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Forest Certification: a catalyst of forest conservation?

Tasso Rezende de Azevedo, IMAFLORA, Brazil
Andre Giacini de Freitas, IMAFLORA, Brazil
Richard Z. Donovan, Rainforest Alliance, USA

In the The Ecologist NICOLE Freris and Klemens LASCHEFSKI article "Seeing the Wood from the Trees", a relatively negative perspective is presented on certification, with the intention (it appears) of reviving boycotts against tropical timber. We have been directly involved with forest management and certification at the field level since the creation of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) in 1993. Although some comments made by the authors have merit, we believe the central thrust of the article is mistaken. We suggest that:
- tropical timber boycotts have not been, and will not provide, the solution to tropical deforestation or degradation;
- forest certification, incorporating strict conservation as one component, and as exemplified by the FSC- and SmartWood-certified Precious Woods Amazonas - PWA, represents the future of practical tropical forestry from ecological, social, economic and silvicultural perspectives.

The Uselessness of A Stand Alone Boycott Strategy
In the 80's dozens of European and American organizations actively promoted the boycott of tropical timber as a means of decreasing deforestation in the tropics. As a result of their actions, utilization of tropical timber in public works in some regions or cities of countries such as UK, Austria, Germany, The Netherlands, and the United States, was banned. The theory was that, with a boycott, the market for tropical timber would shrink considerably. Again, in theory, a boycott would cause unsustainable forest enterprises in the tropics to cease operations, deforestation would be reduced, and more forest would be protected.

Myth 1: When the market for forest products is constrained through a boycott, economic value will decrease and the now "devalued" forests will be left alone.
Boycotts of tropical timber in northern countries may be excellent "attention getters", but they do not change the fundamental economic interdependence between forests and landowners at a local level. When forests or related products are stripped of their economic value, the landowner (large or small) must find alternative income sources for subsistence and other purposes (e.g. paying taxes), and most often in the tropics the result is deforestation.
Between the years of 1980 and 1993 (when FSC was founded), despite the boycott, the annual production of sawlogs and veneer logs in the tropics increased from approximately 150 to 173 million m3 (FAO, 2001). In the case of Brazil, production increased from 16 to 23 million m3/year and participation of Amazon woods in international markets doubled in the period jumping from less than 2% to 4%. Furthermore, in the same period, deforestation rates in the Amazon region continued high, at more than one million ha per year.

Myth 2: International markets for tropical timber (e.g. in Europe and the United States) are the key determinant in tropical forest management.
According to the World Resources Institute, at most 20% of the wood produced in the tropics is exported; whereas at least 80% is typically consumed in the local markets. In Brazil, 86.6% of all the wood produced in the Amazon region is sold on the domestic market. In our experience, boycotts only serve to restrict access to a targeted market. Restricting access to one market may have little or zero influence on deforestation or degradation dynamics when multiple market options are available. As per the above, most tropical producers don't even produce for the international market, and even those that do, in most places, have many different international market options. A final perverse twist: typically, exports fetch higher prices and provide higher net profit than domestic products. Even if an effective boycott was to occur, economic logic suggests that forest enterprises needing the same income and/or profit, and now without the option to export, would have to increase their total volume of production to compensate for the lower per unit profit of domestic wood products. They might actually cut more trees, not less.

