New Forests Company plantation in Uganda – FSC files a complaint against itself

The FSC sank to new levels of farce this week with a decision that in effect means that the organisation has lodged a complaint against itself.

As we reported a week ago an investigation by Oxfam has revealed that the FSC-certified New Forests Company in Uganda has been responsible for eviction of 22,500 people from their land. In addition to the video news piece about Oxfam’s report produced by the Guardian, Al Jazeera TV also reported on the evictions, including interviews with Kate Geary of Oxfam and Robert Devereux, the Chairman of New Forests Company.

In a response to the report, issued on October 24th, the FSC Secretariat has stated that “FSC takes the findings of the Oxfam report very seriously…FSC has filed an official complaint with SGS Qualifor in order to ensure that any allegations about contradictions with FSC’s Principles and Criteria – particularly with regards to violent evictions and unresolved land claims – are investigated with the utmost rigor”.

FSC asking SGS to investigate itself? That is the job of the Accreditation Services International (ASI), the former part of the FSC Secretariat that was spun out to become an independent organisation some years ago, and which has the responsiblity to independently verify that the certification companies accredited to the FSC (and other certification schemes, including the Marine Stewardship Council) are fulfilling the responsibilities and requirements set out for them by the FSC.

FSC-Watch wonders just what is going on here.
Perhaps the FSC no longer trusts the ASI to carry out proper assessments of whether the certifiers have broken the rules or not? It has good reason not to.

As we reported previously, ASI carried out an assessment of SGS’s certification of New Forests Company in 2010, finding little wrong. ASI’s report (opens pdf, 133Kb) noted that “The SGS Qualifor audit team conducted a professional and systematic surveillance audit. ASI audit team is satisfied that the CARs raised by SGS Qualifor during this audit address most of the nonconformity identified”. The ASI accreditation inspection of SGS resulted in the issuing of only three minor technical ‘Corrective Action Requests’ against SGS, and one ‘Observation’.

ASI failed to spot that SGS had failed to spot that NFC had evicted over 20,000 people from the land – despite the evictions having been the subject of a high court injunction.

By issuing a ‘complaint’ against SGS (the wording of which has not been made public), FSC is basically admitting that ASI has not been doing its job properly. Because the FSC system as a whole relies on the certification companies to comply properly with the FSC’s requirements, the failure of ASI means that the system as a whole has failed. FSC might as well have issued a complaint against itself.

It only goes to show what chaos the FSC system is now in, that it is powerless to do anything directly to uphold the certification standards that its accredited certifiers are supposed to operate to. Under any sensible certification system, if the accreditation body (i.e, in this case FSC) were to find fault with a certifier, then that certifier could be struck off the list of accredited certifiers (as SGS should have been long ago).

Or there is another explanation. Perhaps the FSC Secretariat realises that, whatever it might find (yet again) about how SGS’s so-called certification system has failed all reasonable standards, nothing meaningful will result anyway, bearing in mind the stranglehold that the big certification companies have over the FSC. So FSC or ASI might as well save themselves the embarrassment of carrying out an investigation, finding fault and then doing nothing – and instead just let SGS carry out the investigation themselves, find nothing wrong and do nothing as a result.

This is much easier for all concerned, and means that everyone can quickly get back to the job of getting paid to issue certificates to companies that do not deserve them (and in some cases taking valuable ‘gifts’ from them at the same time), and pretending that all is well and good with the structure of the FSC system.

Organisations such as Oxfam, Greenpeace and even perhaps WWF will no doubt be wondering just how much worse things will get before they are forced to confront the fact that their membership of the FSC is helping to prop up an organisation that seems to have lost all control over its core purpose, and is now nothing but a constant embarrassment.

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6 comments

  1. The New Forests Company has set up a response page on its web site to answer some of the accusations made in the Oxfam report. NFC poses a series of questions. One of these is “Does the Government of Uganda (GoU) have the right to move illegal encroachers from its own land”. NFC says “we believe the answer to this question is yes…..”.

    NFC says it was not involved at all in the evictions/removals (nothing to do with me gov) yet goes on to claim it has built schools and health centres for evicted communities. Why would NFC do this if it is so sure the evictions were legal? Guilty conscience? And how did NFC aquire the rights to plant trees on land that was already settled? It must have known that in order for it to plant trees the settlers would have to be evicted. Has NFC ever established beyond doubt that settlement was illegal or was it always convenient just to believe it so?

    And where does this leave the FSC and Accreditation Services International? They have endorsed the certification of a forest management unit where people have been evicted from the land. Surely this should have set the alarm bells ringing? Or is the FSC/ASI now so incompetent they can’t even see that this type of certification might prove controversial?

