Forest certification under fire

Posted: 22 November 2002

Environmental and human rights experts have published a report claiming that one of the world's best known and trusted environmental and social audit schemes, aimed at protecting the world's forests, has for years been knowingly misleading the public.

The subject of the criticism is the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), set up in 1993 and endorsed by global conservation organisations including the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), as well as the timber industry. It audits timber companies worldwide and claims to certify that wood and paper is produced in an environmentally and socially acceptable way.

However, the report - the result of two years' research by independent international experts, working with the environment and human rights charity Rainforest Foundation - highlights serious flaws in FSC's certification system.

In particular it claims that the FSC's authorised auditors have a vested commercial interest in certifying timber companies regardless of whether or not they actually comply with the FSC's strict requirements. It is claimed that, as a result, timber companies 'certified' under the FSC system include those that:

  • Have been implicated in gross abuses of human rights, including the torturing and shooting of local people;

  • Are logging in pristine tropical rainforest containing some of the world's most endangered wildlife species, such as the Sumatran tiger;

  • Have falsely claimed to comply with the FSC's audit requirements, such as by allowing 'uncertified' wood to be labelled with the FSC 'seal of approval'.
The report includes the results of detailed investigations of the FSC's activities in Brazil, Canada, Indonesia, Ireland, Malaysia and Thailand, and proposes that the FSC must eliminate conflicts of interest in the audit process, and cancel the contracts with all its authorised auditors.

Simon Counsell, Director, Rainforest Foundation UK, said: "We are among several independent organisations that have been informing the FSC for a number of years that there have been serious failings in its forest audit system. The report was given to the FSC in September, but there has been no response to it. Conservation groups such as the World Wide Fund for Nature should consider whether they wish to continue being associated with an organisation that is clearly misleading thepublic."

The Rainforest Foundation supports more than 30 projects, working with indigenous people in 15 tropical countries.

Commenting on the report, WWF said there was an urgent need for tools to promote forest management, and certification was an important one of these.

It said that Trading in Credibility made a number of allegations, which WWF took seriously. However, closer examination did not substantiate many of the accusations about weaknesses in the FSC system. For example, the most serious allegations made reference to human rights abuses in Teak Plantations in Indonesia in October 2002, when the operation was, in fact, decertified a year earlier.

"FSC is not perfect and we do need to look for improvements. However, we need to recognise that certification alone will not solve all forest management problems..." said Chris Elliott, Director of the Forest for Life Programme.

"WWF welcomes any genuine efforts to strengthen the system but unfortunately this report does not appear to have been written with this intent in mind. Seeking to undermine consumer confidence in the FSC label is not going to improve forest management on the ground." He added that WWF welcomes active debate on improvements of FSC.

Related links:

The Rainforest Foundation

WWF Forest for Life Programme

The Forest Stewardship Council