Current perspectives of sustainable forest management and timber certification

Hooi Chiew Thang 1


One of the major challenges in forest management is the sustainability of the resource itself, while the challenge for the conservation of biological diversity is not to `halt deforestation' but to secure a minimum set of strategically located primary forests in representative areas having high diversity and endemism. In addition to this, mechanisms and methodologies for valuation of the many diverse goods and services that the forest provides, especially those that are not readily traded in the marketplace, need to be further developed.

During the last two decades timber certification has not had a significant impact on the loss of tropical forests. In addition, timber certification is expensive and consumers in Europe and the United States of America are not willing to pay more for certified products.

Although timber certification is expected to promote economic and social equity, many small farmers and producers often find it too costly and are unable to access the capital, information and markets that certification is meant to offer. Furthermore, government involvement in timber certification is necessary as many of the timber certification schemes are yet to be self-financing and forest lands in many developing countries are owned by governments.

Timber certification's efficiency in promoting sustainable forest management is still subject to considerable debate at international level. At best, it has created greater awareness among forest managers and the many stakeholders on the need to balance protection and conservation of forest resources with economic uses.

There is also a need for a set of internationally agreed criteria and indicators for assessing sustainable forest management practices and timber certification, or at the very least, an international framework for their mutual recognition. Further research in the use of criteria and indicators for assessing sustainable forest management and in certification is also necessary, including the link between these and actual improvements in sustainable forest management.


Sustainable forest management (SFM) is a topical issue, not just for resource managers but also for people from all walks of life. This is not surprising, as SFM has been identified as essential to achieving sustainable development and as a means to eradicate poverty, reduce deforestation and the loss of biological diversity, arrest land and resource degradation, enhance food security, and increase access to safe drinking water and affordable energy.

It was not until the late 1970s that the necessity to conserve and manage the world's forests was recognized in the overall context of protecting the global environment. By the latter half of the 1990s, demands were made for criteria and indicators to be used to assess the level of forest sustainability and through timber certification.

Sustainable forest management

Since the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992, the major challenges facing SFM include the need to reduce deforestation and forest degradation through ensuring the sustainability of forest resources, to protect and conserve biological diversity and ensure the sustainable use of the genetic resources, and to enhance the full valuation of forest goods and services.

Resource sustainability

Although everyone agrees that sustainability of the forest resource is of paramount importance to satisfy the needs of the present and future generations, it is not always clear what this means in terms of forest management at the field level. Clarifying this issue through the application of criteria and indicators of sustainability is a small but important step towards achieving SFM. This, together with management prescriptions and performance standards would create a sound basis for assessing SFM at the operational level and provide a link to voluntary timber certification.

The current international debate on criteria and indicators has also convinced many of the environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs) that were totally opposed to harvesting the natural forest just a few years ago that environmental and amenity values of forest can be maintained when timber is harvested. Similarly, forestry services, industries and forest owners have recognized that it is necessary and reasonable to modify and adapt forest harvesting practices to accommodate the need for environmental conservation. The important question is: `what obstacles remain, and how can they be overcome?'

In this context, the traditional system of sustained-yield management, which is based on the concept of an equilibrium between growth and harvest that can be sustained in perpetuity, will have to be replaced by a new paradigm of multi-resource forest management, which involves the simultaneous production of forest goods and services, and is compatible with the need to preserve the forest ecosystem and the environment.

A strong case has also been made for the further refinement of reduced-impact logging (RIL) technologies for application in the extensive areas of the tropics where timber production is still a viable option, as it has often been said that the construction of forest roads during timber-harvesting operations constitutes a major part of the total environmental degradation.

However, in many developing countries, forest roads that are properly designed, constructed according to environmentally sound engineering practices and well maintained often form part of the planned network of public roads that would provide convenient low-cost access to forest products, especially in rural areas, as well as serve the needs for forest management, conservation and protection. The revenue generated from the harvested forest products, notably industrial timber, would provide the much needed resources to enhance SFM in the long term. Thus, the challenge is to construct forest roads that minimize adverse environmental impacts and safeguard the productivity of the site, especially during forest harvesting.

In the coming years, much more attention will have to be paid to the importance of non-wood forest products as they are crucial for the rural economy of many developing countries in meeting subsistence and cultural needs, as well as in providing gainful employment and supplementing income. Emphasis should also be accorded to watershed management in order to enhance food production in high-yield areas, and to the review of current management practices so as to minimize the destructive nature and extent of wildfires on forests, which have adverse impacts on biological diversity, age-class distribution and sustainability.

Resource conservation

Recent surveys on a global basis suggest that the current rate of species loss is high. One estimate has concluded that the continuation of current deforestation rates in tropical forest will lead to the loss of approximately 25% of the world's plant species in the next 20 years (IUCN et al., 1990). While depending on the assumptions used, it may eliminate between 5 and 15% of species by the year 2020 (WRI, 1989). As such, the rapid loss of biological diversity of tropical forest has become the subject of increasing national and international concern.

