When we think of timber from lush, tropical forests, it conjures up images of valuable old-growth trees pillaged by logging companies and illegal timber mafias, ignoring the plight of wildlife and local communities.
But tropical timber does not have to be bad, some experts say.
Tropical wood forms an integral part of many of our daily-use products, like furniture, toilet paper, flooring, construction, and packaging material. And this important resource can be harvested from forests responsibly and sustainably, experts say, ensuring that we meet our future wood needs while conserving forests.
“When you speak about tropical forests with anybody, my mom or whoever, it’s always corruption, it’s always blood, it’s always stealing, it’s always dirty. Nobody wants tropical timber anymore,” Paolo Cerutti, a senior scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) who has been working on sustainable forest management in sub-Saharan Africa, told Mongabay. “But that is bad because we can harvest the forest in a way that is clean and proper and sustainable.”
It is this need for “clean” timber that gave birth to the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) — a voluntary, worldwide certification program formed in 1993 by a group of environmentalists, indigenous groups, human rights organizations, and timber users and traders. The FSC, headquartered in Bonn, Germany, hopes to change the way forests are managed.
What is the Forest Stewardship Council?
The FSC is a certification program that works by laying down a series of standards to guide logging companies. If these standards are diligently followed, the FSC says that the companies will see better economic returns for their products while also being good for the environment, workers, and local communities.
The FSC logo — a green checkmark and tree — aims to assure consumers that the certified wood products have been tracked throughout their supply chains and are guaranteed to come from responsibly managed forests independently monitored by credible third party auditors.
“In the tropics, where illegal harvest and degradation are widespread, FSC represents the single-best tool that exists today to conserve tropical forests while also offering economic opportunities to the myriad landowners, especially communities and smallholders, working responsibly in those regions,” Corey Brinkema, president of FSC-US, told Mongabay.
Today, there are more than 50 certification schemes relating to the management of forests, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Of these, the FSC is the fastest growing scheme in terms of certified area added annually.
Between 2012 and 2017, nearly 50 million hectares (123.5 million acres) of forest — an area roughly the size of Sweden — was newly certified by the FSC. As of September 2017, about 198 million hectares (489 million acres) of forests are being managed according to FSC standards across 84 countries. The bulk of these FSC-certified forests (about 83 percent) lie in Europe and North America. The tropics — Asia, Africa, and Latin America — account for 16 percent of FSC-certified areas.
FSC certification is not only expanding rapidly, but is also one of the most respected forest certification schemes out there.
The international conservation NGO World Wildlife Fund (WWF), a founding member of FSC, considers the certification program to be “the best certification system to ensure environmentally responsible, socially beneficial and economically viable management of forests.”
Catharine Grant of Greenpeace, another environmental NGO that is a founding member of the FSC, told Mongabay: “A 100 percent FSC-certified forest management system is the only system that has stringent social and environmental requirements when implemented correctly.”
But is FSC certification really effective? Has the certification scheme delivered the promises it set out to realize? To find some answers, we reviewed 40 studies that looked at the impacts of forest certification and talked to six experts (both independent researchers and experts within the FSC).
State of science on FSC certification
The scientific literature on FSC certification’s impacts is currently poor.
Very few studies directly measure the effectiveness of FSC certification. And many of these are biased by design or lack methodological rigor to prove causation. Very few make appropriate comparisons — simply comparing an FSC-certified forest with a non-certified forest, or comparing a forest before and after certification, is not enough to tell us if the changes we see are truly because of certification. The changes could be due to other factors that may have come into play since the forest was certified. Such studies can still show that certification was associated with various outcomes, but not that certification truly caused them. So the findings of these studies must be interpreted accordingly, as we have done.
For example, a reduced deforestation rate in an FSC-certified forest compared to a non-certified forest could be because of a number of reasons: it could be due to logging operation changes brought about by certification, due to the forest’s remote location, or simply because the logging company was already relatively environmentally friendly and may have had eco-friendly logging practices in place even without certification.
“This inability to demonstrate the extent to which changes on the ground have been due to FSC certification adoption is a major weakness,” Claudia Romero, a researcher at the University of Florida, told Mongabay.
Then there is the problem of connecting the dots. There are individual case studies on FSC spread across continents. But it is nearly impossible to average their results and come up with a unified conclusion about the effectiveness of certification.
“And that’s a big problem,” Cerutti said. “It is very difficult to come up with a clear, generalizable message that can cover at least a continent or an entire sub-region.”
