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FSC mulls controversial motion to certify plantations responsible for recent deforestation

Update: Motion 18 passed the General Assembly with substantial amendments, including a call to revise FSC’s plantation regulations.

Members of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), meeting in Malaysia next week for its General Assembly, will consider various changes to the organization, including a vote on a controversial motion that would open the door—slightly at first—to sustainable-certification of companies that have been involved in recent forest destruction for pulp and paper plantations. Known as Motion 18, the change is especially focusing on forestry in places where recent deforestation has been rampant, such as Indonesia and Malaysia.

According to FSC documents, Motion 18 would allow “an appropriate avenue for plantation companies, that are committed to responsible plantation management and no further conversion, but that have legally converted natural forest to tree plantations after 1994, to be FSC-certified under certain conditions may provide important social and environmental benefits.” Currently the FSC will not certify plantations that were involved in deforestation since 1994.

Winnie Overbeek of World Rainforest Movement (WRM), says that if such a rule is approved it will open the door to more forest loss worldwide.

FSC certificates by biomes: global certified area

FSC certificates by biomes: global certified area

FSC certificates by forest type: global certified area

FSC certificates by forest type: global certified area. Click images to enlarge.

“It definitely will be another incentive to expand plantations in forest areas and therefore another incentive for deforestation and, at the same time, greenwashing of industrial tree plantations,” Overbeek told

The rule was initially proposed by Daemeter Consulting, an independent firm that works with ‘sustainable and equitable management of natural resources in Indonesia’, according to its website. Aisyah Sileuw, president director, admitted to that the motion may be hard-to-stomach for some, but said that its intent is to bring more sustainable forestry practices to places such as Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as to stem further forest loss, not cause more.

“The motion will undoubtedly be controversial, as some will see it as pro-pulp and paper and therefore necessarily bad based on legitimate criticisms of the industry voiced by many environmental groups. The motion, however, does not propose immediate repeal of the 1994 cut-off, nor does it propose to allow further conversion of natural forest,” explains Sileuw. “Rather, it calls for FSC to take steps toward developing a mechanism by which companies who have undertaken legal forest conversion in the past could, under certain conditions yet to be defined, become certified.”

Darius Sarshar, from the investment firm New Forests, adds that Motion 18 simply reflects changing realities of tropical forestry, especially in Asia. Less natural forest for logging in the region—most remaining forest has either already been logged or is under some form of protection—means that wood producers are turning more and more toward establishing plantations.

“A key challenge for FSC is to ensure its continued relevance in light of the transition process that is underway in Asia. As a member and strong supporter of FSC, we believe the organization needs to take a pragmatic approach to ensure it maintains an ability to influence the conversion process and be truly transformational of industry practices. This is critical if we are to safeguard the High Conservation Values that tropical Asian forests still harbor,” says Sarshar, who argues that if the FSC bends too far to environmental purity, it could risk any influence in the region.

Industrial timber plantation. Image courtesy of the Rainforest Action Network, an FSC member.

“If [the FSC] takes an idealist approach, I fear the FSC will be marginalized as a niche certification initiative, and Darth Vader forestry will rule,” he concludes.

However, Overbeek argues that monoculture plantations are in their very nature ‘uncertifiable’ and that the FSC should have avoided them altogether.

“A monoculture can never be considered as ‘socially just, environmentally adequate and economically viable’, as FSC defines its certified areas. It can only be considered sustainable from the point of view of the company that promotes these plantations and benefits from the profits they obtain, even bigger if they can certify their plantations,” she says.

Overbeek adds that part of the problem is that the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) deems monoculture plantations as ‘forests’.

“The FAO definition is based on a reductionist vision of what a forest is, just considering it as a provider of wood by means of the trees, totally different from the multiple social, environmental (climate), economical, spiritual and cultural importance and benefits of forests, especially for forest peoples and others who depend for their livelihoods on forests,” she says pointing out that “local communities affected by the implementation of tree monoculture plantations often do not call these plantations a forest, on the contrary, in Brazil for example they used to call them ‘green deserts'”.

However, for the time being, continuing FSC certification of monoculture plantations seems assured. In fact Motion 18, which would widely broaden such certification, may be construed as a quid-pro-quo between logging companies, the FSC, and some environmental groups: by promising to forego further forest destruction—including perhaps better protection for secondary forests—companies could then qualify for certification.

Still, the FSC has an uneven history in dealing with so-called troubled companies. Currently, it faces criticism for certifying companies in the Congo that have been accused of violating human rights.

Simon Counsell, Executive Director of Rainforest Foundation UK, told monagaby,com that “if passed, [Motion 18] is likely to cause uproar amongst many in the NGO community, who vigorously oppose FSC certification of any form of plantations, and would possibly lead to more resignations from FSC.”

FSC certificates by tenure management: global certified area

FSC certificates by tenure management: global certified area

FSC certificates by tenure ownership: global certified area

FSC certificates by tenure ownership: global certified area. Click images to enlarge.

Counsell, whose organization has dropped out of the FSC, says he was especially surprised by one of Motion 18’s supporters.