Hence, conservation of biological diversity in forest ecosystems requires some hard decisions from policy-makers. Choices will have to be made to prioritize one habitat or species over another. In some cases, long-term conservation strategies may also have to include the rehabilitation and the setting aside of primary forests. Mangroves and coastal forest ecosystems should also be given special attention as they are of major importance in the functioning of important life processes.

The challenge for biological conservation, therefore, is not to `halt deforestation' but to secure a minimum set of strategically located primary forests in representative areas with high diversity and endemism. The areas surrounding the biological reserves should also be simultaneously managed to meet social and economic goals. Similarly, in production forests, it is pertinent to identify `keystone' species or other components of special ecological value for protection and conservation.

Resource valuation

Currently, many ecologists and economists believe that the world's forests have not been fully valued in economic terms. In this context, current economic valuation of forest resources, based on the monetary costs of extraction and distribution, has often resulted in inadequate incentives for sustainable resource use, which in turn induce over-consumption of forest products and environmental degradation. Hence, the system of incentives and penalties will have to be re-examined and reoriented to reflect the full costs of forest goods and services, including environmental costs. The internalization of environmental costs will dispel the assumption that the environment is a free commodity.

There is, therefore, a need to further develop mechanisms and methodologies for valuation of the many diverse goods and services that the forest provides, especially those that are not readily traded in the markets. Some of these include watershed protection, carbon sequestration and the conservation of biological diversity. The full valuation of forest goods and services would yield surpluses for countries to invest in and achieve SFM.

Timber certification

Timber certification was proposed by ENGOs in the early 1980s as a means to address the destruction and loss of tropical forests. With continued pressure from ENGOs and growing competition among forest products and from non-wood substitutes, the focus on timber certification has expanded to also cover non-tropical forests and timber and timber products.

In January 2002, only an estimated 109 million ha or 2.8% of the world's forests have been certified through international or regional schemes such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or the Pan-European Forest Certification Council (PEFC), as well as national schemes, for example those of Finland, Sweden, Norway, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brazil (ITTO, 2002). However, almost 92% of all certified forests worldwide are located in temperate, industrialized countries that are already well managed or nearly so, as they have the financial and technological means as well as the capacity, to implement sound management practices. This is not the case in developing countries in the tropics, which only account for about 8% of certified forests.

Strengths and weaknesses

It is envisaged that through timber certification consumers would be able to discriminate between timbers emanating from sustainably managed sources and those derived from destructive or `unsustainable' sources. In theory, this would have the advantage of providing timber producers with an incentive to improve forest management practices, comply with agreed standards, gain certification and sell products at a premium price, assuming that consumers are prepared to pay a higher price for a `green' product (Counsell and Loraas, 2002). This could also enable them to increase or at least protect their market share and avoid market restrictions on their products.

Recent estimates on global forest cover by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO, 2001) indicate that between 1990 and 2000, the annual loss of natural forests in the tropics, where most of the deforestation is occurring, was 15.2 million ha. Although this figure was lower than the 15.5 million ha recorded for the period 1980-1990, it is evident that there was no significant reduction in the loss of tropical forests, despite some changes in definitions, methodology and updated inventory information used in the different assessments. Hence, timber certification has not had an impact on the loss of tropical forests in the last two decades.

In general, most timber certification schemes share a considerable degree of commonality between them. Although the grouping of indicators within individual criteria may differ from one scheme to another, the criteria agreed upon are conceptually very similar, covering policy, legal and institutional frameworks, extent of forest resources, forest health and condition, biological diversity, protective and productive functions, and the socio-economic benefits of forests. However, due to the heterogeneity of local conditions, threshold values and other performance standards required in timber certification schemes do differ and are best developed through a participatory process, taking into account existing standards in the country or region.

Concerns have been expressed that timber certification may give consumers the impression that unlabelled products, including those that have yet to be assessed, have been produced in an environmentally unsustainable way. It should also be noted that the total area of well managed forests is not only limited to areas that have been certified. Many uncertified forests, including those managed for timber production, may also be under SFM practices. In fact, if incentives to subscribe to timber certification were strong enough, importing countries would not have to resort to unilateral actions discriminating against imports of timber from unsustainable sources.

In addition, timber certification is expensive, as a study conducted in Malaysia has shown. The initial costs required to improve forest harvesting operations, as compared to current practices, would increase by US$65.05 or 62.5% per ha (Ahmad Fauzi et al., 2002), while the expected long-term gains from reduced post-harvesting activities have yet to be proven. In this connection, the success of timber certification introduced on a voluntary basis will depend on whether consumers are willing to pay more (`green premium') for timber products produced from sustainably managed sources.

