Certification in any of the countries in the Congo Basin was always going to stretch the credibility of the FSC system to the limit – as the miserable experiences in Cameroon of companies such as SEFAC and Wijma have shown (the former of which remains ‘suspended’ for forest management but, illogically, still certified for Chain of Custody). Sadly, because the FSC is unable to control its certifiers, these lessons seem not to have been learned; allowing its certifiers to issue certificates in DR Congo was always bound to end in disaster.
So far, only two companies have been certified in DRC – SODEFOR and SIFORCO. The first of these, SODEFOR, is owned by Portuguese, Liechstenstein-registered, Nordsüdtimber (NST) Group, with a minority shareholding of the Congolese state. It was issued a Controlled Wood and Chain of Custody certificate by Rainforest Alliance Smartwood in December 2010. The company has 16 ‘concessions’ spread across three provinces and covering more than 2.1 million hectares of forest. Because it is so large and reportedly very well connected with as yet undisclosed senior politicians and officials in DRC, it would represent an important ‘catch’ for any of FSC’s certifiers, with potentially much revenue to be gained from certifying it in the future.
But only months before SmartWood’s certificate was issued (for the company’s operations in Bandundu Province), a well-documented conflict had occurred in which villagers nearby in Oshwe had protested against the activities of SODEFOR. According to Greenpeace, the conflict had led to “human rights abuses, arbitrary arrests, imprisonment and the death of a protestor”. Only two days before the awarding of the certificate, a further conflict between villagers and SODEFOR had happened in Equateur Province, in which villagers blockaded logging operations in protest at ‘broken investment promises’. As Greenpeace has stated, “Under FSC’s Policy of Association, these violations are sufficient grounds for FSC to immediately disassociate itself from SODEFOR.”
Greenpeace duly submitted a complaint to both Smartwood and the FSC in April 2011. It transpired that SmartWood had already suspended the certificate two days before, but it is not clear whether FSC has properly probed how the certificate could have been issued in the first place.
The second FSC company in DRC remains certified to this day. SIFORCO has around 2.1 million hectares of ‘concessions’ in DRC, and is part of the Danzer Group, based in Switzerland. Also part of the Danzer Group is the IFO logging company, which has 1.1 million hectares of concession in neighbouring Republic of Congo, which was FSC certified for forest management in 2009. The company notes on its website that “Danzer Group and the WWF (World Wide Fund For Nature) have been teaming up since 2006 to promote responsible forest management and trade practices in Africa. The partnership includes Danzer Group’s memberships in WWF’s Global Forest and Trade Network (GFTN)”.
SIFORCO was issued with Chain of Custody and Controlled Wood certificates by SGS in September and October 2010. But the company’s operations have also been the focus of long-running conflicts with local communities and workers. In 2006, a petition from a local community was filed with the government claiming that the company had not fulfilled its social obligations. In April 2011 the grievances erupted into outright protest over what villagers from Yalisika in the Bumba area said was a failure by SIFORCO to respect earlier promises to build a school and clinic. SIFORCO called in the police to break up the blockading of its operations; a contingent of reportedly 60 members of the naval forces and national police attacked the protestors, as a result of which several villagers are reported to have been beaten and arrested, six women including three minors raped, and property damaged and burned. One villager is reported to have died as a result of injuries sustained during the police action – perhaps partly because the community nurse had also been beaten and arrested.
According to new reports on Digitalcongo.net and Le Potentiel, SIFORCO was allegedly directly implicated in the atrocities, including that; the security forces were transported in a SIFORCO truck; prisoners were transported to the gaol at Bumba in a SIFORCO truck, en route to which the truck stopped at the SIFORCO site at Engengele and a report was made to the company Site Manager; some of the security force were given money by SIFORCO employees.
On their own, Controlled Wood and Chain of Custody certificates are of little value to SIFORCO. However, combined with the forest management-certified wood from Danzer’s other major African subsidiary, IFO, this means that Danzer could potentially process and batch all the timber together and sell it as FSC ‘MixedSources’. As has repeatedly been pointed out by FSC-Watch, FSC’s risible and euphemistically named Controlled Wood policy provides the perfect vehicle for ‘laundering’ timber from deeply problematic sources with those from genuinely (if questionably) FSC certified sources.
Together with the certification of CIB in the Republic of Congo – which we explored in the previous posting – Greenpeace has described the certification of SIFORCO and SODEFOR as representing a ‘global credibility crisis’ for FSC. FSC-Watch very much agrees with this. If FSC wishes to retain any credibility, it must conduct rigorous exploration of how these certificates have been issued – and ensure that those responsible are prohibited from operating in the region ever again.
Moreover, we once again conclude that FSC’s Controlled Wood process simply doesn’t work, and the Risk Assessment process associated with it is next to worthless.