Time is another shortcoming. Almost all the studies we reviewed have looked at FSC certification’s impacts over short time scales of one to five years. But certification’s intended impacts are multiple — higher profits, better resources for local communities, improved habitat for wildlife — and could show up in a certified forest only after several years of assiduously implementing FSC’s standards. Even though the FSC has been around for nearly 25 years, we found no studies that had looked at the long-term impacts of FSC certification.
How we reviewed available evidence
To build our evidence base, we targeted studies that specifically compared two different forest management regimes: certified forests with non-certified, conventionally logged forests in the tropics. We could find only 13 studies that fit our criteria. So we also included 27 studies that compared the effects of managing a forest under Reduced Impact Logging (RIL) standards with those of managing a forest conventionally. According to several scientific studies and communication with a number of experts, most FSC-certified forests appear to use RIL (a set of logging guidelines that experts believe leads to much lower damage in timber concessions).
FSC certification can be thought of as a toolbox with multiple tools for reducing environmental degradation. RIL is one of these tools. RIL is also currently one of the only tools that has been widely studied, and even so the studies are sparse. Here we have investigated the effects of both FSC certification, and RIL, arguably its most important and best-studied tool.
Overall, out of the several hundred studies we reviewed, we selected 40 of the most relevant peer-reviewed scientific studies focusing on FSC certification or RIL in tropical forests. These studies were highly variable in how they were conducted — they followed different methodologies, measured different outcomes in a variety of ways, and had different sample sizes, for example. So we could only consistently extract information on whether certification or RIL was better than, the same as, or worse than conventional forest management. Moreover, only a minority of studies could suggest causation; whereas the majority could only demonstrate a correlation between the forest management regime and outcomes. (These differences are reflected in the infographic below, through the “Select type of evidence” menu option.)
For detailed methodology, click here. To view the infographic on the evidence we collected, scroll down or click here.
A logging road cuts through a tropical forest in Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Is forest certification better for the environment?
Yes, mostly. In general, forests under FSC certification or RIL seem to be better for the environment than a conventionally managed ones.
Logging changes a tropical forest in many ways: as individual trees are extracted, tree cover can decrease; logging not only removes standing stocks of trees but also often damages surrounding, non-target trees; loggers have to build road networks to haul wood out, which can fragment forests; these road networks can make illegal hunting or logging easier; and with increased disturbance in the forests, species of wild animals and plants can disappear.
Tropical forests logged according to FSC or RIL standards seem to perform better on many of the above outcomes.
In an RIL-managed forest, ground or soil disturbance due to the use heavy machinery is likely to be lower, for example, allowing greater forest regeneration in the future. These forests also tend to have fewer roads and trails, have lower damage to non-target trees, and store more carbon in their tree biomass (because of careful logging and fewer damaged trees).
These forests have lower loss of canopy than conventionally logged concessions (tropical forest canopies, or the network of tree crowns, are home to rich biodiversity and influence the amount of light that penetrates into the forests and also affects the micro-climates inside). Tropical forests managed under RIL guidelines also tend to have more animal and plant species. One meta-analysis of 41 studies found that RIL-managed forests had smaller changes in numbers of bird, arthropod, and mammal (especially bat) species than conventionally logged ones.
However, very few studies could point to whether certification actually caused these positive outcomes. Instead, the positive changes seen in certified forests could be due to preexisting conditions, or because responsible forest managers may be more likely to try to get FSC-certified in the first place.
These positive changes could also be due to improved harvesting techniques under FSC or RIL management, experts say.
For instance, FSC certification and RIL guidelines require that loggers map and create an inventory of trees in the concession, harvest only specific timber tree species and not cut indiscriminately. Under these management regimes, logging crews tend to be better trained, taking care to plan and minimize collateral damage of non-targeted, neighboring trees. Crews are also expected to carefully plan roads and trails to minimize ground disturbance by heavy equipment. Lower overall disturbance could be slowing down loss of biodiversity.
These changes look encouraging. But one of the key motivations behind creating the FSC was to stem tropical deforestation. The evidence is sparse on that. Only a handful of studies have looked at whether certification is associated with reduced deforestation, and the results are mixed and unclear.
A recent study in Mexico, for example, compared 64 FSC-certified forest units with non-certified ones and found no difference in deforestation rates. This could either mean that FSC certification has not reduced deforestation, or, as the researchers point out, they were unable to measure the potential impacts of certification on forest loss.
Another study in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo, found that forests that were FSC-certified had slightly lower deforestation rates compared to non-certified timber concessions between 2000 and 2008. But certified forests also had more “holes” in the canopy (or greater degradation) created by small clearings within the forests. A few other studies have found only minor reductions in deforestation rates in certified forests.
