Hancock Victoria Plantations, Australia: SmartWood continues to discredit FSC

We have been asked to publish the following article, by Anthony Amis of Friends of the Earth Melbourne, Australia.

It highlights some now very familiar themes: failure of SmartWood to comply with the FSC’s rules by not publishing its Public Summary reports in a timely manner: certification on the basis of ‘hoped-for improvements’ rather than performance, and covering up failures to actually improve by continually re-issuing ‘Corrective Action Requests’; slowness of the ASI in publishing the reports of it’s audits of certifiers where problems are identified…all of which is no doubt good for SmartWood’s business, but bad for the FSC’s credibility.

Are Smartwood really lapdogs for the Australian timber industry?

An answer to this question appears to be yes. Smartwood’s reputation as ‘honest brokers’ has hit an all time low with their most recent audit of Hancock Victorian Plantations (HVP). So serious are the implications of Smartwood’s latest appraisal of HVP that not only has it raised serious doubts about the ethics of Smartwood, but has raised massive credibility issues with FSC itself.

It has certainly been a fascinating exercise to watch Smartwood trip over themselves for the past 4 years, in continuing to take money from one of the more morally bankrupt companies operating in Australia. The longer Smartwood fails to tackle HVP, the further it reveals the philosophical shortcomings of a certification system that is slowly drowning in the moral quicksand so commonplace within the Australian timber industry. Smartwood themselves are now increasingly being tarred with a very dirty brush that ultimately will severely tarnish their reputation in this country.

As pointed out on the FSC-Watch website in March 2007, concerns over the certification of HVP’s operations in the Strzelecki region of Victoria since 2004 have centered around, but have not confined to, rainforest management issues. The company has been issued with numerous Corrective Action Requests (CAR’s) since 2004, many of which have arguably not been met, yet closed, including most seriously those relating to rainforest. So serious has the rainforest issue been, that even Smartwood auditors recommended in both 2005 and 2006 that HVP lose their certification. Both times these recommendations were overturned by Smartwood who decided instead to grant new CAR’s, which in turn were then undermined by HVP. We were under the impression that if a company doesn’t meet CAR’s its certificate is stripped. Smartwood have shown that this is not the case within the FSC system.

Apparently, FSC International treated the issue as serious enough to get Accreditation Services International (ASI) to conduct an audit of Smartwood in February 2007. However the ASI audit as of late December 2007 is nowhere to be seen and ASI, through a recommendation by FSC Australia, actually employed the services of an Australian forester, who in the past, had given the greenlight to the logging of contentious rainforest areas, including Goolengook, the site of Australia’s longest ever forest blockade. A blockade that lasted over 7 years and resulted in hundreds of arrests! Hardly a politically neutral background for an auditor!

We had to wait 9 months for a public copy of Smartwood’s 2007 audit of HVP to be made available to the public, with ASI’s as yet unsighted report taking longer than 10 months. In the meantime it has been business as usual for HVP who have continued wiping out controversial rainforest buffers and high conservation value forests. Why such long delays? Is Smartwood adopting the same tactics with ASI as HVP have done with Smartwood? Will ASI themselves now be sucked into the vortex by then adopting typical Smartwood stalling tactics? This in turn could drag FSC into a very ugly blackhole, from which there will be no escape.

It appears that the rainforest CARs have been written in a way which allows HVP to wriggle out at every opportunity. If a CAR isn’t properly fulfilled, Smartwood simply move the goal posts by closing one CAR and granting the company another CAR. One could assume that the CARs have been deliberately worded to grant the company maximum leeway to keep going with a business as usual attitude. This undermining of the CAR process reveals a massive ethical shortcoming, where Smartwood working in cohoots with industry can keep a perpetual freeze on dumping a company from the FSC system despite recommendations from the certifiers own auditors.

All auditing systems are reliant on the company for payment. How can a certifying body ever be regarded as independent when the certifiers are reliant on these companies to put bread and butter on their tables and send their kids to university? HVP have deliberately misled Smartwood in past audits, by telling mistruths and failing to provide key information, yet still Smartwood pat them on the back! In a PR survey of threats and opportunity’s funded by HVP, it was no surprise that Smartwood were viewed as being of lowest risk.

