Opinion & Analysis

The 1994 Rule – playing two games
Tony Sebastian (FSC Board) (FSC Board Member (Environmental South))

When you get involved with FSC, one thing quickly grabs your attention. It’s referred to in many ways, but most commonly as “that 1994 rule”. It simply says that after 1994, no forest management unit that has converted natural forest into any other form can be certified under FSC.

zoom (© FSC Indonesia) © FSC IndonesiaIts origin is well grounded: 1994 was the year that FSC was officially established. Its standards, the means by which forests are audited and issued with an FSC certificate followed. Some people regard this rule as one of the foundations of FSC, sending a clear message - from 1994 onwards, FSC does not accept the conversion of natural forests to any other form, including tree plantations. And its purpose is noble, as forest conversion is by far the biggest threat to terrestrial landscapes the world over, particularly so in the tropics.

But the question on the table today, 20 years later, is whether this 1994 rule has ever benefited FSC, and whether it makes a strong and real contribution towards avoiding deforestation. The answer is no, it does not. Let me discuss this in the context of the tropics.

The future of the timber industry is unclear to most.

Foresters tackle this future through simulations, projections and, more recently, in light of changing climatic scenarios. The findings predict a decline in demand for tropical hardwoods over the next 50 years, strongly influencing how the timber industry operates. Tropical countries will have to respond to this situation even sooner than 50 years, through the demand for wood for local use in building, construction and a host of other needs. Much of this demand is for throwaway wood (rather than high-value hardwoods), and plantations are seen as the best way to ensure sustained domestic supplies. In short, plantations are a very big part of the future scenario.

Tropical countries that have been dependent on high-value hardwoods need to adjust, and adjust they will. Many are starting from a position of desperation, having exhausted most of their hardwood stocks and degraded the rest to virtual oblivion. Plantations are suddenly seen as the savior. They just might be, but not in the way many countries are going about it. Replacing forests with plantations makes no sense!

The shift to plantations and, in the case of FSC’s constituency, the resulting conversion of remaining forests, is alarming. This cannot continue. However, let’s be brutally honest; not certifying new plantations does nothing for FSC’s future, and does nothing to stop deforestation. So what does the 1994 rule actually do for FSC? Is its only role to place FSC on a different, and higher, pedestal from other schemes?

But all is not lost.

It looks like FSC is in a quandary, stuck with a noble rule that only serves itself. For many years, FSC has been trying to address this rule and its lack of relevance in the greater scheme of things. FSC’s consensus-based approach has, in my opinion, been severely challenged here. Three sets of unwavering values do not make a viable approach. It never will.

Moving forwards positively, the 1994 rule now lies within a proposed revamped framework built around restoration. It is an attempt to address the core objective behind the rule: stop clearing forests. The framework has merit but, frankly, only time will tell if it can deliver on the rule’s core objective.

Future tasks for FSC

It is time for FSC to demonstrate its strength of character, and show the world that it is mature enough to know when an objective has not been achieved. FSC must show that it is willing to take the game to a different pitch to bring the success it insists upon. It is time to craft different strategies to address deforestation. It is also time to open the doors to parts of the global forestry industry that FSC currently excludes. We must engage with the financial mechanisms and players who enable deforestation to take place. It is time to leave emotion at home.

We need to ask ourselves: is certification an advocacy tool, or a means of determining compliance with a set of standards? Thus far, FSC has been the latter, with elements of the former uncomfortably ingrained within the standards. Perhaps these elements do not belong there. Or, if they do, then support mechanisms are required to make them achieve what they are meant to achieve. As a standard setter, FSC needs to play the game according to the goalposts it sets. There can only be one game. If the goalposts should be moved, then move and adapt appropriately. The only thing FSC cannot do is try and play two games at the same time.