“Staggeringly, one of the seconders of this motion is Grant Rosoman of Greenpeace-Interntional, a former Chair of the FSC. Greenpeace supporters might wonder exactly what is the point of the current ‘Ken and Barbie’ campaign if Greenpeace supports the destruction of forests by other plantation companies. Perhaps even Asian Pulp and Paper could become FSC certified…”

In fact Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), a brand that has been widely criticized for large-scale rainforest and peatland destruction in Indonesia, was certified by the FSC until an article in the Wall Street Journal in 2007 pushed the FSC to drop it. Controversy over APP’s record also brought trouble to Mattel—the makers of Barbie dolls—when Greenpeace pointed out that Barbie packaging contained fibers from APP plantations linked to forest destruction on Sumatra.

However, Grant Rosoman of Greenpeace-New Zealand told that though he seconded the motion, he would not support it as it is written, saying the current wording “doesn’t properly reflect” the motion’s actual goal.

“The intent of the motion is to get a group of people together to talk about options for post 1994 converted plantation areas to see how and under what conditions FSC can engage with them. There is the no foregone conclusion that FSC allow certification of post 1994 plantations,” he says.

Rosoman argues that the motion—if done correctly, which is still a possibility given that the wording is always debated and modified at the General Assembly—would right a bias against certifying plantations in Southeast Asia where much of the deforestation has been recent.

“We support the need for FSC to find a way to have more impact in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia with significant areas of post 1994 plantations and where ongoing conversion is having a huge environmental impact,” he says. “Currently the 1994 cut off date—chosen because it was when the FSC Principles and Criteria were finalized—favors countries and companies that happened to have carried out their forest conversion prior to 1994–a significant bias in favor of ‘northern’ nations.”

Rosoman also says Motion 18 wouldn’t let APP off the hook.

This picture from Slovakia shows one of the operations of the state forestry company, which has had several of its regions certified. This forest was originally certified by the Soil Association, but then lost its certificate because of poor management practices, but they then went to another certifier, SGS, and got re-certified. Photo by Maria Hudakova, WOLF/Friends of the Earth Slovakia.

“Mattel has packaging that includes fiber from conversion of natural tropical rainforests as well as plantation fiber,” he said, referencing Greenpeace’s recent campaign against Mattel’s use of fiber from APP. “Our main issue is with the rainforest fiber and we want all conversion of forests to stop.”

“We do not agree that plantations from recent deforestation can be certified but we do want to be part of a conversation regarding plantations that have been developed and what action can be taken which would encourage forest restoration, more forest conservation and addressing local community rights and benefits.”

Thus, moving forward on Motion 18 would require the FSC to attain a difficult balancing act between supporting better management of plantations on the ground—and working to quell future deforestation—while not appearing to condone past actions of companies involved in the destruction of forests. It is a balancing act that, if the FSC gets wrong, could prove devastating to an organization already facing threats to its credibility on a number of fronts.

The FSC has been battling a rising tide of criticism from smaller environmental groups for years. As one of the world’s largest certification schemes for wood and paper products, the organization is a clear target for everything that is wrong in forestry. Beyond the issue of plantations, the organization has been called out, and even campaigned against, for certifying companies that practice clear-cutting of forests or selectively log in old-growth forests, the richest in carbon and biodiversity.

Only last week, the FSC lost the support of one of its environmental supporters, FERN. However it was not plantations or old growth forest issues that caused FERN to finally break with FSC, but the organization’s pursuit of carbon credits.

A concession belonging to one of Sinar Mas’ pulpwood companies, PT Bina Duta Laksana. © Greenpeace.

Greenpeace’s Rosoman says the world continues to consume wood and fiber, but the FSC can help meet this demand in a less-damaging way.

“Currently most [wood and fiber] comes from natural forests but they are fast being logged out and converted,” he told “We are campaigning hard for an end to forest conversion and clear protection for the remaining large intact forest landscapes.”

“If plantations are planted on degraded lands (non-forest) or former agricultural lands this can provide a way of producing wood that can substitute wood from natural forests. If this can help take the pressure off natural forests it can be a positive thing, but we will never support the conversion of forests into plantation.”

Overbeek believes the FSC is more concerned with certifying as much forest and plantation-land as possible than with keeping environmental standards high and making certain companies comply. Since the FSC depends on the companies it certifies to pay for it: the more companies the FSC signs up, the more funds it pulls in for operations, arguably incentivizing mass-certification over high standards or rigorous checking-up.

For his part, Counsell believes the meeting this week will do little to address FSC’s troubles.

“The important thing to appreciate about the FSC’s General Assemblies is that they are primarily set up as joint congratulatory celebration of the FSC’s achievements over the previous three years,” he says. “There will no doubt be much mutual-back-slapping about, for example, the fact that the total area certified under the FSC scheme is approaching 150 million hectares worldwide, and the number of Chain of Custody certificates has passed 20,000. This is decidedly not a place to raise or formally discuss major concerns about, for example, the continued decline of the FSC’s credibility.”

However Daemeter Consulting’s Sileuw says the motion, if passed and implemented correctly, could go far in moving plantations in countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia towards more environmentally-friendly practices, while giving them an economic incentive not to participate in further forest destruction.

“It is our hope that such a scheme would engage and offer the industry an incentive to move towards certified responsible management of biodiversity, environmental, and social and cultural issues beyond that required by law,” she said, adding that, “we recognize that such a mechanism must include safeguards that are carefully developed to ensure further conversion of natural forest is not promoted and positive long term outcomes are achieved.”

Panama rainforest.

Whether Motion 18 would further undercut trust in the FSC or bring about a new, and better, age for forests in places where it is desperately needed remains to be seen. Of course, it first has to pass the General Assembly vote next week.

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