFAC’s concessions by the Official Observer in August 2006 found similar problems, and also that the company could not produce its annual felling plan. In another concession, neither the five-year management plan nor the annual felling plan were available, suggesting that, whilst these documents had been submitted to the Cameroonian authorities for legal compliance reasons, they were not actually used to guide the logging operations.

But the most serious problem is whether the company should be logging its concessions at all. The new certificates apparently cover 318,893 hectares out of 411,872 hectares which the company directly controls through four concessions. In its March 2006 ‘pre-audit’ report, the certifier states: “Groupe SEFAC represents 3 different companies because, legally, no company can individually control a series of logging concessions exceeding 200,000 ha (see Section 49, Law 94/01). It’s for this reason that three companies were formed, in order to manage a total of 600,000 ha, even if at present they manage only 2/3 of their potential.” [1] (emphasis added)

However, Section 49 of Cameroon’s 1994 Forestry Law stipulates that: “The total forest area that may be granted to any one licence-holder […] may not, in any case, exceed 200,000 hectares. The acquisition of majority shares or the creation of a forest exploitation company by a forest exploiter with the intention of exploiting a total area of more than 200,000 hectares shall be forbidden.”

SEFAC is a member of WWF’s Global Forest and Trade Network, whose website further confirms that their ‘partner’ holds concession areas far in excess of the legal maximum set out in the 1994 Forest Law.

This is only the 12th certificate issued by ICILA for FSC, and perhaps the certifier hasn’t quite got the hang of it yet. We suggest to FSC that it asks ICILA to go back and check carefully whether SEFAC is in serious breach of FSC Principle 1 – and we invite ICILA to present evidence on FSC-Watch that it has done so. Hopefully, ICILA will not want to be seen to be following the footsteps of some of FSC’s other larger certifiers who continue to treat Principle 1 with utter disregard.

[1] Original in French states: “Rapport de pré-audit pour la certification du Groupe SEFAC – Douala Cameroun. Rapport de pré-audit de la gestion forestière.” “Le Groupe SEFAC représente 3 sociétés différentes car, légalement, aucune société ne peut avoir individuellement en gestion un ensemble de concessions forestières qui dépasse au total 200.000 ha (cfr. art. 49, Loi forestière 94/01). C’est pour ce motif que 3 sociétés ont été constituées, pour pouvoir gérer au total 600.000 ha, même si actuellement elles ne gèrent que 2/3 de leur potentiel.”

Report on ‘official corruption’ in Cameroon’s forest sector is available here (note: original was in French): Report from Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife.doc



  1. Following your note on the certification of SEFAC, I would like to express my opinion as Lead Auditor for ICILA during a recent certification assessment conducted at SEFAC in July 2007. This is not to defend the assessed company, or the certification body, with whom I work as an independent auditor, but to defend my personal work as independent auditor in relation to this evaluation process and respond to the cynical observation that ICILA is a small certifier, new in Cameroon and they might not have gotten it right. ICILA is preparing currently the public summary certification report, it will be available soon on the ICILA website, within the deadlines stipulated in the FSC accreditation standards.

    During the evaluation process of SEFAC, that took place between February 2006 and August 2007, the aspects raised in your note have been thoroughly investigated.

    It is interesting to see how your note on the certification of SEFAC tries to discredit a forest operation based on very thin evidence and draws conclusions on the current level of management, and on the credibility of FSC certification based on issues that happened many months, sometimes many years ago, and of which you do not seem to know whether they have been addressed or not before an FSC certificate was issued.

    To mention some details, the nonconformities detected by the independent observer (IO), to which your note refers, have been corrected, and today the company is acting legally in this regard. However, during surveillance, beginning with 2008, these aspects will be monitored again. I was actually glad to see that the report of the independent observer found only little evidence of nonconformity with legal requirements. While any noncompliance with law is a serious issue that must be addressed urgently in the context of a certification process, the one reported by the IO is affecting very few indicators of the certification standard. Considering the fact that during the recent forest management and chain of custody audits at Groupe SEFAC the traceability of the products was checked in both ways, from the sawn wood package ready for export to the corresponding forest area and even to stumps where the trees were cut, and the other way around, the nonconformities identified by the IO, even if they had persisted and had been detected during the certification process would have not affected the certification decision.
    This raises another issue, that of companies who had problems in the past either with legality or with the sustainability of their forestry practices. Even if their practices change in time, and they get certified, it takes a while and sometimes a huge effort from their side to improve their image. I have seen this many times in certification, but this is something that cannot be addressed through the certification process, it is an aspect that the companies need to work on. And if the management in the end improves, critics need to acknowledge this. It just shows that in many cases certification manages to achieve its main objective: that of improving forest management practices.