    Given that ASI has audited only 0.4% of FSC certificates in the last 12 months, how many more potentially embarassing certificates are out there? With such a low level of oversight by ASI, the FSC certainly won’t be able to tell us.

  2. Some questions to this situation which i need answered;
    Does Oxfam in it’s investigations consider the existing land tenure system in Uganda?
    Is occupation of forest reserves in Uganda lawful?
    Has Oxfam done some verification with the relevant authorities in Uganda to confirm lawful occupation of these areas before a case of land grab can be concluded?
    Has Oxfam checked with any human rights watch bodies in this country if any cases of violation of human rights were reported?
    Was the process of new forest company occupation of these areas lawful?

    James

  3. Meanwhile it is true that all gazetted central and local government reserves belong to the state and anybody who settles on them without permission does so illegally in Uganda, but the process of evicting such people does not in any way need to be violent and inhuman. So what needs to be done is to offer the affected communities some resettlement packages in order to move to new settlements but they could also be given some portion of the land for plating under the Collaborative Forest Management process so that they co-exist with the New Forest Company on the same land but with trees.

  4. Data the FSC does not publish on its web site? Lets start with the oversight provided by Accreditation Services International (ASI). This is what ASI says:

    “Accreditation means that we assess organizations that provide certification, testing and inspection services against internationally recognized standards. It demonstrates the organization’s competence, impartiality and performance capability and is the key to reducing risk and ensuring that consumers, suppliers and purchasers can have confidence in the services provided.”

    ASI goes on to say “Accreditation Services International is one of the world’s leading accreditation bodies for sustainability standards systems. Our business is to provide assurance and trust in certification.”

    So, can consumers have confidence in the service provided by ASI? Well, decide for yourselves.

    I have reported previously on the low level of witness auditing of FSC certificates by ASI. Yet to date in 2012 ASI has astonishingly managed to witness audit a smaller percentage of FSC certificates than it did in 2011. For the period starting 1st January up to 10th August 2012, ASI audited only 0.31% of FSC certificates issued. This is down from 2011 when it was a staggeringly impressive 0.4%. Only 0.25% of CoC certificates have been audited and 1.5% of FM/CoC certificates. In addition, 36 certification body and affiliate offices have been audited.

    Just 18 FM/COC certificates (out of 1,154) and 62 CoC certificates (out of 24,170) have had witness audits. How can consumers have any confidence in the FSC logo when such a small number of certificates are witness audited annually? And why isn’t the FSC demanding a much higher level of witness auditing? The small number of witness audits means that many certificate holders, both FM and CoC probably never will have an ASI witness audit. If problems exist, particularly in the field where auditing activities should be concentrated, they never will be detected by ASI.

    This level of complacency within FSC/ASI is breathtaking and confirms what many now believe: the FSC/ASI have neither the capacity nor the interest to properly monitor let alone sanction the accredited certification bodies. I will report again towards the end of 2013 with next year’s figures.

  5. Clarification of what is involved in witness audits might be useful. An ASI auditor sits in on FM and CoC surveillance audits carried out by certification bodies (CBs) in order to assess the CB’s performance. So whilst ASI will claim it is not there to assess the certificate holder’s performance it has access to all the same locations, information and documentation available to the CB auditor.

    I was witness audited twice whilst working for an affiliate of one of the largest CBs. On the second occasion the ASI auditors insisted I raise a minimum of five Major CARs which would have resulted in the certificate being suspended. I refused and was myself suspended from carrying out main assessments but not surveillance assessments.

    With such a small number of witness audits annually the FSC/ASI will have very limited opportunities to monitor CB performance where it really matters – in the forest and on the premises of companies holding CoC certificates. Additional witness audits would also provide the ASI further opportunities to identify problems not detected by the CB auditor. It is this critical opportunity the FSC/ASI is missing out on.

    I happen to think the FSC FM and CoC standards are still the best currently available. Unlike the new FLEGT licensing system to be introduced in March next year which will legalise forest products from an entire country, the FSC system certifies forest management units and companies in the supply chain. If problems are found they can be largely contained by the suspension or cancellation of individual certificates. This is the great advantage FSC certification has over FLEGT licensing. But the FSC urgently needs to assure consumers that CBs are systematically monitored and sanctioned. With only 18 FM and 62 CoC witness audits to date in 2012 AIS monitoring of the CBs is pitiful.

  6. New Forests Company has obtained a concession to clear (and subsequently replace) mature plantations which serve as a buffer zone adjacent the Nyungwe national park in Rwanda, and to clear small plantations within that park (replacing the latter with indigenous species – if feasible). It is unclear what recourse Rwanda would have if the company does not do so or if the operations of itself or its private sector contractors contribute significantly to degradation of the national park.
    http://www.newforests.net/index.php/hmd_article/nfc-to-harvest-man-made-plantations-in-rwanda-not-natural-forests

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