Certifying the little guys


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This year marks the tenth anniversary of the Forest Steward Council (FSC). During these ten years certification has become a major factor influencing commercial forestry. Over 30 million hectares of forest have been certified under the FSC standards and 70 million hectares more under other schemes.

Certification initially focused on large-scale industrial logging. However, the movement now realizes it must also address community-owned forest enterprises and smallholders. These groups own or manage about one quarter of the forest in developing countries and are important in some developed countries as well.

According to "Forest Certification and Communities: Looking Forward to the Next Decade" by August Molnar from Forest Trends, about 50 communities managing 1.1 million hectares of forest had been certified under the FSC system as of August 2002. Most were in Mexico and Guatemala, with scattered cases elsewhere. The Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) and the Pan-European Forest Certification (PEFC) systems have certified forests owned by individual smallholders, but not forests owned by communities.

Molnar says getting certified has helped communities in several ways, if not always with higher prices. These include greater recognition, more secure tenure, financial and technical support from governments and donors and access to new markets. In addition, some large companies have improved workers’ safety and relations with their neighbors. The certification process has also given indigenous people and other traditionally marginalized groups a seat at the table.

Still, most community enterprises and smallholders find certification costly and difficult. Experience from Southern Mexico suggests that on average it costs community forestry enterprises $60,000 to be certified for five years. That is a lot, particularly considering most don’t get higher prices for their products. So far donors have picked up most of the tab, but that won’t last forever. Most communities and smallholders lack the necessary administrative capacity, volume and quality of products, technical assistance, and legal recognition to even think about getting certified.

The FSC has approved new rules for "Small and Low Intensity Managed Forests (SLIMFs)", which make it easier and cheaper for communities to get their forests certified. Even so, Molnar predicts that only a tiny percentage of communities and small forest owners will ever find it feasible and useful to do so.

Helping the rest will require different strategies. Marketing can promote the fact that indigenous people and small farmers made the products. Governments need to remove the legal barriers to smallholder forestry activities. Forestry departments, donor projects, and NGOs should focus more on providing business support services. Special care must also be taken to ensure certification efforts do not prevent low-income families from accessing resources and markets.


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Further reading

To request the paper in Spanish in pdf format you can write Megumi Hiromitso at mailto:mhiromitsu@forest-trends.org.

To send comments or queries to the author write Augusta Molner at: mailto:amolnar@forest-trends.org