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Timber certification and the pursuit of credible claims

B. Cabarle and A. Ramos de Freitas

Bruce Cabarle and Amantino Ramos de Freitas are, respectively, Chairman and Treasurer of the Forest Stewardship Council.

Today's public concern for the fate of the world's forests is truly global. Charges of mismanagement and worries about the environmental and social impacts of timber harvesting are now common to boreal, temperate and tropical regions. During the last decade, international efforts of unprecedented magnitude were launched to address the forest crisis: the Tropical Forests Action Programme (TFAP), the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO), the Forest Principles of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), the Helsinki and Montreal processes, consumer boycotts, government-imposed logging bans, industry-led efforts through the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Target 1995 Group, and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). However, recent trends indicate drastic reductions in public funding and government capacity to direct free-trade economies and private sector investments towards sustainable development objectives.

In the forest products trade, this has led to a proliferation of timber certification schemes and ecolabels designed to assure consumers and major retailers that their purchases of wood products stem from sustainable sources. However, it is often questionable what is being certified, according to whose standards, and by whom. A 1991 survey conducted by WWF on the United Kingdom's wood retail market found over 600 different claims of sustainability. On further inquiry, only three companies were able and willing to substantiate their claims based on credible standards or verification processes. The need for a credible and accountable framework for the international harmonization of timber certification programmes is indisputable.

Independent and voluntary certification programmes currently offer the greatest assurance to consumers that they are not a victim of "green washing". A recent survey conducted by Earth Summit Watch of 31 country delegations during the April 1995 sessions of the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) revealed that two-thirds supported the development of independent and voluntary programmes for timber certification, and wood procurement policies that favour purchases from independently certified sources. Voluntary programmes are meant to be complementary to traditional regulatory frameworks by using market incentives to encourage management improvements above the minimum level required by law. They should also be more directly accountable to the public than government- or industry-controlled programmes. Independence means that the certifier and the producer do not share equity or governing bodies. Transparency is achieved through checks on and balances in decisions that make use of public consultations, peer review mechanisms, public disclosure of information and the right to appeal.

The Forest Stewardship Council is the first organization to forge an international consensus on the content and protocols for voluntary, independent timber certification programmes. FSC's mission is to accredit certifiers on a voluntary basis and to foster the development of national certification standards. FSC emerged from a series of public consultations that were initiated in 1990 and that included formal hearings in Malaysia, Sweden, Peru, the United States and six other countries regarding the feasibility of timber certification and how to define "well managed" in measurable terms. Additional information was obtained through hundreds of responses to an FSC questionnaire which was distributed worldwide. FSC-sponsored working groups comprising economic, environmental and social representatives from both North and South were convened several times to revise the FSC discussion documents based on the information received. For example, FSC's Principles and Criteria for Natural Forest Management were revised nine times during a four-year period before being overwhelmingly approved by a formal vote in 1994.

The Forest Stewardship Council is governed by a General Assembly and a Board of Directors composed of economic, environmental and social interests from both North and South. Membership is open to a broad range of interest groups committed to sustainable forest management. No other certification initiative to date has encompassed such a broad range of countries and stakeholders - including producers, traders, retailers, consumer groups, indigenous peoples and environmentalists - or currently enjoys as much public acceptance as FSC.

A sound certification programme needs to encompass measures of both management performance and systems. Performance standards enable the measurement of progress within a fixed time frame towards specific sustainability objectives. Systems standards define the processes that need to be in place to ensure continual improvement towards specified sustainability objectives. Performance standards are particularly important for activities whose long-term impacts on the forest ecosystem are uncertain because of an incomplete understanding of how the ecosystem functions, or whose components are most sensitive. This is true for such areas as biological diversity or landscape ecology concerns. Systems standards are important for management activities for which the impact on ability to manage the forest ecosystem is understood. Examples are calculation of the annual allowable cut, logger education programmes that result in reduced damage to the residual vegetation, or community outreach programmes that provide for public input and information on management activities. An exclusive focus on performance standards will not ensure continuous improvement of a management system. Likewise, verifying the simple existence of management systems believed to lead towards sustainability says nothing of their effectiveness. The FSC framework is the only certification scheme that recognizes the need for both performance and system standards.

The FSC framework recognizes that the realities and needs of forest management change between countries and regions. As such, FSC encourages the translation of the Principles and Criteria into standards tailored to measure site-specific indicators of economic, environmental and social performance. This also applies for structural processes, such as programmes for monitoring environmental and social impacts, public consultation and conflict resolution. FSC supports the development of such standards though multistakeholder working groups and public consultations that ensure input from a broad range of interests. Indeed, such processes are under way in such diverse countries as Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Costa Rica, Indonesia, Mexico, Sweden, the United Kingdom and parts of the United States.

Forest management has long been hindered by the inability of producers and consumers to communicate their needs and concerns to one another. Likewise, there are few organizations where different interests can negotiate their values for forest management and then put them into practice outside courtrooms or the mass media. We at FSC believe that voluntary and independent timber certification programmes offer promising and practical alternatives to define what good forest management is and to put it into practice. Our membership is open and we welcome constructive consideration from all interested parties.

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