By Chris Lang
At it’s General Assembly in Bali last week, FSC’s members voted to allow companies to be certified that have cleared forest to make way for industrial tree plantations between 1994 and 2000. In order to be certified, the company has to restore an area of forest equal to the area they destroyed. The cut-off date has now been moved to 2020. Any company converting forest to plantations after 2020 cannot be certified. Until FSC makes another decision to scrap its cut-off date, that is.
The restored forest should be close to the deforested land. Up to 70% of the restored forest can be logged and still count as restored land. The remaining 30% has to remain untouched. Companies also have to offer “social restoration” to communities that saw their forests bulldozed and replaced with monoculture plantations. Climate Home reports that social restoration can include “handing land back to them, financial compensation, employment or infrastructure”.
Before Motion 37 was passed, companies that destroyed forest to make way for plantations since 1994 could not be FSC-certified.
Perhaps surprisingly, Motion 37 got most support in the Environmental Chamber:
Greenpeace New Zealand is still a member of FSC, despite the fact that Greenpeace International left in 2018 due to FSC’s “failures to protect forests”. Grant Rosoman, of Greenpeace New Zealand told Climate Home:
“There’s a lot of environmental and social benefits that come from this and they outweigh the risks of it being abused or not being interpreted properly.”
Which suggests that Rosoman really hasn’t been paying attention for the past 28 years of FSC’s existence. FSC has failed over and over again to deal with its policies being abused or not being interpreted properly – to the point where 34 NGOs wrote to FSC in 2021 stating that it was no longer fit for purpose. And when FSC does respond to criticism, the organisation denies that the problems are genuine.
Aida Greenbury, who used to work as “sustainability director” for Asia Pulp and Paper (one of the most destructive pulp and paper companies on the planet) told Climate Home she is supportive of Motion 37. But she does at least point out one of the serious problems with the decision.
A 2019 study titled “What causes deforestation in Indonesia” found that between 2001 and 2016 industrial tree plantations resulted in 1.2 million hectares of deforestation. According to WWF, Asia Pulp and Paper “has a legacy of over 30 years of more than 2 million hectares of deforestation”. In 2007, FSC disassociated from APP (although that didn’t stop APP using FSC labels on its products).
Greenbury told Climate Home that some companies are likely to start the process of certification, just to greenwash their operations.
“How can they restore forests for one million hectares?” Greenbury asked.
Rainforest Action Network, which was a founding member of FSC, opposed motion 37. In a post on its website before the general assembly, RAN wrote,
The most significant decision being debated is about changing the rules to allow notorious forestry companies – like Sinar Mas Group and Royal Golden Eagle Group that have converted vast areas of tropical rainforests over the past 30 years – to obtain the most stringent and coveted certification status on offer. A change in the ‘cut-off date’ for forest conversion from 1994 to 2020 would offer a reward to these companies on the promise that they will remedy the social and environmental harm caused by decades of destruction. This change in the FSC certification standard will provide forestry companies with sordid legacies access to markets that have been exclusively accessible for companies that ended deforestation and the conversion of forests at the time of the creation of the FSC system.
“This is a make or break moment for the credibility of the FSC,” RAN’s Gemma Tillack said. “The decisions made by its members at this General Assembly will determine if the FSC can be trusted as a certification system for global users of paper and timber products.”
Decision was in the pipeline since 2011
It’s worth looking at FSC’s “process” in reaching this decision. In general, FSC has transformed itself over the years, from holding up standards that the industry should meet, to bending over backwards to keep the industry on-board. The 1994 cut-off date is a good example of this.
FSC has been considering revising its 1994 cut-off date on forest destruction for at least 11 years. At the 2011 general assembly in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia FSC members approved a motion to “revisit and complete the Plantations Review and to create a chamber-balanced working group to look into stakeholder concerns relating to plantation certification”.
In 2014, at the general assembly in Sevilla, Spain, FSC members agreed to “fast-track the implementation” of the motion passed in 2011. This included the question, “what does an organization that has converted post 1994 need to do to be able to be certified”.
FSC set up a Working Group. The Working Group produced a draft paper for consultation. They held meetings and online calls. And a webinar. In 2017, at the general assembly in Vancouver, Canada, FSC members passed another motion recognising “the strategic importance of addressing the issues around conversion of natural forest-related ecosystems to plantations and the need for alignment of the diverse ways in which conversion is treated in different parts of the FSC normative framework.”
FSC then organised two working groups. One with equal numbers of members from each of the three chambers, and one consisting of four “technical experts” (Caitlin Clarke, of The Nature Conservancy; Karen Kirkman, a consultant based in South Africa; Michael Brady, of CIFOR; and Vera Engel of São Paulo State University). Predictably, none of these technical experts have carried out studies about the impacts of industrial tree plantations on local communities and Indigenous Peoples. Or about the political economy of the pulp and paper industry, which will be the ultimate beneficiary of FSC’s new cut-off date.