The long and short of the rainforest situation is now this. Minimal to zero protection of rainforest by granting inadequate buffers and ignoring peer review conclusions and recommendations made by rainforest experts. The experts are also concerned that young regenerating rainforest are not being given adequate protection, as the disease myrtle wilt kills the oldest stands of native Nothofagus trees. Locals have witnessed this year the chainsawing of young rainforest by HVP. In short nothing has changed since HVP were first certified.

Experts have made specific buffer width recommendations in two reports related to the Strzelecki Ranges Bioregion and have also been totally ignored by HVP and now Smartwood. HVP’s rainforest Best Management Practices (BMP’s) were peer reviewed in 2005 by two experts. The BMP’s failed to get acceptance by rainforest experts who said that the company’s protection measures for rainforest were inadequate. HVP then argued the toss and deliberately stalled on accepting almost all of the experts recommendations. Current buffer widths are still considered inadequate by the experts. HVP attempted to go around the experts by getting approval for the BMP’s from the ex-Secretary to the Department of Sustainability and Environment. The same Department that has a worse record in regards to rainforest than HVP! Apparently Smartwood have endorsed this move.

Worse still, the current BMP (as bad as it is) has not even been provided to logging contractors who are still logging to minimal buffers (which has always been HVP’s agenda). Even worse is Smartwood’s latest proposal that two local shire CEO’s will have to sign off on the rainforest BMPs in 2008 (or are SmartWood really just stating an idea from HVP?). These two signatories, untrained in rainforest ecology, will supposedly solve this delicate problem. This basically ignores the best of scientific information concerning rainforest and instead allows these non-experts, usually highly supportive of the economic needs of the timber industry, to be called in as umpires because Smartwood have refused to take the ethical stand. More ‘buck passing’ by Smartwood?

Such manipulation of the process gives Hancock no incentive to improve its on-the-ground practices. There is no balance between social, economic and environmental outcomes which impact on the wider community. Rainforest of the Strzeleckis has now effectively been sacrificed by a certifying body supposedly working under the banner of the Rainforest Alliance. Many in the community are furious and feel that their concerns have deliberately been swept under carpet by FSC, Smartwood and HVP. FSC Australia remains totally mute about the subject saying they are powerless to do anything. FSC International appear also to be asleep at the wheel. ENGO’s working with the FSC system in Australia also remain mute preferring to help prop up FSC rather than stand in unity with communities in protecting their regions from unsustainable logging practices.

All of this situation is likely to come to head in the near future when Smartwood’s close association with the Maryvale pulp mill and PaperlinX is publicised more widely. PaperlinX were granted a Chain of Custody (CoC) certficate in June 2006 by Smartwood because their mill at Maryvale is supplied with timber from HVP. However, the CoC does not even attempt to look at the source of Maryvale’s native forest fibre, sourced largely from water supply catchments for the city of Melbourne. It does not take a genius to realize that water consumers in Melbourne (population 3.5 million people) have a very low opinion of companies that are clearfelling the source of their water supplies. Likewise any certification scheme which turns a blind eye to such ecological carnage will also be treated with contempt.

Smartwood decided in 2006 that rather than get an ecological solution for the Strzelecki’s and de-certifiying HVP, they would instead take a greater share in the profits from the rampaging Gippsland based paper industry, knowing full well that the company supplying Maryvale pulp mill, HVP, was blatantly breaching CAR’s in the Strzelecki’s with absolutely no plans to stop committing the breaches. The moment Smartwood decided to do this was the moment any remaining credibility totally evaporated. Many in the local community felt betrayed by Smartwood and in the FSC system that promised so much but delivered them bugger all. Many are also questioning the viability of a system which flys in ‘experts’ from other countries who have no track record in understanding unique local politics and history. Most of all though it reveals how the FSC system cannot deal with unethical companies willing to manipulate anything that infringes on their ability to make as much profit as possible.

Anthony Amis, January 2008


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