What’s the situation with forest certification in Europe?


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Jean-Pierre Kiekens, of the Free University of Brussels, has recently completed an interesting report on this and other topics related to timber certification, which is available in English, French, and Spanish at: http://www.ulb.ac.be/assoc/iff/study/

The report strongly criticizes timber certification for 1) being a poor substitute for improving enforcement of forest regulations, 2) lacking accountability, 3) failing to meet the needs of small forest owners, and 4) potentially restricting trade. The report also makes disparaging comments regarding the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), that CIFOR does not subscribe to. Nevertheless, even supporters of certification and WWF will find some of the report’s information useful. It is in that spirit that we have chosen to publicize it, although we do not necessarily endorse its conclusions.

The report addresses issues related to certification in both developed and developing countries. The following paragraphs summarize some of the information from the report related to forest certification in Europe.

European forests account for 4.2% of the world’s total. In recent years, they have experienced some slight growth. The major problems they faced are not related to forest management, per se, but rather external factors such as air, diseases and forest fires. Some years ago, in Helsinki, all the European countries formally committed themselves to implementing sustainable forest management in all their forests.

The region’s forests are highly fragmented and there are about 12 million forest owners. Most forests more or less suited for certification are public owned, although this may also be the case of a few large private forests of a large size that belong to industrial groups, most of which are located in Sweden. Kiekens argues that the fragmentation of European forests makes certification unfeasible in most cases, and that certification in public forests in Europe has proven to be of little use. He also argues that the complex marketing chains for many forest products in Europe make the cost of certification prohibitively high.

The study discusses four main certification systems: the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), the ISO-14001 standard, national certification systems, and systems of certification or marks of origin.

Under the FSC system, each country defines its own performance standards, within the framework of FSC’s general forest management principles and criteria. To date, within Europe, only Sweden has come close to reaching agreement on what its performance standards should be.

The largest single block of forest that has been certified under the FSC system in Europe are the publicly-owned forests of Gdansk, Katowice, and Szczecinek in Poland. SGS certified these forests in early 1996. The only substantive recommendation SGS made when it certified these forests was that the FSC principles and criteria be distributed to forest managers and that administrators formally commit themselves to implementing them. Certification did not bring about any improvement in the management of these forests.

In 1996, the SGS also certified public forests in 14 Walloon districts in Belgium. Again, the only major recommendations were that the companies move quicker to introduce a computerized management system and make some minor improvements in how they mark logs. As in the Polish case, certification did not lead to better forest management. Subsequently, the Walloon regional government decided not to authorize SGS to perform an annual inspection that was required for the forests to remain certified and certification was revoked in October, 1997.

In Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, WWF and other environmental groups have organized groups of companies that purchase certified forest products. In Belgium, for example, 17 importers, 41 traders, a carpentry company and a do it yourself retail chain have joined a group called ’Club 1997’. To join the club, companies must commit themselves to actively support the international FSC certification system or some similar system.

The International Standards Organisation (ISO) promotes the use of the ISO-14001 standard. A forestry organisation that wishes to be certified under the ISO-14001 system must demonstrate that it abides to laws and regulations, continuously improve its environmental management, and provides training for staff involved in activities that might negative affect the environment. The ISO-14001 standard is already being applied in the forestry sector in Sweden and a national working group has been established to implement it in France.

National certification systems have been launched or are in preparation in Finland, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.

In Finland, a draft national certification system was finalised in April 1997 by a working party made up of 29 organisations representing forest owners, industry and environmental groups. The draft standard, which relies on 39 criteria and active involvement by forest owner associations, is currently being tested in the field.

In 1995, British government began preparing a ’UK Forestry Standard’ to define a set of national standards for forest management. Once this document is finalised, the Forestry Commission will apparently welcome independent inspections of forests to convince the public that the standard is being effectively implemented.

The Dutch government has defined minimum requirements relating to criteria for sustainable forest management, the organization of certification systems, forest management practices, and chain of custody. These requirements apply not only to the management of Dutch forests, but also to forest managers in other countries who wish to export timber to the Netherlands.

As the Netherlands imports more than 90% of the timber it uses, the Dutch requirements have a mostly extra-territorial effect. Producers who do not abide to these requirements will probably face growing difficulties in getting access to that market. The Dutch Parliament has committed itself to ensuring that certified forest products are widely used in the Netherlands by the year 2000 and the Dutch government intends to promote the use of certified products through various programs, fiscal incentives, and policies regarding purchases made by the public sector.

Systems of certification or marks of origin are being implemented or foreseen in Austria, Germany, the United Kingdom, and in Scandinavian countries. For example, under the " FICGB Woodmark " system, initiated in 1993 by the Forestry Industry Council of Great Britain, timber companies voluntarily agree to follow simple procedures which allow them to demonstrate that the timber has been locally produced, according to existing official regulations.

The report concludes that the FSC and ISO system are not adapted to the European context, in part because of the prevalence of small private forests. National systems, such as those designed for Canada and Indonesia are problematic because of the small size of Europe’s forests compared to the forests in those countries. Unlike most European countries, these countries can afford to spend substantial amounts to obtain international recognition for their certification system. Systems of certification or marks of origin are the easiest form of certification to implement, but they cannot be expected to improve forestry management, as they simply constitute a mechanism for informing buyers about the origins of the wood they purchase.

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Further reading

If you would like to comments on this or any other issue to Jean-Pierre Kiekens, the author, he can be reached at: mailto:kiekens@ibm.net