How effective is forest certification?

May 12, 2014

A critical look at forest certification systems and their impacts on the world's forests...

by Steve Germishuizen 

Ozwathini small growers
Small growers from Ozwathini in the KZN midlands.

The Forest Stewardship Council turns 20-years-old and we can expect some celebration and reflection at the General Assembly in September in sunny Seville. Every three years, the GA presents the most valuable opportunity to influence the FSC, starting in the months leading up to the event, where new motions are crafted and side events arranged. At the GA members will be lobbying and voting for the interests of their country or chamber, forest type or ideology. With all this brewing it might be a fine time to take a look at forest certification from a bird's eye view.

In South Africa, certification is synonymous with the FSC, but there is another certification system with global reach; the Programme for Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC). The PEFC, which endorses any forest certification standards that meet its criteria, has certified the largest area - about 250 million hectares in 30 countries. The FSC, which sets it own Principles and Criteria and has certified about 1,265 operations totalling 180 million hectares in 81 countries. No forests in Africa have been certified under the PEFC but the Gabonese forestry standard has been endorsed by the PEFC. On the other hand, the FSC has made a start in Africa with just over 6.7 million hectares in Africa certified. FSC appears to have the greater acceptance in the market, reflected by the more than 27,000 chain of custody certificates verses the PEFC's approximately 16,000. WWF and Greenpeace publically announce that FSC is the most credible forest certification system while they remain critical of the apparent lack of rigor in the PEFC system.

The PEFC appears to be proud of the fact that it is the preferred system for small holders, particularly in Europe. More than 750,000 forest management units have been certified under the PEFC, with an average size of 335 ha, while the FSC's 1,265 certified units (as of January 2014) are very large, with average size of about 143,000 ha. There is some overlap between the systems and about 10% of the world's certified forests carry both certifications. Many companies such as Mondi and Sappi use either system, presumably depending on the market requirements or the country that they are operating in. There are a number of other smaller regionally based certification systems and many of these have been endorsed by the PEFC. It is notable that the PEFC, and most of the other systems automatically recognize FSC certification, but this is not mutual. That is, to carry the FSC logo, you have to be certified by the FSC.

Studies comparing the performance of the two systems can be found on the internet, but for now I would like to look at the impact of forest certification in general and at a geographic scale.

The FSC and PEFC are both not-for profit NGO's that have been formed to protect forests, as a response to the Rio Convention on Biological Diversity held in 1992. What are their objectives in their own words?

The PEFC states the following on their webpage: "we are committed to conserving forests and their invaluable biodiversity, and the communities and families that own, work and live in and around forests."

The Forest Stewardship Council mission is to promote environmentally sound, socially beneficial and economically prosperous management of the world's forests.

The PEFC talks about conservation and the FSC about sound management, but their strategies are largely the same. That is; third party verification of forests against broadly acceptable standards and the labelling of products in the belief that consumers will make the choice to buy labelled products. This will create a market for timber produced against a set of sustainability values – let's call it responsibly produced timber. The corollary to that is, that timber that is not responsibly produced will not find a market and these trees will be left in the forest. This will create a trade barrier blocking timber production which harms people and the environment. However, it will also block timber that is responsibly produced by operations that cannot afford to pay for the certification, such as small scale operations, but more about this later.

Forest certification has grown considerably since the first forest was certified under the FSC in 1994. The total global forest area is estimated by FAO to be 3.7 billion hectares and the total certified area is close to 10 % of that. Not bad, you might's a good start.

It becomes sobering, however, when you look at where these 380 million hectares of certified forests are situated. The pie chart below shows N. America and Europe have 87.2% of the world's certified forests. Canada alone has 175 million hectares or 46% of the certified forests of the world.

graph 1

Chart 1: Showing the distribution of the world's certified forests globally.

The tropical areas make up less than 8% of the world's certified area, whereas half the worlds forests are located in the tropical areas. Of the certified area, around half are plantations leaving less than 1% of the worlds tropical indigenous forests certified. The most recent FAO study (2011) showed that the rate of world deforestation, mainly the conversion of tropical forests to agricultural land, averaged 14.5 million hectares per year between 1990 and 2005. The net loss of forest area - in which losses of forest cover are partially offset by afforestation or natural expansion, is approximately 5 million hectares per annum. By far the greatest amount of current deforestation takes place in the tropical forests of Asia, South America and Africa. These areas are also the greatest repositories of the earth's biodiversity. According to Conservation International, of the 10 most threatened forest areas globally, 9 of them are in tropical countries.

