Do We Really Need Forest Certification Schemes? – Yes

Having read the recent Greenpeace, (amongst other NGOs), report ‘On the Ground’ with regards PEFC & SRI and always trying to keep up to date with Forest Certification issues particularly the ongoing love / hate relationship with FSC, I am struggling to understand where to place my loyalties if it all. The final decision is turning towards the latter and this is more based on conversations with clients, public and colleagues rather than any amount of published research. This is a shame, but hardly surprising and unfortunately a conclusion many others have already come to. Thus conversations with clients owning small woodland or planning to use timber products, certification is simply not on the agenda.

Forest certification is a huge and important issue, the need for ethical and sustainable procedure in timber supply is absolutely vital, but is it now largely irrelevant to European, including UK based private sector forest owners & practitioners who are already being forced into a protectionist stance by current economic circumstances as a whole? The moral implications of deciding to turn away from scrutinising certification personally is hard to come to terms with in a more general humanitarian sense; but the ongoing situation is simply unsustainable in small business terms within most European locations.

A friend of mine has to sell a range of ‘decking’ products to clients in France. He states his potential client base is pretty much 50:50 with regards sustainable sourcing. Those that insist on it are keen to use the ‘greenest’ product available, those that aren’t couldn’t care less if the timber was actually sawn up from a demolished Potala Palace, indeed it would probably be a selling point, such clients are never taken on. It is he that tries hard, as with most practitioners trying to be as sustainable as possible, to source a product that he feels matches his own personalised ethical and sustainable standards and given the time constraints needed to conduct self research, he has to take some sales talk at face value, to this end an easy top end option of composite, (recycled materials), is on offer to clients. However for his personal goals, regionally sourced Larch or Acacia is preferable as well as being by far the cheaper option.

The cheap option, >50% cheaper than composite, is always more desirable to clients and rather than having to explain through the increasingly complicated minefield of documentation with regards official certification, he can simply pull out a map to show the exact location of where the timber is felled, photos of the new planting and a telephone number of the woodland owner and sawmill if need be.

One huge factor which is so readily ignored in terms of sourcing so called sustainable products is distance. I accept that container delivery by ship is in comparison with other types of import less of a carbon footprint, but not by much. And the selling of any natural product, be it stone to timber from the other side of the world should not call itself sustainable, however well the quarryman or lumberjack is paid, (although I am very dubious with regards some of the companies claims of ethics without the chance to actually visit the site). Ethical timber is a term we may need to adopt, which will define the two tier timber trade that now exists but is subject to a hazy boundary in terms of public recognition. My email inbox is awash with Asian based companies trying to sell ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’ natural products, such claims are false and easily argued against by a client.

PEFC, FSC (etc.), timber products from a site within an easy distance to visit and inspect personally can only be a good thing but then why the need for certification? Certainly in France it is possible to actually select the trees you wish to use for the construction project you are planning, it is within your power to minimise any environmental or social impact caused by your own actions and dramatically so in comparison with some of the guidelines as per PEFC and FSC literature. No wonder that increasingly European small private woodland owners see little point in having to pay for certification for their system that is already better than other certified systems elsewhere in the world.

Furthermore the hugely damaging photographs of a chainsaw operator felling a primeval rainforest tree, whilst wearing a WWF t – shirt is still doing the rounds in France and one can hardly blame the small woodland owners or their clients for turning their backs on NGOs who appeared complicit with illegal logging and who further failed to provide the necessary PR to counter claim what one hopes are merely mistakes. ‘Charity begins at home’ has nasty connotations; but it is a well established concept here in France, the only European country to include rainforest in it’s national forest strategy due to the Dom Tom’s. Thus watching huge flows of money into certification schemes and then expecting to pay out further increasing amounts to over see that certification bodies do as they should, does not sit well alongside the decision to use the International Year of the Forests to promote home grown timber – an advertising campaign that worked only too well and was then criticised by some of the NGOs advocating or overseeing certification abroad as ignoring the plight of indigenous peoples’. Not surprisingly there was a backlash to this stating the obvious axiom that the only people to truly benefit were the international logging companies. And further as the FAO still recognise monoculture plantations, planted on previous primeval forest land, it was an easy decision to ignore the an international lobby as a whole and continue to concentrate on the merits of home grown timber, certified or not. Having seen large amounts of funding via the EU into supporting (as in the UK), a local timber industry it was clearly paradoxical to adhere to commercially based claims, backed up by NGOs that tropical timber can be as sustainable to a locally felled tree.

The one angle contrary to the above in France and possibly the UK also is design; architects, interior and exterior designers still remain, on the whole, largely oblivious to the whole affair. The colour and feel of the timber is the primary importance, its origin is completely irrelevant and if it is more costly, then all the better as it allows for a larger percentage to go into the designers pocket.

In the new reality that timber is the only future sustainable material, for both energy and construction purposes, is it time we turn our back on using tropical timber completely and transfer the financing of international certification schemes into sustainable forest management at home?

The answer is no, as without this continued supply of funding and regulation we will see huge and irreversible damage to rainforests, the timber sold to less developed countries and the land given over to food production. We are funding the regulation of a resource we increasingly no longer need, we are funding corporations with no ethical or sustainable notions, we are funding the development of countries which will replace us in our lustful consumption of non renewable resources, but it is the only way we can continue to breath.
And those NGOs, Quangos and Governments caught up in implementing and ensuring certification works demand the utmost respect for having to balance an inherently corrupt industry against the needs of their home countries and a sustainable future for us all.

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4 Comments

Filed under Trees and Woodlands

4 responses to “Do We Really Need Forest Certification Schemes? – Yes

  1. Hi Pip,
    interesting post. I think it is important to emphasize that PEFC was founded by small forest owners as a certification system that responded to their specific needs, also in terms of costs. This is also why PEFC remains the only entirely not-for-profit certification system.

    The conclusion “to turn our back on using tropical timber” might however be tricky as there is an increasing number of studies that point to the fact that forest management may in fact be more effective in conserving biodiversity than protected areas (see e.g. http://bit.ly/opvf5T).

    Promoting sustainable forest management through forest certification is a careful balancing act, not only between the three pillars of sustainability (environmental, social, economic), but also between the different needs and interests of the stakeholders that are in the end in defining sustainable forest management requirements. These stakeholders not only include forest owners and NGOs, but also private and public procurement policies defining requirements for “sustainable timber”.

    It is good to have two global forest certification systems that employ differing approaches to achieve such a balance – PEFC as a bottom approach that requires multi-stakeholder participation for each and every of its standards, and FSC as a top down, centralized approach.

    Concerning the “On the Ground” report, I invite you to also read our response available at http://bit.ly/psfruE.

  2. Dear Throsten, Thank you for your invaluable response, my scribblings were the result of a clients questions, which I could not answer and the whole world of forest certification is becoming increasingly distant from the work I and many others do on the ground. This is wrong and I admit to a lack of knowledge in this area – but this problem is compounded by simply not having the time to delve into the subject made worse by increasing paperwork and research into what has effectively become a new wing of the industry and one I am not a part of – I wanted to illustrate this as well as attempt to explain what is happening on the ground. As you know the French PEFC quite themselves into a bit of pickle by a lack of research into new applicants, such situations are a normal part of any evolving industry and help to fix the problem. This then makes your contribution vital, thanks Pip

  3. Rod Leslie

    As one of the drivers of certification in the UK I remain strongly committed to it – and I think it has played a crucial role in the rehabilitation of UK forestry. The problems you cite are familiar – and I think there are some fairly simple answers. To me, producer only validated certification is dangerous – as we’ve seen with a lot of European agricultural schemes. FSC has the edge in its 3 groupings of producer, environment & social. However, I sympathise with the concerns over the whole area becoming a little world in itself, like a number of similar areas (Great Crested Newts !) spawning a whole industry of consultants and experts who have a vested interest in issues & complexity.
    I think your comments about small owners in France sums up their particular issue – do you need certification when the buyer knows the wood the timber comes from (and its probably part of their personal environment) ? Really you don’t, but most timber is moved & traded even within Europe.
    However, if ever we doubted the need for certification the looming issue of imported biomass looks like proving its value decisively – estimated at 300m tonnes (where did that some from ?) Europe’s strange policies on biofuels & co-firing seem to have the potential to trigger a complete new era of exporting our environmental problems to the third world. What are oil palm fuelled power stations going to do for the rainforests ? And where is all the wood from temperate/boreal forests going to come from ? And what impact could the disastrous PR have on sustainable domestic production in France & the UK ? Certification looks very much like our best defence.

    • Thanks so much for the comment Rod. Some of the projects in the pipeline which will be done in the name of sustainable development are truly scary and surely not assisted by a refusal as yet to identify a difference between areas of primeval forest and those cleared for plantation crops including palms by the UN and FAO.

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