By forgiving a quarter century of forest destruction and social harm, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) hopes to incentivise the biggest offenders amongst forest companies to take steps to remedy their past destruction. But will this ‘carrot’ produce the desired effect on the ground, or simply give companies undeserved market access?
Until recently, the FSC’s strict November 1994 cut-off date regarding forest conversion was an element that set it apart from other schemes. Companies that sought to certify land that had been cleared of its natural forest for plantation after November 1994 need not bother to apply for FSC certification: they would not be considered.
On 13 October 2022, that changed. Meeting in Bali, Indonesia, the FSC’s General Assembly caused a stir in the forest certification world by voting to pass Motion 37, which changed its Principles and Criteria to shift the 1994 cut-off date. The motion is intended to “enable implementation of the Policy to Address Conversion” and hopes to “provide a route by which millions of hectares of forests can be restored and then become FSC certified and managed in a responsible manner.”
Some NGOs are nervously optimistic, pointing to the fact that to qualify, companies are supposed to restore the same area of forests in their concessions that they had cleared between 1994 and 2020, and remedy past social harm. Optimists argue that the structures for encouraging companies to remedy pre-2020 deforestation and social harm are stringent, and put the market tools of FSC certification at the service of efforts to redress, without providing a quick fix for the companies concerned.
Given past experience, however, many more NGOs feel more pessimistic, saying it would give a free pass to companies to put plantations on land that was illegally cleared of native forest between 1994 and 2020, often accompanied by violence and dispossession of Indigenous populations. They challenge rewarding companies that have “sordid legacies” with “access to markets that have been exclusively accessible for companies that ended deforestation and the conversion of forests at the time of the creation of the FSC system.”
NGOs have linked FSC-certified forests to illegal logging, violations of Indigenous rights, and timber laundering. Earthsight has published two reports pointing to IKEA’s links to illegal FSC-certified wood in Ukraine and Russia, to no avail; the NGO points out that the problems that led it, and many NGOs around the world, to denounce the FSC as no longer fit for purpose, are the same problems that were exposed decades ago but remain unaddressed.
“We've learned from implementation of the EU Timber Regulation [EUTR] that companies importing certified wood are given a de facto green lane into the EU market. This is highly worrying, given the structural and implementation failings of certification schemes like FSC and PEFC [Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification,” says Earthsight’s Tara Ganesh.
“The European Commission has learned these lessons,” she continues. “Its draft Regulation on deforestation-free products avoids giving any formal role to certification – despite industry lobbying (FW 279).
“The primary goal of the FSC is to ensure sustainable management of forests, but it is unable to guarantee that in developed countries, let alone in countries with high levels of corruption. FSC-certified wood linked to human rights abuses and wood responsible for stripping climate-critical forests regularly enters our markets.
“We must be serious about enforcing our laws to ensure western consumers are not indirectly funding the commission of these atrocities, perhaps exploring legal remedies to force companies to keep their pledges and pay for damage they have caused to local communities in the past. But letting bad actors, who have previously used their FSC status to run roughshod over community rights and who have destroyed irreplaceable habitats, back into the FSC tent only rewards their bad behaviour. It makes a mockery of the FSC label and contradicts the goals of the EUTR and other legislation currently on the table.”