In the Struggle to Make Forests Sustainable, how Effective are Verification Systems?

published on 26 July 2021
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Forest wood certification
Whether it’s durable walnut to make a table, or rich and robust oak for the beams of a home, good quality wood can fetch a high price. But thriving markets have contributed to high levels of deforestation. Certification systems seek to verify the origins of wood and make forests more sustainable. How effective have they been? We look back at the origins and impact of some of the world's major certification systems.

“Forest resources and forest lands should be sustainably managed to meet the social, economic, ecological, cultural and spiritual needs of present and future generations.” So read the Rio Earth Summit declaration in 1992. By then the world’s deforestation rate had reached 15.4 million hectares per year. The world came to realize that management of forests—and especially tropical forests, which represent half of the globe’s forest area and are sensitive to human pressures—must be carried out sustainably.

Several eco-certification initiatives for the sector had been launched prior to that milestone. One example was the Good Wood Guide, published in the mid-1980s by the NGO Friends of the Earth, which focused attention on ethically minded operators. Another was the certification program of the NGO Rainforest Alliance, launched in 1990, which identified wood from sustainable operations. 

The FSC label: setting a global standard

Following the Rio Summit, a group that included DIY and tool retailers as well as environmental NGOs such as Greenpeace, WWF and Rainforest Alliance decided to go one step further. They thought up a system by which sustainable forest management would be certified by an international trusted third party and in which the various economic, social and environmental interests would be represented. This is how in 1993, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) label was created. 

The FSC label upholds 10 principles of responsible management, including the establishment of a forest management plan, respect for the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities, regular assessment of the state of the forest area, and the maintenance of ecosystems.

See also: AFD in action to protect the Amazon

The management plans set up by each country establish a number of rules in forest concessions, from the prohibition of converting forests to other uses to the protection of certain plots of land that are home to large mammals in danger of extinction, for instance. They also specify the conditions under which forest-exploitation operations must take place: a tree too close to a river or swamp, for example, will not be felled.

Fewer harmful effects

In addition to offering consumers the guarantee that their purchase has fewer negative consequences for the planet than competing products, eco-labels provide real impact for the local people. A study conducted by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) on the Congo Basin reveals that living and working conditions and distribution of wealth are better in FSC-certified forest areas than in areas that are non-certified but do benefit from a management plan. As CIFOR observes, “Certification in the Congo Basin has been able to incite companies to make significant social progress.”

The forestry and wood sector, made up of forest owners and the lumber industry, developed its own certification system in 1999: the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification schemes, known as PEFC. Its purpose is likewise to ensure that forestry operations are economically, socially, and environmentally sound.

Both FSC and PEFC are based on voluntary participation. Certification is issued only to operators that apply for it. They also prohibit the use of GMO trees, even though they grow 20% faster. The two separate systems thus have similar goals.

A standard adapted to each country

One of the major differences between the two systems is the way in which they develop national standards. For PEFC, the generic certification standard is established at the regional or national level and then approved by the international body. In contrast, the FSC has established a generic international standard that is then adapted to each country. 

See also: Protecting Forests in Turkey: Climate change adaptation and biodiversity protection

The FSC also has an independent body that accredits audit offices around the world and performs unannounced checks on them. As for the PEFC, it ensures that a credible and viable national accreditation system is set up in each country. About 13% of the world’s forests are now eco-certified, compared to 9% 10 years ago. Of these, two-thirds are certified by the PEFC (325 million hectares) or the FSC (207 million). FSC certification is the most common type in natural tropical forests. The remaining 87% of the world’s forests are not subject to any reliable external socio-environmental management controls.

Encouraging certification

Agence Française de Développement has been providing technical and financial support for nearly 30 years to establish sustainable forest management in the Congo Basin, a geographical area that includes Cameroon, Gabon, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Republic of the Congo. It supported 33 projects in this sector between 1999 and 2015.

This support helped bring about the first FSC certifications in the region in 2005. Fourteen years later, 4.3 million hectares are FSC-certified. But there is still a long way to go, as this figure represents only 10% of the forests exploited in the Congo Basin.