The timber may be certified: but is it sustainable?


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By Manuel Guariguata

Almost 20 years ago, a new tool to promote sustainable forest management came to light the idea of independent certification. This was primarily developed and promoted by different sectors of civil society in response to the chronic failure of national governments, and a series of intergovernmental meetings, in halting forest loss and degradation. The hope was that by complying with a set of standards covering a range of technical, environmental and social issues, timber and other forest products from "certified forests" would gain access to preferential markets and price premiums. The hoped-for result was the maintenance of the local and global benefits that forests provide over time. Yet a study from forest-rich Cameroon by CIFOR scientist Paolo Cerutti and colleagues reports that the capacity of the forest to produce the most valuable timber over the long term—that is, sustainably—can be compromised even where certification schemes have been put in place.

Before going further, who is involved in forest certification? There are three main actors: First are those that define the standards and provide accreditation of the certifiers. Here the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is unique in serving this role globally. Since 1993, some 140 million hectares of forests worldwide enjoy FSC certification status. In Cameroon alone, close to 800,000 hectares are currently certified by the FSC. Second are the individual forest managers, typically concession holders or owners of timber lands, who request a certificate for complying with the standards. Third are the independent certifying bodies that assess whether a forest manager’s practices conform with the standards.

While the work by Cerutti and colleagues finds that FSC certification still holds the potential to improve tropical forest management over national forest management norms, it reveals that logging companies and certifying bodies differ in the way they comply or interpret compliance to FSC standards. The result is that, at present, in only three of the 10 certified forests in Cameroon is the most valuable timber extracted and exported with the application of techniques that are likely to ensure future harvests at the same rate as today. According to Cerutti and colleagues, part of the problem is that different certifying bodies use different standards: some rely on national rules while others follow the much stricter standards of the FSC, yet all grant the same FSC seal.

To avoid the proliferation of FSC-certified "free riders" applying weak norms, and to minimize subjectivity on the part of certifying bodies, Cerutti and colleagues recommend that Cameroon develop a uniform, science-based standard. This would then ensure uniform practice by certifying bodies assessing compliance with the FSC to advance the long-term and sustainable provision of timber. Because the FSC allows adjusting their global sustainability standards to the characteristics of a particular country’s forest, this is possible and in fact, it should be a priority in Cameroon.

The findings of Cerutti and colleagues are not isolated. In the Brazilian Amazon, Mark Schulze and colleagues concluded a few years ago that certifying bodies do not always apply the same level of scrutiny to logging companies during the FSC certification process. On either side of the ocean, the take-home message is that the provision of future quantities of high-value timber from certified forests may not be sustained if the playing field is not leveled between logging companies and certifying bodies at the time they assign the FSC label. The new research in Cameroon is nevertheless the first to assess the effectiveness of FSC certification for the forests of the Congo Basin, of which some 30% of the area is currently allocated to timber concessions.

At a time where researchers, policy makers and forest managers across the tropics are wondering whether the claimed benefits of forest certification are for real, the work of Cerutti and colleagues reminds us of the need for objective assessment of FSC standards. In other words, we may distinguish a certified- from a non-certified logging company; but a FSC certificate today does not necessarily mean that the timber has been sustainably harvested and that future harvests, and the forests from which they come, will be maintained tomorrow.

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Further reading

For a copy of the article by Cerutti et al. published in Forest Policy and Economics, click here. For a copy of the paper by Schulze et al. published in Oryx, click here.