    In the case of SEFAC, based on intensive field visits, documents reviews, and interviews with stakeholders, the management level was considered to be, as of August 2007 in compliance with FSC standards, above the threshold for certification. There is still much to improve, but the company seems to be aware of the commitment it entered the moment it applied for certification. It is now the role of the surveillance process to confirm that the current level of management is further improved.

    The issue of the 200,000 Ha limit for concessions was also analyzed, and, since we have in this case (SEFAC Group) a group certificate including two different legal entities, with a different ownership structure, each of them managing less than 200,000 Ha, this is not against the Cameroon legislation. The fact that the management teams of the two companies overlap to a certain degree is a different issue, there is no detailed regulation on this, and therefore nothing to object from the perspective of the certification standard (see also Article 42 of the Cameroon Forest Law from 1994). Furthermore, the Forestry Director of the Cameroon Forest Ministry declared in 2006 in a public meeting that the Cameroon Government considers these arrangements for managing more than 200,000 Ha legal. Additionally, there are efforts under way to formalize declarations from the Government in this regard and clarify the issue once and for all.

    People familiar with forest management issues in Cameroon, including authorities, agree with the statement that the 200,000 Ha cap on forest area, together with limited annual harvesting areas and minimum harvesting diameters does not allow an economically viable management of the forest areas. Most large forest concessions in Cameroon are operating in a way that is similar to SEFAC.

    I would also like to make a more general statement about the tone of many articles published on FSC watch, based on my own experience I am not a frequent reader of your site, as time is limited and there is a lot to do to improve things rather that read notes that are not always based on a serious investigation, and not always presented in a constructive way). While FSC, operating in a difficult environment with different interests that often clash upon each other, needs criticism to improve its operation, it needs criticism that is constructive and based on objective evidence. So criticizing FSC is great, as long as criticism is objective and the tone is constructive rather than destructive. And, very often, an essential element is not what you say, but how you say it. It is great to see that FSC has offered an opportunity to many people to criticize, but I find the work of many people in the FSC network, who work hard and make also mistakes (it is normal) much more valuable than the work of others who try to discredit professionals acting in good faith, using weak arguments or drawing conclusions that are not supported by strong and objective evidence. The statement in your note relating to ICILA, mentioned at the beginning of these lines is such an example of unethical behavior in the use of a medium like a website, and it really does not contribute to its credibility. If the author of the report had been interested in making constructive criticism, he (she) would have been more careful in trying to discredit a small certification body (CB). I am writing this because the FSC system needs the small certification bodies to grow, become stronger and balance the existing pool of CBs.

    Getting back to SEFAC, it is important to mention that the company has entered a commitment to improve forest management and, as the recent certification process has shown, there is still a lot of scope for improving forest management in the area. However, a level of performance above the level required for certification needs to be maintained now. It would be great to see that your website supports certification by delivering well documented information resulting from a background of good knowledge of accreditation and certification requirements.

    I find the fact that your note is including a quote from a pre-audit report interesting. Since this is not a public document, it gives everybody involved in this process some work on finding out how confidential information becomes publicly available. While transparency is an essential feature in certification to FSC standards, for many reasons I will not mention here, so is confidentiality.
    In order to bring a more positive contribution to improving forest management worldwide, in case this is one of the ultimate objectives of FSC watch, (as it is the case with FSC), it would be great to see notes that are more constructive and better supported by objective evidence placed in the right context.

  2. Message from ICILA Srl Managing Director

    On FSC-Watch web site I read, last week, some consideration on the job performed by ICILA Srl, an FSC accredited certification body, in managing the certification process of Groupe SEFAC.

    We respect the mission of FSC-watch as “open forum for discussing” critical items related to FSC and as tool to “help people” to express their views and concerns about FSC’s activities. (FSC-watch ABOUT page). In this aim I’d like to give further information about the work performed by ICILA, in order to make available a more complete scenario.

    First of all I can confirm that the Groupe SEFAC certificate has been issued on 20th of September 2007, as you can check on FSC web-site: the public report will be available within the 20th of October 2007.

