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.
It is surprising there was overwhelming majority support from all three chapters for this motion. Perhaps those ballotted are unaware of the evolution of the FSC forest management standard or more likely, they don’t really care?
The original standard made no mention of plantations. The principle focus was the certification and labelling of products derived from natural forests. The intention, as far as I can recall was to focus exclusively on tropical forests. For reasons that have never been clear to me, the FSC then quickly agreed to expand certification outside tropical areas. I understand that pushback from tropical countries – that they were unfairly singled out for attention – is the reason why the FSC standard was rolled out globally but as I said, I can’t confirm this.
FSC certification obviously got the attention of the global timber trade and the commercial opportunities for environmental labelling of fibre products, largely sourced from plantations, would have been highly attractive to the multi-national pulp and paper and fibre board sector. Is the FSC comfortable with this development? You bet. Fibre products are high volume and ubiquitous and clearly raise the FSC profile way above what could be achieved if labelling was limited to tropical forest products. In addition, the various fees collected by the FSC from the giant multi-nationals are a significant part of the FSC’s revenue.
A knock on effect of the inclusion of plantation sourced products in the FSC system is that labelling has been so diluted that a labelled product can contain only a smidgeon of pure, certified material. The original intention was to label only products that contained 100% FSC certified material. Plantation sourced products rarely contain 100% FSC certified material. Again, plantation sourced fibre widens considerably the labelled product range to the benefit of both the FSC and certified companies.
There were many, like me that supported FSC aims in the early days. There seemed a real possibility at last that the destruction of tropical forests could be in some areas reversed through a voluntary system that benefitted both producer and consumer. Had the FSC retained its’ original focus on pure products from tropical forests I would be a supporter still. If there was a need to certify plantations, the FSC should have left it to a different certification body and maintained its’ distance. As it stands I no longer pay any attention to the FSC label in my purchasing choices. It has shifted so far from its’ original aims as to be meaningless.