Furthermore, while these studies tell us how certification may affect deforestation rates over short time spans, there is no research to tell us the fate of certified forests over the long run.
For example, a certified logging company could continue to preserve a forest as a forest and keep managing it well. Or it could give up its concession’s lease and sell it off to another company planning to bring in a more profitable industry like an oil palm plantation. Or it could simply give up its certificate and fall back to environmentally harmful logging practices.
For other environmental outcomes of certification — like changes in illegal hunting and other environmental crimes — we found few to no studies.
This bias towards measuring certain outcomes while ignoring others could simply be because some environmental outcomes are easier to measure. Tree cover and canopy loss can be measured relatively accurately using satellite imagery, and animal species diversity can be monitored using well-established population monitoring techniques. Outcomes like illegal logging, however, can be trickier to quantify.
Despite these shortcomings, the available evidence shows that FSC-certification or logging under RIL guidelines does offer several environmental benefits compared to conventional logging. However, we still can’t say whether these improvements are enough to make the forests truly sustainable.
“If by sustainable you mean that if we go back to the forest in 30 years, will there still be timber that can be harvested and will make a profit for the logging company, for the people around the concession, and for the government in terms of tax? The answer is yes,” Cerutti said. “But will the forest have the same commercial species of trees then as you have now, I don’t think we can answer that. And if there is a change, it could be because of logging or it could be because of other factors we don’t yet understand completely.”
The scientific evidence on tropical forest certification
Is certified forest management really better than conventional logging for the environment, people, and logging companies’ bottom lines?
Use the drop down menus to select data from your country of choice or to view data for a particular type of evidence. Click on the name of an outcome (such as animal diversity, or deforestation and degradation) to display data specific to it. Click on a square to see what evidence the outcome is based on. Data visualization by GreenInfo Network. Database last updated in August 2017. Download data here.
Is forest certification better for people?
There is just not enough evidence to say.
FSC certification claims to be socially beneficial. And social benefits are important because the conventional timber logging industry has long been associated with human rights violations.
Take, for example, the recent Tokyo 2020 scandal. In April this year, the international NGO Global Witness published a report claiming that much of the plywood being used in the building of Tokyo’s new Olympic Stadium had come from Shin Yang, an Indonesia-based logging company embroiled in a more than three-decades-long conflict with the Penan indigenous community in Malaysian Borneo.
Or consider the recent report by the Integrated Action Network to Combat Slavery, which found that workers at logging camps in the state of Pará in Brazil were working in slave-labor-like conditions that included forced work, debt bondage, isolation, exhausting working hours, and life-threatening activities.
One of FSC’s primary goals is to change the way logging companies work with communities living in and around forests. Its certification guidelines mandate that companies improve their employees’ living and working conditions, provide workers and local communities with better infrastructure and safety, increase their access to resources, reduce conflicts with communities, and improve the communities’ livelihoods, among other benefits.
But overall, we were unable to say if a certified tropical forest is better than, the same as, or worse than a conventionally managed forest when it comes to people.
This is largely because we could find only six studies that had looked into how the well-being of workers and local communities had changed in an FSC-certified (four studies) or RIL-managed (two studies) forest, and these studies’ results were mixed.
One study published in 2016 by Cerutti and his colleagues found mostly positive changes with certification in Cameroon, Gabon, and the Republic of the Congo in Africa.
Certified concessions had better access to essential services like water supplies, housing, electricity, waste management, and medical facilities when compared to non-certified forests, for instance. They also had more robust procedures in place to control and verify the use of safety equipment as well as health and life insurance. Workers in certified concessions were also able to purchase basic amenities at the local mini-markets at more affordable prices than those in non-certified concessions.
Some results were negative or mixed: the workforce in both certified and non-certified forests was heavily imbalanced in favor of men, with women mostly employed as cooks or housekeepers. There was also no significant difference in how the communities practiced shifting cultivation, hunted wildlife, or collected non-timber forest products between certified and non-certified concessions.
Another study, focused on Kalimantan, Indonesia, found mixed results when it came to social benefits. People living in villages within certified logging concessions seemed to have better health (fewer cases of acute respiratory illness and malnutrition) than those in non-certified forests, for example, but there was no evidence that infrastructure or other facilities improved with certification. This could be because “infrastructure takes time to put in place,” the authors wrote in the paper published in PlosOne.