    The SEFAC critical items that are listed in your message were known by the ICILA audit team, have been examined during the long certification process, and were all founded solved and closed at the moment ICILA issued the certificate. ICILA based its evaluation on specific objective evidences.

    About the problem you indicate as “the most serious” (concession extensions), ICILA take care of this aspect since the beginning of the certification process. To correctly evaluate the situation and the law application at Groupe SEFAC case ICILA asked the technical support of the local competent authority. The result of the consultation stated that the concessions are legally assigned, in reference to the Cameroon’s 1994 Forestry Law.

    In this occasion I want to testify that, during the Groupe SEFAC certification process, FSC strictly checked and addressed our work. As result of this continuous dialogue we decided to go back in Cameroon after the certification audit to perform a supplementary audit, before the issuing of the certificate.

    As I wrote at the beginning of this message I respect and appreciate your effort, even if I regret to note two important aspects related to the integrity of the information you refer to.
    The first is that you based your consideration about our job on a sentence taken from the “pre-audit” report, a document that has only the goal to identify the aspects that has to be evaluated and checked in the further certification process steps (as we have done).

    The second, that I consider most critical, is that you published a part of the “pre-audit” report, which is a strictly confidential document, as you should know. I’m very surprised to read on your web page a part of a such kind of document: I think that this behaviour is not in line with the “transparency” scope of FSC-watch.

    Best regards
    Marina Crippa
    ICILA Managing Director

  3. FSC Watch is becoming more and more un famous because of their non objectivity in criticism. I am in same line with Liviu. We can’t develop with negative criticism. Besides making notes on un-backed arguments and past dids, we should better talk about what the company is today and not what it was in 2000 or 1999 or earlier. That is exactly why certification processes are long. Furthermore, the most competent body to quote Cameroonian law, is the Cameroonian gov’t. Offcourse, the Cameroonian gov’t follows up concession attributions as well as they are present in the certification process. Such criticisms depict that the Cameroonian authorities are underlooked by the critics and thus….

    FSC Watch, lets try to be professional and objective.


  4. We thought that the best response to Ali Baba’s comment above that “the most competent body to quote Cameroonian law, is the Cameroonian gov’t” is to make available above the recent (anonymous) short report prepared by a recently retired but prominent member of Cameroon’s timber industry, describing some of the ways that Cameroonian government officials treat the law. The report does not specifically refer to SEFAC or the officials that it deals with, but it is helpful to understand the institutional context within which logging companies operate in Cameroon.

  5. Thanks for your response. But it does not answer the question. In your opinion “Who is the most competent then?”

    Does that mean that there is no certifiable forest company in Cameroon?

    Certification offcourse takes into consideration the institutional context, and adapts this to certification principles. What else do you want? Country laws created by the certification body????

    It helps very greatly to be realistic sometimes and especially in the difficult task that certification bodies have in countries like Cameroon. It is also helpful for the country. SO lets start by appreciating and recognising the positive points of certification bodies before coming up with past events and arguments that are based on non-factual personnal opinions. It is obviously clear that the positive impacts of the actions of certifying bodies outlarge the negative ones.

    I beleive the certifying bodies also cherish thier reputation and credibility. So we don’t expect them to do things anyhow.

    I still insist that we stay in an objective line of criticism.


  6. Dear Ali Baba

    Can you please explain what you mean when you say that “Certification offcourse takes into consideration the institutional context, and adapts this to certification principles”, with specific reference to how the ‘institutional context’ has been ‘taken into account’ in the case of the certification of SEFAC?

    Can you also please explain, in the context of the certification of SEFAC, what you mean when you say that it “helps to be realistic sometimes” and can you also please explain why it is that certification bodies in Cameroon “have a difficult task”?

    And when you refer to “non-factual personal opinions”, are you referring to Article 49 of the Cameroonian law, which forbids companies from having more than 200,000 hectares of concessions (as is the case with SEFAC)?


  7. I’m not a FSC Watch frequent reader, but after I saw your comments on Icila’s certification of SEFAC in Cameroon I decided to reply with personal considerations. This is intended not to defend Icila or SEFAC – which is not my role and scope – but FSC’s integrity.

    In 1993 FSC committed itself to an important and delicate goal: promoting sustainable forest management all over the world in a transparent, trustable and participative way. You – Forest Watch – committed to be an “independent observer of the Forest Stewardship Council” and this is definitively an important and delicate role as well.