When it comes to Africa, the situation is even more starkly illustrated. Africa has 6.7 million hectares or 1.7 % of the world's certified area and of that 2 million hectares are plantations.

Africa is suffering deforestation and forest degradation at twice the world rate, according to the United Nations Environment Programme with 90% of West African forests already wiped out. The key drivers of deforestation and degradation in Africa are clearing for agriculture, mining and use of wood for fuel. It raises the question; what impact can market driven certificaiton have when less than 1% of the timber from African forests will find their way to a 1st world, potentially certified market.

Plantations are a significant yet controversial element of the forest certification. Both major certification systems exclude the certification of recently converted natural forests to plantations. In March 2012, Plantations accounted for approximately 6% of the total area of certified forests. Currently there are more than 270 million hectares of plantations globally, almost 7% of the world's forest area and according to the FAO they supply more than 65% of the world's industrial wood supply. The contribution of plantation certification on the certification movement's primary objectives may be secondary but highly significant, in that they provide an alternative source of timber to indigenous forests.

If we revisit the objectives of certification organizations; whether a conservation or management slant, the certification is clearly not working for developing countries where the impacts on forests are highest and where the richest and most threatened biodiversity resides. It is clear that the pressures on forests in these regions are outside of the influence of a market based tool. The benefits of certification to the producers are simply not high enough to support the costs of sustainble forest management.

However the impacts on forest mangement of certified organizations is more difficult to accertain. According to the Centre of International Forest Research (CIFOR) the often-claimed environmental and social benefits of certification remain to be empirically evaluated. CIFOR has now developed a framework for evaluating these and it will be interesting to see what results emerge if the framework is implemented. The Grasslands Programme and a number of important NGOs remain convinced that certification is a powerful tool to influence forest management and that the impact on plantation forestry in South Africa in particular has been positive.

In order to demonstrate that a product is from a certified source each processor or link in the marketing chain must have a chain of custody certidicate. When looking at the global distribution of Chain of Custody certificates, the Northern Hemisphere bias is further demonstrated. Chart 2 shows the percentage of Chain of Custody certificates per region. From this it is clear that the key driver of certification is the European market, however in recent years there has been a marked increase in CoC's from Japan and China. With over 3,500 certificates, China is now the country with the most Chain of Custody Certificates.

graph 2

Chart 2: % Chain of custody certificates under FSC and PEFC by region.

It is clear that forest certification and eco-labelling in general has become large business globally. By all accounts the FSC and PEFC are fairly lean organizations and most of the work is done by the certification bodies that are contracted by companies to do the auditing. There are now over 43,000 Chain of Custory certificates and 380 million hectares of forestry land that have to be audited annually. A rough estimate of the global bill for all this auditing, generated from the number of certificates that need to be monitored is about R 2.5 billion. More difficult to estimate is the number of consultants that have been hired to navigate the complex certification requirements.

One of the biggest challenges facing the certification movement globally is the certification of small holders. This problem is well illustrated in South Africa where over 76% of the plantation estate is owned and managed by large companies and the government, who are categorized as large-scale growers. Over 95% of this area is certified to the FSC requirements, under 13 certificates. Approximately 20% of SA's forestry land is owned and managed by commercial farmers; typically family owned farming operations with between 100 and 5,000 hectares under trees. These growers are classified as medium-scale growers. Less than 30% of this area is certified under four group certification schemes. The average plantation area of farms certified under Group Schemes is approximately 1,000 hectares, a relatively big plantation area for private ownership.

Less than 4% of forestry land is managed by rural communities and land reform beneficiaries and are categorized as small-scale timber growers. It is estimated that there are over 25,000 of these plantation owners supplying larger companies, cooperatives and processors none of which have been certified.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel. The FSC is well aware of the issues facing Africa and has shown commitment by investing in the appointment of an Africa Regional Director, Chris Burchmore, with sub-regional directors for Southern Africa, East Africa and the Congo basin. Furthermore, currently the FSC has funded a project in South Africa to examine and devise solutions to the certification of small holders. As a measure of the importance of the issue, NCT, Sappi, Mondi, TWK and FSA are all chipping in. It is also exciting that the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), a global conservation organization has committed $50,000 to piloting innovative certification approaches in the Ozwathini area in the KZN Midlands. So as the FSC General Assembly approaches, those in position to make a difference, should become aware of the issues and take every opportunity to participate and watch this space for updates on the project's progress.


Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram