The timber may be certified: but is it sustainable?

Logging companies and certifying bodies differ in the way they comply or interpret compliance to forest certification standards, meaning “certified timber” may not necessarily be sourced from sustainably managed forests. Photo courtesy of J.G. Collomb, World Resources Institute.

BOGOR, Indonesia (10 May, 2011)_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.


  • http://www.symaco.nl ted wiegman symaco netherlands

    Nevertheless, we see that because of those undependent controlled certification standards (FSC and others)there is dialog and more and more control on deforestation. Therefore it is usefull to discuss the different approaches of standards. Better to talk about the made progress, than leave a situation as it was. Therefore the upgrading of forestry by certification should be emphasized positive on every manner.

  • http://aciar.gov.au/ Tony Bartlett

    Paolo, this is an important topic and good that research is being undertaken. However, I found some aspects of your blog confusing and if possible would like to read the complete report. For instance,as far as I am aware there is no international FSC standard other than the 10 principles. The operation of FSC always involves the development of a national FSC standard that articulates how these 10 principles are applied in that country. Sometimes before the national standard is agreed certification can be gained using interim standards. Also your comment that Forest Stewardship Council is unique in globally defining certification standards and accrediting certifers is incorrect. The PEFC (Program for Endorsement of Forest Certification schemes) also does this. I also don’t understand your comment that some certifiers use different (non FSC?) standards but issue FSC certificates – this does not sound right to me. Could you clarify some of these points please?

    • Manuel Guariguata

      Thank you for your comment Tony. In Cameroon it is certainly possible to certify without a national standard. Here, “interim standards” are spread across four standards developed by four different certifying bodies operating in the country. It is correct that this is an accepted practice by FSC but at the end it depends on what exactly “interim” means. In the case of Cameroon and six years after the first FSC certificate had been granted, it is not clear when the “interim” period will end. Sure enough, there are only ten 10 principles in the FSC yet certifying bodies freely interpret relevant indicators and verifiers differently if they are free to use their own (interim) standards in Cameroon.

      Regards, Manuel Guariguata

  • http://www.agriforest.ch Willem PLEINES

    Viewed from Europe, the main problems with forest certification are:
    -time consuming, high cost and litte benefit for the forest owners,
    -no regard for the origin of the wood (lack of a certificate of origin) nor for the CO2 imprint,
    -duplication with goverment regulations (forest laws are enforced in countries like Switzerland or Austria),
    -large differences between national standards in Europe, and probably also elsewhere.
    Willem Pleines, Bercher, Switzerland

  • http://aciar.gov.au/ Tony Bartlett

    Manuel – I just noticed your response to my comment, thanks for replying. On an ACIAR funded project in northern Laos we are trying to support development of an FSC certification for small farmers growing teak. The major impediment is that most of them don’t have a formal legal title yet due to the significant backlog in surveying work by the government. All the locals agree with who owns which bit of land, but for some smallholders the achievement of certification may be a hard thing to achieve. Nevertheless I agree that we should continue to encourage the development of certificataion and to ensure that appropriate standards are met if the forests are certified. My plea is for the development of a more pragmatic (and less costly) approach for smallholders in developing countries.

  • http://www.gaiacommoditas.com Bart W van Assen

    @Manuel: The article only partially identifies the root of the problem: the lack of stakeholder consultation while developing interim standards. Here in Indonesia, we now have 6 different interim standards. A recent review suggests that comparing these standards ‘is difficult’. Many of these – sometimes very general – standards are prepared by 1-2 employees during 1-2 days. Stakeholder consultation is little more than a passive announcement on internet, in some cases stakeholders have but 5 work days to reply. Personal experience suggests that the few stakeholders who bother to reply are belittled and ignored. The message behind it is clear: most CBs are NOT interested in a decent standard.

    @Tony: If there’s clear – documented – evidence of this backlog and local agreement, and the (group) manager is pro-active in addressing this, few CBs will make a problem of this lack legal “gap”. There are several group schemes (including our smallholder management scheme) that are effective and pragmatic in certifying groups of smallholders.