RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (13 July 2012)_The forestry world is currently witnessing the birth of a new coalition for change, where companies, environmental groups and governments from both the developed and developing world are all agreeing on the need to eliminate illegally logged timber from markets – and this coalition of widely diverging interests is essential for building the future of forest certification, say experts.
“Never before has the world of forest governance seen this kind of coalition,” Yale University Professor of Environmental Governance and Political Science Ben Cashore said at an event organised by the Forest Stewardship Council on the sidelines of Rio +20 in Brazil.
Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is an independent body that oversees the certification of forest products so that consumers can be sure they are responsibly managed. Since it began in 1993 (inspired by the original Rio Earth Summit) it has gradually won support from forest companies in Europe and North America – but is still struggling to certify companies operating in developing countries.
The key to certification’s success, says Ben Cashore, is support from broad ‘bootleggers and Baptists’ coalitions; so-called after the alliance that emerged during the Prohibition era in the United States between liquor smugglers and preachers who wanted – for very different reasons – to maintain the ban on alcohol.
In the forestry context in the developed world, this has meant an alliance between NGOs seeking to protect forests, and forest companies seeking to protect their bottom lines from developing country competitors less restricted by governmental standards.
In the United States, says Cashore, the forest products industry has linked with American NGOs to lobby Congress to change import legislation governing illegally harvested forest products.
“It was amazing, they went to Congress together and said, please change the law. Congress said, ‘NGOs and industry agree on something? Thank you God, this is going to be easy!’ and passed it almost overnight,” he said.
“This is sticky, this legislation is durable, because it has these coalitions of different interests supporting the same rules.”
However, for certification to have an even bigger impact over the next 20 years, Cashore says, developing country governments and firms operating in tropical forests need to also be brought into these coalitions for change.
The way to do this, he suggests, is by starting with ‘certification-light’ – labelling timber products simply as legal.
Instead of focussing on the very top, as certification has, in which you reward the best players, the focus on legality compliance weeds out the worst players, and as a result your coalition is larger – it’s any firm not doing illegal logging,” he said.
“So we have in the North, forest companies, forest associations, and environmental groups all coalescing around the idea that they ought to help Southern countries in their efforts to improve their own domestic forest governance by saying, if you don’t comply to your own domestic governance forest practices rules, you can’t export your products to our country.”
“This actually reinforces sovereignty by saying to governments, how can we help you meet your baseline legal standards.”
“We’ve got to move the bottom,” he said.
“Most companies and most NGOs and certification schemes focus on the top. You can have a bigger impact with the bottom 10 – 20 % of producers. They’re 30 – 50 % of the impacts on the ground we care about, and they have the least production to show for it.”
“So we get the biggest gain both in terms of reducing environmental impacts and increasing productivity by moving the bottom. Governments [are able to] move the bottom, so we’ve got to get governments involved here.”
Where they need to get involved, according to Cashore, is in improving the tracking of illegally-harvested forest products along often-complex global supply chains.
“If the tracking occurs, all legally-harvesting firms win. They get increased rents as the price goes up – it’s deflated now owing to the illegally harvested products – so they have an economic self interest in helping build tracking.”
Accurate tracking, says Cashore, will lay the foundations for certification’s expansion over the next 20 years.
“With a focus on legal compliance first, you then have the opportunity to embed this tracking system in ways that rewards those that are doing legal work. Once you have tracking in place, and all purchasers and consumers are paying for the tracked product through a legal verification stamp, then you pave the way for certification,” he said.
“Because then when standards increase at that point, consumers pay, not firms. And you reward those firms who are part of your labelling family, not punishing them right now as certification sometimes inadvertently does.”