Opinion & Analysis

Where is the FSC in the new deforestation debate?
Anita Neville (Representative) · Rainforest Alliance

(based on a paper by Rainforest Alliance, Greenpeace, SSC, The Nature Conservancy, World Conservation Society and WWF, and others)

zoom (© FSC A.C.) © FSC A.C.It may seem ironic in the midst of a global assembly of leaders in the forestry sector to have to make the case for discussing deforestation and the means to tackle it. But an independent and informal working group has essentially done just that in the run up to this year’s FSC General Assembly, posing the question: What should and could FSC do to tackle deforestation?

Tackling deforestation has arguably never been more important or more popular as a subject on the world stage. Recently there have been corporate announcements committing organizations to an end to deforestation in their supply chains – groups like Greenpeace and others proposing zero-deforestation approaches at a United Nations meeting this month. Companies, non-governmental organizations and countries are expected to sign up to a “no-deforestation” pledge along with commitments to restore millions of hectares of woodlands.

But within the FSC context the reality check is that despite 20-plus years of laudable achievements FSC has had limited impact when it comes to halting deforestation and fostering restoration on a global scale. Why?

Because, the working group argues, the primary drivers of that deforestation are not those that the FSC system has focused on.

zoom (© FSC A.C.) © FSC A.C.In most countries, conversion of natural forest to timber plantation represents only a small proportion of forest loss; greater pressures come from conversion of forest lands for other economic benefits – largely agricultural expansion. And this is not an area where FSC has either focused or had real traction.

The Rainforest Alliance, Greenpeace, SSC, The Nature Conservancy, World Conservation Society and WWF have collectively put together a thought-provoking paper presenting a vision for the future in terms of tackling restoration and conversion in the FSC system (Side Meeting: 8:30 a.m., Wednesday, “Restoration and Conversion – A vision for the future”).

It outlines some unsurprising suspects in terms of the drivers of natural forest conversion. Specifically, global population growth, urbanization and the growth of the middle class, coupled with increased pressures on forest ecosystems driven by agricultural expansion for food, fuel and feed has seen major environmental, social and economic impacts.

The changing face of forestlands

In the face of pressures on forest lands from increasing demand for products such as cotton, soy, palm oil and meat (beef and chicken), and even rubber, FSC cannot be passive. When small, or large, landowners can generate up to 20 times per hectare more in income by growing oil palm compared to forestry, FSC needs to be both practical and proactive in the way it responds to these changes in land use.

The group argues that current FSC policies on conversion have not been able to prevent forest conversion, nor have they fostered restoration on a commensurate scale. While FSC is not “the answer” to every forest conversion or restoration challenge around the globe, the group believes that the FSC system should contribute more significantly to stopping forest conversion and degradation and fostering forest restoration.

They call for flexibility but also greater cohesion between FSC policies and standards related to conversion, concerned that opportunities for fostering forest restoration and stopping forest conversion are being lost.

Under a more flexible policy framework, where more plantations might be eligible for FSC certification, would this create a situation where governments, consumers and NGOs could collectively apply leverage to push for certification and thus drive better practice? Wouldn’t this have the potential to engage financial investors who are already predisposed to working with FSC as a risk-management tool or as a filter for ensuring real commitments to sustainability? These are questions the group poses.

What is the path forward?

zoom (© FSC A.C.) © FSC A.C.A call for greater policy coherence features in the Restoration and Conversion paper the group is presenting at the FSC General Assembly. By identifying the issues and challenges with FSC definitions, policies and standards, engaging with organizations involved in past and present conversions or those organizations playing a leadership role in forest restoration, the group believes that FSC might play a more positive role in these issues. It could take steps to ensure that the impacts of conversion are minimized; that where it occurs it might lead to significant and better social and environmental (and perhaps even economic) benefits; and that, at the same time, forest restoration is given the strong global support of the FSC family. But it won’t be able to play that role without better alignment of the various FSC policies and standards that reference conversion.

FSC also needs to look beyond the forestry space to see what can be learned from other certification schemes that are also trying to deal with restoration and conversion issues, such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and the Roundtable for Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB).

The group also challenges the FSC community to consider the potentially perverse outcomes that are resulting from some of the most fundamental aspects of the FSC system – for example the 1994 rule. To be clear, the group believes in maintaining the 1994 rule and ensuring plantations established on lands that were clearly heavily degraded prior to 1994 can be certified without compensation. The group argues that this needs to be married with a new approach that incentivizes restoration for post-1994 conversions to enable more plantation forestlands to be brought into the FSC system.

Building incentives, including fostering stronger linkages with investors, to encourage FSC-certified operations to implement restoration projects and make major conservation investments, is something the group believes that FSC should be actively pursuing.

Current trends undermine the integrity of forests and local livelihoods and are accelerating ecosystem conversion and social conflict. These issues are urgent.

There is an unprecedented level of global interest, indeed even government policy support and public- and private-sector forest finance, to address the issues of deforestation and social conflict in forest communities, with tree plantations playing an important role given their growing presence in ecosystems at risk and amid communities in turmoil. Plantations are part of the solution, but FSC-certified plantations have an even greater possibility for positive impact. It is critical that FSC respond. Addressing social, environmental and economic challenges in the plantation sector – something FSC has been committed to for over 20 years – now requires that we tune the system for better impact.

Copies of the “Restoration and conversion white paper” will be made available at the side meeting, 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, and from members of the group.

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