The outcome of Greenpeace’s complaint against Congolese logging company SODEFOR, announced by the FSC on March 23rd, will probably not please the complainants very much, but it once again has served to highlight some of the glaring weaknesses in the FSC system.
As we have previously reported, the complaint against SODEFOR’s certificate dates back to April 2011, but by the time Greenpeace had lodged their appeal, the certificate had already been withdrawn by the certifier, Rainforest Alliance SmartWood. Because of this, the Complaints Panel, consisting of three independent experts convened by the FSC to look into the allegations, rejected Greenpeace’s argument that the the certificate damaged the reputation of the FSC and that the organisation should invoke its ‘Policy of Association’ by immediately cancelling the certificate and formally dis-associating itself from SODEFOR.
However, the Panel’s other findings and recommendations on the case go to the very heart of some of the FSC’s problems and its disintegrating credibility.
Thereport of the Panel finds that there appear to have been gross errors in the way that SmartWood conducted its original certification assessment of SODEFOR back in 2010. The logging company was seeking to obtain ‘Controlled Wood’ certification, an essentially ‘self-certification’ process whereby documentation and paper commitments provided by the company play a key role in the external assessment. Amongst these are a requirement that the company has proper written policies preventing it from harvesting or trading in illegal wood, that it doesn’t abuse peoples’ rights, and that it doesn’t exploit wood from areas of high conservation value forests. Despite the ease with which these should have been checked by SmartWood, the Panel could find no evidence that SODEFOR possessed such documents, and “we therefore assume they don’t exist and hence, the company should not have been given a certificate.”
Neither did the company have any written procedures for its workers as to how it needed to behave to qualify for the FSC’s Controlled Wood standard, and nor did it provide any training in how to do so. The Panel concluded that “Considering the existing conflicts in the area, this is a serious omission that should have been pointed out by SmartWood”. The Panel also pointed out that one member of the SmartWood mission to assess SODEFOR was also a member of the government’s forest control administration and that “it is difficult to see how his double mandate would not rapidly lead to major conflicts of interests.” Concerning the quality of SmartWood’s work in the Congo, the Panel concludes, “The audit report by Smartwood does not show any real understanding of the complications of the Congo Basin”.
As a result of all these failings, the Panel “recommends to suspend SmartWood from further operations in DRC and asks the FSC Board to investigate SmartWood practices in other Congo Basin countries (or other ares with bad forest governance) to ensure it meets FSC standards. This type of certificates only undermines the FSC.”
As important as this recognition is of the damage that SmartWood specifically is doing to FSC’s reputation, the Panel report goes even further into the structural reasons why such problems continue to occur, despite many years of warnings (from FSC-Watch among others). The report notes in conclusion that “FSC seems to be too dependent on the quality (or lack thereof) of the due diligence process of certification bodies. The panel therefore urges to re-assess how FSC can better control these CBs so they don’t continue to certify the ‘uncertifiable’ in line with recommendations put to FSC by a number of NGOS and timber traders in October 2008.”
In its response to the Complaints Panel report, the international Board of the FSC has clearly accepted the Panel’s recommendation that the FSC should not ‘dis-associate’ itself from SODEFOR. But on the other more important recommendations – that SmartWood should be prohibited from issuing any more certificates in the Congo Basin region, and that the FSC needs to better control the certifiers more generally – the Board remains totally silent.
It seems that FSC’s new complaints process, ushered in only last year, will do little to overcome the certifiers’ stranglehold on the organisation. More ‘certifications of the uncertifiable’ are bound to follow, as will NGO resignations from the FSC’s membership.