The role of certification in promoting forest conservation
Forest certification in the tropics is not a simple or easy task. It is still relatively new and only a few experiences are available on a commercial scale. If we consider just the Amazon region, there are more than 3,000 lumber mills. Only four have been granted FSC certification. As of October 2000, only one company had been certified. Today (July 2001) there are still only five forest enterprises and six community projects in the FSC certification process in Brazil (though another 20 or so forest enterprises are considering near-term involvement).
In our experience, the differences between certified forest enterprises and those without certification are actually quite easy to see and evaluate.
- Certified operations typically make more, higher quality and longer-term investments in training, road infrastructure, security, logging camps and inventories. At PWA, these have been replaced by well-constructed structures with facilities such as infirmary, restaurant, bathrooms, stock rooms, offices and leisure areas. Non-certified logging camps are lean-to's made of black polyethylene plastic, dirt floors and rudimentary sanitation and cooking facilities.
- In certified forestry, the forest will be maintained though a percentage of it not in its full original condition. Changes in its composition will occur, but safeguards are also in place to maintain forest cover, and maintain forest structure and diversity. Certified forestry operations must demonstrate in written documents, capital investments and field actions their commitment to conserve the forest. In the state of Amazonas, permanent preservation areas in the two companies certified, Gethal and PWA, have reached between 25% and 45% of the total area. Carefully selected research sites, which serve as "controls" for comparisons with the original forest, must cover at least 5% of the total area. Other conservation zones (riparian zones, wetlands, etc.) make up the remaining percentage.
- Areas under certified management are carefully mapped and all commercial trees to be logged in the first and second cycles receive identification tags and are precisely plotted on the maps. Trees to be logged are selected on the basis of strict criteria such as regeneration potential, market, volume, minimum diameter, frequency of distribution, and exclusion from permanent preservation areas.
- Harvesting occurs at the rate of four to seven trees per hectare. A typical non-certified competitor to Precious Woods Amazonas cuts down twice the number of trees per hectare in the same forest.
- Harvesting is done by well trained chain saw operators who fell the trees along a pre-determined direction in order to minimize damage to remaining trees, facilitate log removal and reduce the impact of skid trails and logging roads.
- Skid trails are planned in advance with the objective of not crossing watercourses. When crossing a watercourse is inevitable, bridges or similar structures are built. This rarely occurs on non-certified operations. Log concentration yards (where logs are collected prior to extraction from the forest) are typically 70% smaller than those in traditional management systems.
- The use of personal protection equipment is mandatory. With these preventive measures, accident rates have fallen dramatically in certified (versus non-certified) operations.
- In order to avoid the difficulties brought by the seasonality of forest activities (which cease during the wettest period of the year, January-May), certified companies have negotiated with labor unions a flexible time system. In this system workers work longer working hours during the dry periods, with extended vacations during the rainy season. In this system, workers can hold their contracts for the whole year. These are typically not options in uncertified operations.
- Open trucks and unsafe trailers pulled by farm tractors are the norm for wood extraction, even for large commercial operations at non-certified operations. At PWA employee transportation to the workplace is done using buses or other especially adapted vehicles.
- Certified forest areas of the Amazon are the main source of practical information on what future tropical forest management might look like. They are used for open discussions on the feasibility of various forest management and conservation by organizations like INPA (National Research Institute for the Amazon), EMBRAPA (The Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation), CIFOR (Center for International Forestry Research, Indonesia), and Greenpeace.

Certification - A Catalyst for Change
Since 1997, when PWA received certification, their practices have spurred a series of beneficial changes in forest legislation. Today, approved forest management plans must include 100% commercial inventories and much more detailed annual operational planning. Unions now include the use of safety equipment and training requirements in their labor negotiations. Training throughout the Amazon on SFM has increased dramatically. In 1997 the Tropical Forest Foundation, based in Belem, Para State, organized one sustainable forest management course for 15 participants. In 2000 there were 8 courses involving more than 100 participants (from loggers to engineers) most of them employed by certified enterprises or companies in the process of certification.
In 2000, 62 Brazilian wholesale and retail companies formed a "buyers group" which is committed to purchasing FSC certified products. This is the first such group organized in the southern hemisphere. This is the first time in the history of the country that a group of enterprises has publicly taken up, as their strategy, the option to buy products manufactured with raw material coming from ecologically managed forests and farms. The PWA certification in the Amazon forest was a critical step for these Brazilian businesspeople, because it showed that certification was possible, even in a region with a very short tradition of formal tropical forestry.

In conclusion...
Certification is not a panacea. Certification is based on the assumption that forests can and must be proactively managed in order to make conservation possible. There will be forests set aside for absolute conservation, conservation forests of direct and indirect use, and also areas allocated to logging. It is not the certified forest operations that threaten the survival of the forests, but those without certification and competing land uses and interests that degrade forestlands, or even worse convert them to another use.

Those interested in more detailed information and facts about the points raised by Freris & Laschefski in their article please contact Tasso Azevedo at tasso@imaflora.org .