Timber Certification Tainted, Forest Group Alleges

LONDON, England, November 20, 2002 (ENS) - The international body created to certify responsible forestry management has for years been knowingly "misleading" the public according to a new report released today by the Rainforest Foundation.

The report finds serious flaws in the certification system used by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which is responsible for auditing timber companies worldwide and for certifying that wood and paper is produced in an environmentally and socially acceptable way.

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Certifier from Canada's Silva Forest Foundation examines a tree. Silva is not accused of wrong-doing in the report. (Photo courtesy SFF)
It charges that the FSC has allowed the certification of timber companies that have been implicated in human rights abuses and logging in tropical rainforests that contain endangered species, as well as companies that have falsely claimed to comply with FSC's audit requirements.

The Forest Stewardship Council at once rejected the claim that its actions have allowed certification of parties that have engaged in human right abuses or that its audit process is rife with conflicts of interest.

According to the report, "Trading in Credibility: The Myth and Reality of the Forest Stewardship Council," FSC's authorized auditors have a vested commercial interest in certifying timber companies, regardless of whether or not they comply with the body's strict requirements.

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Simon Counsell, director of Rainforest Foundation UK (Photo courtesy Rainforest Foundation)
"We are among several independent organizations that have been informing the FSC for a number of years that there have been serious failings in its forest audit system," said Simon Counsell, director of Rainforest Foundation UK and the report's co-author.

"Conservation groups such as the World Wide Fund for Nature should consider whether they wish to continue being associated with an organization that it is clearly misleading the public," Counsell said.

FSC disputed the findings of the report and expressed confidence in its model of operation.

"While we welcome the Rainforest Foundation report for its extensive research, we find that it cites many cases that have long been solved and in some cases major rule changes in FSC have resulted," said FSC spokesperson Carolina Hoyas.

The Forest Stewardship Council is tasked with setting standards for the independent auditing of forestry operations and companies, and allowing its logo to be used as a seal of approval on wood and paper products that come from certified forests.

Products labeled with the FSC logo are supposed to be from "environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial and economically viable" sources.

The organization was set up in 1993 by environmental and industry organizations from some 25 countries. FSC's 12 accredited forest certification bodies operate certification schemes that have certified some 29 million hectares (71.66 acres) of managed forests and have issued some 2,200 chain of custody certificates worldwide.

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This Forest Stewardship Council trademark can be placed on the products of forest operations that are issued a certificate for conforming to FSC standards. (Photo courtesy FSC)
The organization's "checkmark and tree" trademark appears on more than 10,000 products sold around the world. FSC is endorsed by global conservation organizations including the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the Sierra Club and the Nature Conservancy, as well as the timber industry. WWF supports the Forest Stewardship Council as the "only credible forest certification system."

The report is the result of two years of research by independent international experts working with the Rainforest Foundation. It includes the results of investigations into the FSC's activities in Brazil, Canada, Indonesia, Ireland, Malaysia and Thailand.

The report will be presented to the Forest Stewardship Council at its annual meeting in Mexico on November 22. It calls for fundamental reforms to re-establish credibility and reassure the public, including the elimination of conflicts of interest in the audit process, as well as the cancellation of contracts with all its authorized auditors.

The result of the FSC's unwillingness or inability to control its auditors, the report found, has led to certification for timber companies that have been implicated in human rights abuses and are logging within pristine tropical rainforest containing endangered wildlife.

It has also enabled companies to falsely claim to comply with FSC's audit requirements, including the practice of allowing uncertified wood to be labeled with the FSC seal of approval.

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Logs bearing the Forest Stewardship Council certifying trademark (Photo courtesy WWF)
The report found "inherent weaknesses" in the operational model of the FSC. This is where certification bodies function as intermediaries between the FSC and forest managers. As these parties have direct economic relations, the mechanism is flawed, the report found, and consumers of FSC labeled products have been misled about the state of their forests of origin.

"Vested corporate interest in ensuring successful outcomes to certification assessments has resulted in certifiers granting certificates to forest managers who are clearly in serious breach of both the FSC Principles & Criteria and the certifiers' own assessment requirements," wrote Counsell and fellow coauthor Kim Terje Loraas.

The report also criticized the FSC's "fast growth strategy," which it finds has "promoted certification of non-compliant forest managers, undermined multi-stakeholder processes, and disregarded the policy context in targeted countries."

Problems with the body's chain of custody system are also detailed in the report. It does not require the certification of wholesalers and retailers, and the chain of custody is difficult to independently verify, the report found.

Key stakeholders are effectively excluded from many FSC processes, Counsell and his coauthors found. The influence of certification bodies and commercial clients has grown, they learned, while local communities and indigenous people are marginalized in FSC's decisionmaking process.

"FSC takes these issues extremely seriously, will immediately follow up on any such allegation and take all steps necessary to ensure that entities involved in human rights abuses have no possibility of participating directly or indirectly in FSC's systems," Hoyas said. "Rainforest Foundation's claim to this effect is false."

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Brazilian forest certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (Photo courtesy Floresteca Agroflorestal Ltda.)
Certification bodies, Hoyas explained, are "reimbursed for the effort whether a certificate is awarded or denied."

"The FSC is currently funded through donations from private and public donors and independent of the number of certifications it issues," Hoyas said.

The organization also took issue with the finding that it has allowed certification of timber companies logging in areas containing endangered wildlife. The case the Rainforest Foundation cites here refers to activities by PT Diamond Raya in Indonesia that FSC said were raised more than a year ago.

"Several of their concerns were found to be valid by the respective certification body, and it in turn required PT Diamond Raya to take comprehensive action," Hoyas said.

"However, concerns over tigers were not upheld as repeated audits have found evidence that wildlife, including tigers, are actually moving into the certified area as a result of improved forest management in the certified area," she said.

FSC also disputed Counsell's statement that the report "was given to the FSC in September, but there has been no response to it."

According to FSC, representatives from the Rainforest Foundation engaged the FCS Board of Directors in September and expressed that they were very encouraged with the constructive nature of the discussions.

"[We] welcome the research conducted and invite the Rainforest Foundation to substantiate their proposals and seek the dialogue with the FSC membership," Hoyas said.

FSC's upcoming annual meeting will be held from November 22 to 26 at the organization's headquarters in Oaxaca, Mexico.

The Rainforest Foundation report can be found at: www.rainforestfoundationuk.org/FSC/FSCReport.asp.

The Forest Stewardship Council is online at: www.fscoax.org