NGOs in a tangle over need for FSC ‘reforms’

As the FSC General Assembly opened in Cape Town, northern NGOs were falling over themselves to issue statements as to how the FSC should be ‘reformed’ – or to try to claim that it already has been – but the contradictory demands set out by these NGOs are likely to ensure that the FSC will continue to stumble towards chaos, irrelevance and non-credibility.

First amongst the NGO statements was the Brussels and UK-based FERN, in a statement issued jointly with Greenpeace, the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation (SSNC), the Tropical Forest Trust and the African logging lobby organisation, the Inter-African Forest Industry Association (IFIA). Asserting that the FSC’s problems “are so severe that supporting FSC threatens their own organisations’ credibility”, FERN and its friends have identified three main areas in need of improvement, specifically:

  • The lack of performance of the certification bodies, on which the statement says that “The quality of the certificates issued in FSC’s name by certification bodies is highly variable and, in too many cases, simply not good enough. This is the most visible and dangerous threat to the credibility of FSC. Too many forest management certificates do not meet FSC standards…”
  • FSC’s controlled wood policy, which the statement says “is not working for companies or for environmental or social NGOs” and that it “puts FSC in a difficult position because the policy allows too much scope for company self auditing”. FERN claims that “out of the 10,000+ FSC chain of custody certificates more than half include controlled wood”.
  • FSC’s complaints mechanism: “The previous FSC complaints mechanism clearly did not function. The new, not yet adopted system, may be a great improvement but is not yet operational and it is unclear what its status is”.

FERN et al’s statement then sets out a multi-point plan for how some these problems should be solved. On the most difficult issue – the poor performance of the certifiers – the statement says that “The race to the bottom among certification bodies must be halted and reversed”. This, it says, can be achieved through a number of recommended actions, such as heavier financial penalities for certifiers that fail to uphold the FSC’s requirements, a public ‘rating system’ for the certifiers, faster publication of certification reports, and a ‘screening’ mechanism for new certificates before they are issued.

Whilst the statement by FERN and the other groups recognises that the direct financial link between the certifiers and their timber company clients is a major problem, it fails to come up with any proposals that would remedy this underlying flaw in the FSC systems. Instead, the statement proposes a series of complicated new control measures of precisely the kind which have failed to materialise or be properly implemented in the past. Bringing these new controls about would no doubt be seen by most NGOs as requiring a huge amount of effort, at precisely the time when many groups are already complaining of having to spend too much time trying to make FSC work properly.

Confusingly, the following day, the report ‘Holding the Line with the FSC’ was issued by Greenpeace, which seems to contradict many of the points made in its joint statement with FERN. Whilst Greenpeace acknowledged that “a growing number of certificates do not meet FSC performance standards” and that “a majority of the problems stem from the rigour of the audit processes of the FSC accredited certification bodies”, it also said that many of its proposed reforms had already been adopted by FSC, whilst others would soon be fixed.

Greenpeace International Forests Campaigner Judy Rodrigues said that “Since its inception, FSC has been innovative and adaptive in meeting the challenges to transform forest stewardship worldwide. However, this process needs to be ongoing and this report provides constructive criticism to contribute towards its continuous improvement.” Greenpeace’s criticism was so ‘constructive’ that they allowed space in the accompanying press release (which was glowingly entitled “Greenpeace documents FSC progress on key problems”) for Andrei de Freitas, Executive Director of FSC, to explain that the FSC was already implementing most of the changes which Greenpeace was demanding.

But Greenpeace’s cozy approach to FSC will likely serve to isolate it further from grassroots forest protection NGOs worldwide, which have seen years of efforts to improve the FSC come to nothing. The green group was quickly attacked by the e-activist organisers, Ecological Internet which noted that the long awaited report “failed miserably” to fulfil an earlier promise by Greenpeace to publish its review of problematic certifications, and meant that it would carry on endorsing logging operations in old growth forests. Ecological Internet’s coordinator, Dr Glen Barry, said that “Greenpeace today released a one page report, with no mention by name of any specific failed FSC certification, of which there are many, and a twelve page, eighty-item laundry list of bureaucratic measures to try, yet again, to make acceptable destroying millions of year old primeval forests for throw away consumer products. The review’s only reference to primary forests is that better training manuals are needed for their destruction”.

The mass of environmental organisations that have signed on to the World Rainforest Movement’s statement against FSC-certifed plantations, will also no doubt be wondering how Greenpeace can be satisfied with FSC’s supposed improvements, when companies such as Veracel are still being certified. Some of Greenpeace’s more astute and knowledgeable forest campaigners are probably wondering how companies that were not long ago targets of their campaigns and described as ‘forest criminals’ have been able to quickly re-invent themselves as models of ‘sustainable forest management’ by obtaining FSC-certification, and are nowendorsed by their organisation.

As far as FSC-Watch can tell, Greenpeace’s statement appears to be more aimed at placating some of its pro-logging ‘forest campaigners’ than bringing about any meaningful improvements in the FSC or protecting the world’s forests. Greenpeace’s marketing department will no doubt be satisfied that it can carry on promoting the simplistic and misleading notion that the organisation is protecting the world’s forests by promoting the use of FSC certifed timber. It would no doubt also be difficult for Greenpeace now to pretend anything other than that ‘the FSC is already improving’, given that its own representative, Grant Rosoman, chaired the FSC International Board during several years to 2007, when the organisation continued to slide out of control, and its credibility plummeted.

The FSC will probably be breathing a huge sigh of relief that it has satisfied groups like Greenpeace that it has already undertaken ‘reforms’, but without having to tackle the underlying problem that the certifiers which it is supposed to control actually have a stranglehold over it. The world’s timber traders, plantation owners and paper companies will be rubbing their hands in glee at how supposedly leading environmental groups have conspired in their own co-option and entrapment into defending a certification system that mostly now only serves to greenwash the wood industry’s activities.

Their satisfaction is likely to be short-lived, however, when NGOs are forced to abandon the FSC altogether, and it becomes just another non-credible logging industry self-certification scheme.

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