    Being involved in FSC since long time, I’m deeply convinced that external points of view, comments and even criticisms are of paramount importance to improve the whole FSC system, which – of course – is not (and couldn’t be) a perfect system, but is totally oriented towards a continuous improvement. That’s why FSC never rejected any comment and consideration from all parties interested in forest management. This is – as you may convene – a unique strength and a mechanism I appreciate and fully support. To be taken into consideration, however, criticisms must be objective, proved, not generic, relevant and – from my personal point of view – constructive rather than destructive. Insinuation and lack of respect is not criticism. Insinuation and lack of respect is not a form of participation.

    Your comments have been published before any public summary was available (how would you react in the case somebody comments a post you do not put on your web site yet?) and – this is the most regretful point – you quoted part of a strictly confidential document: this is not really correct and professional from yourselves.

    I wont go into detail with SEFAC’s certification: Mr. Amariei and Icila’s staff are experienced, professional and skilful enough to fully reply you and indeed they did.

    I totally agree with Mr. Amariei statement that it is more much more valuable the daily work lot of people do to actively (and in many cases on voluntary basis) promote sustainable forest management than the work of others who try to discredit professionals acting in good faith, using weak arguments or drawing conclusions that are not supported by strong and objective evidence
    If you really aim to increase the integrity of the FSC’s forest certification scheme and finally to support sustainable forest management, please, be constructive and use your role as observers to help developing better approaches and tools.

    All the best.

    Mauro Masiero

  8. Mr Amariei

    I wonder if you could please provide some clarification on two of the points you raise in your comment posted on 12th October, wherein you state:

    “The fact that the management teams of the two companies overlap to a certain degree is a different issue, there is no detailed regulation on this, and therefore nothing to object from the perspective of the certification standard (see also Article 42 of the Cameroon Forest Law from 1994). Furthermore, the Forestry Director of the Cameroon Forest Ministry declared in 2006 in a public meeting that the Cameroon Government considers these arrangements for managing more than 200,000 Ha legal.”

    First, can you please reconcile your assertion that “there is no detailed regulation on this, and therefore nothing to object from the perspective of the certification standard” with the fact that Article 49 of the Cameroonian Forestry Law explicitly states that “the creation of a forest exploitation company by a forest exploiter with the intention of exploiting a total area of more than 200,000 hectares shall be forbidden”?

    Second, can you please state whether, for the purposes of ICILA certification assessments, compliance with FSC Criterion 1.1, “Forest management shall respect all national and
    local laws and administrative requirements.” is assessed against what is actually written in the law, or against what Ministers may or may not say “in public meetings”? If the latter, can you please say whether this interpretation of what constitutes the law might also extend to what is said in ‘private meetings’, or written in ‘private correspondence’ etc etc?

    Thank you very much


  9. response to FSC watch

    ICILA has conducted an assessment of the legality of SEFAC Group’s use rights of the concessions. I repeat what I already stated before: the certificate was awarded to a group of two separate companies, SEFAC and Filiere Bois, which are two different legal entities. The ownership structure of the two companies was verified and it does not contravene in any way with the Cameroon Forest law. As long as companies respect the law and the commitments they assume regarding the management of the concessions, they can decide whether they manage the concessions themselves, or whether they collaborate with other companies in forest management.

    The management at SEFAC was assessed according to legal requirements and the certification standard, the statements from government officials were an additional element considered in the evaluation.

    The ICILA assessment team evaluated these requirements, reached its conclusions and you can find more information in the public summary report. In case any stakeholders bring reasonable objections, they will be taken into account during monitoring of the FSC certificate. As you probably know, there are means to deal with such objections in the FSC system. However, so far I have not seen any reasonable objection in this regard, based on a detailed knowledge of the forestry sector in Cameroon. My advice to FSC Watch is to inform itself before accusing publicly people and organizations who work in good faith. So please, go to Cameroon, investigate the local situation, study the legislation, speak with local experts, and then draw your informed conclusions.

    Best regards


  10. I don’t understand what the problem is ? Each company manages less than 200,000 hectares, in full compliance with the law. The fact that the same workforce might overlap the two companies shows good management and use of economies of scale. In this way the company might be able to make high enough profits in order to finance its certification program and continue the good work.

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