Despite conflict between logging companies and communities being a major area of concern, only two studies touched upon it. While both studies found that certification improved communication between the companies and communities, there was no evidence that certification helped resolve or reduce conflict in any way. Moreover, none of the studies we reviewed tried to find out if certified concessions had lower incidences of land grabbing or were better at resolving land tenure issues. (Lack of recognition of land rights is a key driver of conflicts between communities and logging companies.)
But some of these conflicts may simply be too big for the FSC to resolve alone, experts say, especially in countries with corruption or weak law enforcement. Governments may not recognize land rights of communities, for example, Catharine Grant of Greenpeace said, or governments and logging companies may collude and share vested interests.
In fact, in areas dogged by high levels of corruption and poor governance, even certified logging companies can get entangled in human rights violations.
In 2013, FSC removed the certification of Danzer, a Swiss-German timber group, after receiving accusations that its subsidiary SIFORCO had been involved in human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of Congo. SIFORCO had allegedly called the police and military in May 2011 to subdue protests by local communities. People were reportedly beaten up and abused, and their properties destroyed in the ensuing conflict.
Certification can even lead to an increase in conflict between people and the logging company, Cerutti said, because certified companies tend to enforce the law more strictly than non-certified ones. Some of these laws can result in lower tolerance towards peoples’ customary practices, such as collecting non-timber forest products or hunting wildlife, especially when the law makes these practices illegal.
In such instances, there is a greater chance that peace will be maintained in non-certified forest management units, Cerutti wrote in a longer report of his findings from the Congo basin, since they are not as stringent about enforcing the national law.
Then again, strict enforcement of laws in certified forests could lead to positive changes in the long run, but we found no evidence to show that.
The FSC has also been improving measures to deal with defaulting companies, Marion Karmann, program manager of monitoring and evaluation at FSC, told Mongabay.
In the case of Danzer, for instance, the FSC set out a list of conditions that the company had to fulfill if it wanted to be certified again. These conditions included building schools and medical clinics for the Yalisika community in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and developing procedures to prevent conflict with the community. In 2014, FSC renewed its association with Danzer.
“Danzer has worked tirelessly to develop a robust conflict management system” based on FSC’s guidelines, Kim Cartensen, Director General of FSC, wrote in a blogpost in 2015. “We believe Danzer has now set a new benchmark that could, and indeed should, be followed by all certified logging companies operating in difficult places like the Congo Basin,”
In 2011, FSC also established a Permanent Indigenous Peoples’ Committee consisting of elected indigenous representatives from all over the world, which advises the board on how best to help safeguard their interests, Karmann added.
These mechanisms sound like a step in the right direction. But with the current available scientific evidence, we cannot say whether these are, or will be, effective.
Is forest certification profitable for logging companies?
When FSC certification was initially conceived, it was touted as a market mechanism that would bring price premiums for the logging companies’ “green” products. The idea was that consumers would be willing to pay a higher price or give preference to these “more sustainable” wood products while boycotting others.
But the four studies that looked at whether FSC certification has helped products fetch higher prices found that price premiums — when they exist — vary quite a bit.
In one study, for example, researchers found that the prices of certified wood products made from sandbox trees (Hura crepitans) were higher than the prices of the same products made from non-certified sandbox trees. But certified products made from other trees like amburana (Amburana cearensis) fetched lower prices than non-certified products of the same species. This study looked only at export prices for 2000 and 2001, so the researchers couldn’t say whether the price premiums they found would last.
The remaining three studies, too, found that the price premiums of certified timber products over non-certified products varied a lot, depending on the product type, the timber tree species, and time.
Another argument in favor of FSC certification is that it gives certified companies access to newer, possibly more environmentally aware, and lucrative buyers. However, only two studies looked at whether forest certification affected companies’ access to markets. Their results were positive — certification did help some companies gain access to newer markets or retain markets that they would have lost without certification. But not all companies in the two studies were able to benefit from the improved market access. One reason for this, the researchers write, is that some companies’ production volumes might be too low for them to export their timber to the more lucrative international markets. But the benefits could accrue in the long run, they add.
Moreover, in countries where large volumes of illegally harvested, cheap timber continue to flood the domestic market, certified companies struggle to sell their premium products. It has become nearly impossible for Precious Woods, a Swiss-based timber company with certified logging concessions in Brazil and Gabon to sell its logs in Brazilian markets, said Ernst Brugger, former chairman of Precious Woods’ board of directors. “This is because we are much too costly and there is a lot of illegal logging that brings down the price of timber. So all of our Brazilian timber is being sold internationally [Europe, U.S. and Asia] where there are markets that pay a certain premium.”