However, according to Solberg (Solberg, 2003), consumers in Europe are not very willing to pay more for forest products emanating from certified forests. This is also true for the United States of America where 81% of companies that own and manage forest lands and 70% of companies that manufacture and sell certified products, but play no role in the management of forest lands, are sceptical that any premium will emerge (Auld, Cashore and Newsom, 2003). Hence, increased production costs may not be readily passed to the consumer without a reduction in consumption, although there are some market segments where willingness to pay a price premium could be observed and be exploited by the trade.

A number of forest owners and firms are currently undertaking timber certification or taking a phased approach to certification, especially in developing countries, as a way of demonstrating the quality of their forest management and to consolidate their competitive edge, reputation and the appearance of `good citizenship' in an increasingly uncertain global marketplace, even if it means sacrificing some of their autonomy (Sasser, 2003).

As timber certification is an instrument used to confirm the achievement of certain predetermined performance standards of forest management in a given forest area at a given point in time, the granting of certificates is in reality based on the expectation that management activities that ensure that the forest is sustainably managed would be undertaken throughout the rotation of the forest stand, which may not be the case. At the extreme, forest owners could harvest all the certified forests and sell every piece of the timber and lose the certificate after the money has been earned and the certificate is no longer needed. Hence, government policies and legislation have to be in place and enforced to ensure that forest owners are committed to long-term forest sustainability.

Government involvement is also necessitated by the financial requirements of timber certification schemes, because most of these schemes are yet to be self-financing and in many developing countries forest lands are owned by governments. Besides, governments are held accountable for the livelihood and well-being of their people, while timber certification institutions are not.

Unresolved issues

The current proliferation of timber certification schemes may create problems for timber-producing countries, especially those that are export-oriented. Criteria and indicators based on the environmental conditions and needs of the importing country may be environmentally inappropriate, given the local conditions in the country of production. Furthermore, timber certification schemes using different sets of criteria and indicators to define and assess SFM have exacerbated the need for a set of internationally agreed criteria and indicators for assessing SFM practices at the forest management unit level, taking into account the different levels of socio-economic development of countries and their existing cultural and traditional values, or at the very least, an international framework for their mutual recognition (Thang, 2003).

Although timber certification is expected to promote economic and social equity, and in particular corporate social responsibility, by including governance by social and indigenous people's groups, as well as trade unions in forest management decision-making, at the same time timber certification appears to work against that goal. The small farmers and producers often find certification too costly, and they are unable to access the capital, information and the markets that certification is meant to offer. Many poorer countries are also finding this discriminatory.

Vested corporate interest in ensuring successful outcomes from timber certification may also result in certification institutions granting certificates to firms that have yet to fully achieve the required performance standards for SFM. However, the ability to manipulate the certification institutions and to use that certification institution to grant the certificate will depend on how much power a firm has and whether it can distinguish itself from its competitors in the marketplace. Similarly, certification institutions have a vested interest in sustaining and expanding their businesses and because of competition among them, some are actively discrediting their competitors and even go as far as to guarantee certification ex ante in order to obtain timber certification contracts (de Camino and Alfaro, 1998).

Certification schemes should further emphasize the social aspect of production, such as fair wages and decent working conditions, the production and sustainability of non-wood forest products, and the certification of carbon sequestered by forests to be traded, for example under the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.


There is no `magic bullet' of universally applicable forest management practices that can be uniformly applied to ensure forest sustainability, as the definition of sustainable may vary with time and space as society's demands for forest goods and services change. Optimizing the various values to be derived from forests requires the conventional management unit to be managed in the context of the broader landscape. This remains one of the most important challenges for forest managers today in their quest to attain SFM.

The efficiency of timber certification as an instrument to promote SFM is still subject to considerable debate at international level. At best, the application of timber certification in assessing SFM has created greater awareness among forest managers of their social responsibility to minimize the loss of biological diversity and to protect the environment.

Furthermore, the development of performance standards, including criteria and indicators and timber certification through multi-stakeholder dialogues, has enhanced understanding among the many interested parties who are concerned with the sustainability of forest resources, especially the ENGOs, on the need to balance protection and conservation with economic uses. SFM is not the sum of ecological, social and economic sustainability, but rather their product.

The current acceptance of timber certification by over 30 countries worldwide, which are working on or have completed national certification standards or schemes, may have more to do with their desire to maintain existing market shares or to increase market access, especially to the importing countries in Western Europe and to a lesser extent the United States of America. However, some major timber markets have yet to adopt any timber certification scheme, such as China, which is still involved in adapting internationally and regionally agreed criteria and indicators for assessing SFM practices.

The open, transparent and ever-improving process of using criteria and indicators in assessing SFM and timber certification will need further research into the long-term sustainability of the forest resources, as well as the link between this process and actual substantive improvements in sustainable management, because, in reality, timber certification institutions do not currently certify that a management unit is sustainable, but that the predetermined management standards have been met.


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1 Deputy Director-General of Forestry (Planning and Development), Forestry Department Headquarters, Peninsular Malaysia, Jalan Sultan Salahuddin, 50660 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. [email protected]