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Turning up the heat in the tropics
Winter 2007
Published:  22 February, 2008

CIB in the Congo has achieved FSC certification

Certification is developing slowly in the tropics, but it is not the only means of ensuring sustainable and legal supply. Rupert Oliver of Forest Industries Intelligence reports

Contrary to popular myth, forest certification is no solution to tropical deforestation. It could only achieve this if landowners were encouraged to retain their forests and to manage them for certified timber production. However, liquidation logging in the tropics is up to eight times more profitable than sustainable forestry. This means that the benefits of certification need to be much greater than at present. Unfortunately, the vast majority of tropical timbers are absorbed either into domestic markets or regional markets (particularly in Asia) where there is little demand for certified products.
Even in rich western markets, demand for certified wood has been patchy at best, focused on a few sectors dominated by larger companies, for example the DIY sector in western Europe and North America. Efforts to develop public sector procurement policy are helping to expand demand, but it is taking time for policy commitments to filter through into the market. Even where there is demand, strict limits are usually placed on the premiums offered for certified products.
This is not to say that certification in the tropics is a waste of time. On the contrary, because of public scepticism about the environmental credentials of tropical hardwoods, certification is an essential marketing tool for tropical producers that have made an effort to improve practices. But forest certification will only be achieved in areas where there are already stable, effective regulatory regimes for forest management. It is the icing on the cake at the end of a long process of forest reform.
Despite the huge challenges of promoting sustainable forest management and certification in the tropics, progress has been made. In 2005, the International Tropical Timber Organisation’s report, “Status of Tropical Forest Management 2005”, looked at forestry in 33 countries, including the largest timber supplying nations. It shows the area of sustainably managed tropical forests expanding from less than one million ha in 1988 to 36 million ha in 2005. The area managed sustainably is still a small proportion of the total, less than 5% of the 814 million ha surveyed, but there is cause for optimism.
In some parts of the tropics, certification is a reality. Of all the systems, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) has progressed furthest. Around 8.4 million ha (9%) of the 94 million ha that FSC has certified worldwide are in the tropics, much of this in South and Central America (6.7 million ha).

In Malaysia, 4.7 million ha is certified under the MTCC

Relatively high costs and difficult social issues, particularly related to native land rights, combined with environmentalist sensitivities to logging, mean a large proportion of FSC-certified forest area in tropical regions comprise plantations. Bolivia is an exception. With significant donor support in the 1990s, Bolivia reformed its regulatory framework for forests to prepare companies and landowners for FSC certification. Now certification covers around 1.8 million ha of the 7 million ha of natural forests for which harvesting rights have been granted.
Over the past 18 months, significant breakthroughs have been made in the Congo Basin. In April 2006, CIB in the Congo Republic, part of the DLH/tt-Timber Group, became the first large concession-holder in the region to achieve FSC certification (Timber Building Winter 2006). This covers 296,000ha of its 1.3 million ha of concessions. In September 2007, CIB was joined by the SEFAC Group, the Cameroon arm of Italian company Vasto Legno, which achieved FSC certification for 319,000ha of the 412,000ha it directly controls.
FSC certification has progressed more slowly in South-east Asia, due to weak regional demand for certified products and a preference for home-grown certification systems. The largest areas of FSC-certified forest, four forest concessions totalling 700,000ha, are in Indonesia.
Various national certification systems operate in the tropics, most looking towards the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) for international recognition. The Malaysian Timber Certification Council (MTCC) is the most advanced, having operated as a stand-alone scheme since 2001. An area of 4.7 million ha is certified, including the entire area of permanent production forest in Peninsular Malaysia. MTCC is expected to be put forward for PEFC endorsement this year.
In Africa, two national certification schemes in Gabon and Cameroon are being developed under the Pan African Forest Certification (PAFC) system. The PAFC Gabon system is being assessed for international endorsement by PEFC.
International policy discussions provide further grounds for optimism. Concern for climate change is giving forestry a high political profile. Around 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions are due to deforestation and at the UN Climate Change meeting in Bali in December, discussions focused on new financial mechanisms that would compensate tropical countries for “avoided deforestation”. This could mean tropical countries having a much more significant economic incentive to manage their forests sustainably.

The majority of FSC-certified tropical forests are in South and Central America

Europe’s Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) process is also getting into its stride. Operating through ministerial agreements and action plans in various regions, it encompasses the world’s leading timber importing and exporting nations. The European element involves Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs) with countries supplying tropical timber. Under the VPAs, all wood exported to the EU will be subject to legality licensing. Licensing is subject to independent verification that the wood is traceable to a forest managed in accordance with a “legality standard”. Malaysia, Indonesia, Ghana and Cameroon have begun negotiations, and Congo Republic, Liberia, Gabon and Central African Republic are expected to follow shortly. VPA-licensed timber should be available within two years. An aim of the VPAs is to provide preconditions for certification and environmental groups are generally supportive of the initiative.
The VPA process aligns closely with various private sector initiatives for phased introduction of certification. Although the details vary, the initiatives tend to have similarities. Typically they require that forest operators develop an action plan establishing certification as the ultimate objective and with progress audited on an annual basis. They require that forestry operators pass through various stages from provision of a basic assurance of tenure and harvesting rights, through a more comprehensive assurance of conformance to all relevant environmental and social laws, to eventual certification.
Building professionals in major timber-consuming markets can contribute to improvement in tropical forest management by giving preference to certified tropical wood products – and being prepared to pay premium prices. If certified products aren’t available it’s important to keep the door open to companies engaged in the various phased approaches, with “legally verified” a good first step. These initiatives provide incentives to suppliers to improve forest management and allow buyers to differentiate between products from forests working towards certification and those being poorly managed or illegally harvested.