Even when consumers are willing to pay a premium for certified wood products, this does not always translate to higher profits. This is likely because acquiring and holding onto an FSC certificate, or even adhering to RIL standards, is expensive.
Expenses can include modifying harvesting methods, inventorying tree species within the concession, acquiring new equipment and safety gear, training workers, giving them higher salaries, building infrastructure or conflict-resolution institutions for the workers and local communities, establishing monitoring systems, and conducting audits.
These certification or RIL-related expenses can reduce or cancel out profits, most studies found.
The lack of profits may seem discouraging, but experts say that certification could eventually lead to higher or sustained profits in the long-term.
One reason for the high costs is that many certified concessions are still streamlining and optimizing their operations, Cerutti said. “So operations that took three months and an ‘x’ amount of money in the past, will now take one month and half of the money,” he said. “I believe that the investment that the companies make over 5 or 10 years to get certified will be spread out and earn them a profit later.”
Karmann told Mongabay that FSC is aware of these economic challenges and is continuously striving to seek “general and context specific solutions to overcome them.” Diversifying sources of revenue and promotional efforts to encourage consumption of FSC-certified timber may help companies improve their profitability, Karmann added.
“Even though consumers clearly favour sustainable production in market surveys, they are not willing to pay [a] higher price,” a Precious Woods brochure notes. “It requires more public marketing efforts by Precious Woods, but also by non-profit organizations to steer consumer behaviour in a more positive direction. Support from national governments is undoubtedly desirable, if not essential.”
However, experts agree that the interplay of potential benefits and costs of certification is complex and still little understood.
This lack of insight occurs because it is very hard for researchers and other people evaluating the impacts of certification to access confidential business information, according to Romero. “So I suspect it will take a more concerted effort from the part of researchers to properly engage firms into these sorts of analyses to try to better understand what incentives, both positive and negative, to put in place,” she said. “At the end of the day, firms act on self-interest and as long as the costs, not only economic and financial but also other perceived costs to the firms, remain higher than the range of benefits, certification adoption will not be mainstreamed.”
Despite the rapid expansion of FSC certification over the past 20-plus years, we found only limited rigorous science investigating its effects.
What little research there is suggests that FSC-certified and RIL-managed forests are better for the environment than conventionally managed forests for several outcomes. But for one of certification’s primary environmental goals — reducing deforestation — the evidence is currently poor. It is also important to remember that not all FSC certified concessions use RIL practices, so there is a measure of uncertainty in these conclusions.
The handful of studies looking at the impacts of certification on workers and local communities are limited in terms of the geographical areas they cover and the outcomes they focus on. So even though a few studies do show some social benefits, there is not enough evidence yet to show that FSC certified forests are indeed good for people.
Profits for logging companies also seem hard to come by, or at least they may take a long time to materialize. And while certified or “sustainably” harvested timber can fetch higher prices compared to timber from non-certified, conventionally managed forests, this premium seems to vary a lot.
The available research is also heavily biased towards Asia (19 studies), as well as Central and South America (18 studies), while Africa remains poorly understood (seven studies).
Forest certification, like any other conservation strategy, works in complex, continually changing contexts. Companies have varied backgrounds and they operate in varied settings with a range of logistical, social, and business challenges. This is where evidence can be helpful.
Good science can help tease out the conditions that make forest certification succeed or fail. It can point out areas that lack data and need further study.
“Scientific evidence can help inform FSC’s policy and other decision makers about where the strengths, weaknesses and potentials of the certification scheme are,” Karmann said.
A solid evidence base can also help companies and certificate holders make credible promotional claims for their products, which can then help consumers make the right choice, she added.
For consumers, choices are plenty. So an FSC logo with science backing its sustainability claims could be the key to steering consumers towards certified products.
Note: Some of these results have already been published as a scientific review in the journal Conservation Letters. Here, we take a fresh look at the evidence, updating it with findings from some of the latest studies.
Editor’s note 9/27/17: This article has been updated to clarify the methodology used in evaluating the scientific literature on the effectiveness of FSC certification and our verdicts based on our review of that literature. The changes focus on clarifying the quality of the scientific evidence and the relationship between Reduced Impact Logging guidelines and FSC certification.
For a complete list of references, click here. Banner photograph of FSC certified timber by Zuzana Burivalova.
Editor’s note 10/25/17: Reviews conducted for this series are not exhaustive, and we encourage authors of research that is relevant to post links to their study in the comments section under each article. We are currently working on a strategy to maintain and update the database periodically.