FSC certification threatens Bialowieza forest in Poland

The Białowieża forest in eastern Poland is the last remaining patch of ancient forest that once covered the Central European Plain. The forest is home to the European Bison, lynx and wolves. Tens of thousands of vast oak trees, up to 40 metres high mean that the timber industry is interested. A small area of the forest is a National Park. Plans to expand the National Park brought conservationists into conflict with local people who make their living through forestry jobs and collecting firewood, fruit and fungi in the forest – the conflict was partly as a result of misinformation spread by state forestry companies.

Part of the forest was FSC-certified in 2000. This might seem like a good compromise between conservationists and local people. In theory, the forest remains and local people keep their jobs. But this is only the case if SGS Qualifor, the certifiers, apply FSC standards strictly and consistently. Unfortunately they have not done so.

FSC-watch received the following information from Krystyna Stachura-Skierczyńska of the Polish Society For The Protection Of Birds.

Poland: gouging and manipulation in FSC continues January 22nd 2008

This information refers to suspended certificate issued by SGS QUALIFOR to Regional State Forest Directorate in Białystok, Poland (SGS-FM/COC-0428).

RDSF Białystok incorporates forests in North-Eastern Poland, including worldwide famous Bialowieza Forest – the only remnant of primeval lowland European forests. The RDSF has been certified by SGS QUALIFOR since 2000.

The story of problems with certification process in this region goes down to 2005, when, despite a number of serious violations of FSC standards, the certifier re-issued the certificate for another 5 years. This was possible only due to downgrading four Major Corrective Action Requirements (MCARs) , revealed during the audit, to Minor CARs without any justification for this decision (available here). It should be mentioned that a year before, in January 2004, several Polish NGOs submitted a complaint to SGS QUALIFOR, providing the reach substantiated evidence of nineteen serious violations of the FSC standards by the RDSF Białystok. Alas, it was completely ignored by the certifier.

In May 2006, the audit performed by Accreditation Services International (ASI) confirmed the lack of independence and transparency of certification process (available here).

In 2007, local media and Polish NGOs discovered disturbing facts about felling of old trees in Białowieża Forests, some of these actions taking place in nature reserves. The whole situation has risen many criticism across wide public. As a result, in the middle of 2007 we received the information that the certificate for RDSF Białystok was suspended. The major charges risen against the certified unit included continuous fellings in nature reserves, causing threats to invaluable ecosystems of Białowieża Forest, as well as ignoring stakeholders’ opinions and disregarding consultation procedure.

Polish stakeholders, devoted to the idea of FSC, regarded this decision as an important step forward towards the badly needed healing of the certification system in our country. Unfortunately, half a year later, SGS QUALIFOR seems to take a step back again. During last few days we have experienced another attempts of the SGS auditor insisting on NGOs’ representatives to “show mercy” and to “give another chance to RDSF, for nobody should be denied the last chance.” “But if they (RDSF) do not comply with the rules again, SGS itself will withdraw the certificate for the integrity goes first…” We know very well what does it mean: the decision has already been made. But what will be the FSC’s response? Will it keep tolerating SGS cheating the FSC wood customers at the expense and the FSC reputation and indeed loss of biodiversity in the most valuable European forests?

According to SGS auditor, the problem of controversial felling in nature reserves has been solved by the certified unit. The RDSF has issued the internal regulation, obliging its superindendencies to describe in more details and consult with third parties any planned fellings in nature reserves.

The fact is that there is no ecological justification for any such fellings in nature reserves – especially when it concerns Białowieża Forest, the last pristine lowland forest in Europe. The only conservation target for protected areas in this region is to preserve natural communities and ecosystems that do not require any felling. SGS QUALIFOR does not apparently understand this simple truth. The certifier is satisfied with the fact that felling in nature reserves is legal and consulting procedure involves enough paperwork. Although in consequence, FSC provides patronage to the degradation of the most precious European forest, SGS QUALIFOR does not regard this as a matter of concern.

Regardless of ecological controversies, there is also a great deal of evidence that the RDSF regulation mentioned before is disregarded by superintendencies, since NGOs are being informed about the intended felling opperations after issuing the permission for forest service by local authorities to do their job. In fact, they are not even given a chance to influence the process.

Lack of regard for NGOs and their role in consultation is clearly visible in the whole RDSF policy. The opinions of NGOs about forestry actions are neglected. Nevertheless, NGO representatives are sometimes invited to meetings with foresters and stakeholders, where they can express their opinions. Even though the forest authorities use it as a mere “green smoke,” according to SGS QUALIFOR, this is good enough to assume that the decisions were adequately consulted.

On numerous ocasions, both RDSF and the certifier refer to “good cooperation” between some NGOs and RDSF. It is interesting, however, that names of projects and NGOs involved are usually mentioned in the wrong context and mixed up. Whether these mistakes are the result of ignorance of certified unit or certifier – or both; it is ridiculous to speak about a “good cooperation” while being unable to provide correct facts.

Numerous failures of SGS QUALIFOR have been already reported on FSC Watch. Our main concern is: what is FSC going to do about this situation? If the decision about unsuspending the certificate of RDSF Białystok remains valid, the only solution should be taking away the FSC accreditation from SGS QUALIFOR. SGS QUALIFOR, being supportive and “soft” towards forest administration, has led to downgrading of FSC certificate to a fiction, an excuse for continuous degradation of most valuable forests of Poland and Europe.

Krystyna Stachura-Skierczyńska

Polish Society For The Protection Of Birds (Ogólnopolskie Towarzystwo Ochrony Ptaków)

mail to: krystyna.stachura(AT)otop.org.pl

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