One of the world's top forest management groups says it is reviewing a policy that could loosen its membership requirements to admit more companies that have recently cleared natural forests. The controversial move is backed by some environmentalists who say the move is necessary to curb deforestation in countries such as Indonesia.
In an unlikely alliance, environmentalists and forest-related businesses voted on Friday to review criteria set in 1994 that would allow the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) to grant certification to companies recently involved in deforestation for pulp and paper, a driver of much of the plantation activity in Indonesia and Malaysia.
The council, a group of business heads and environmentalists that is commonly recognized by its FSC logo on timber and other wood products, certifies that products bearing its logo do not contribute to the destruction of the world's forests. The FSC currently will not certify plantations that have engaged in deforestation since 1994.
Critics say loosening FSC membership standards could threaten the council's credibility and possibly lead to more forest loss in countries with weak forest monitoring. But supporters say the FSC will have a greater impact if it includes companies that have cleared forests for plantation activity.
Aditya Bayunanda, a coordinator with the World Wildlife Fund Indonesia, says the change is vital to curbing deforestation in a country facing widespread forest loss.
"The current '94 rule has practically excluded a lot of the plantations that have been developed, and we cannot use the FSC certification as a tool to promote their sustainability and to move them forward towards it because it's not accessible," noted Bayunanda.
According to figures compiled by the Indonesia National Council on Climate Change, Indonesia could lose more than 20 percent of its remaining forests by 2030 if businesses continue to clear forests. FSC members say certification pushes companies to reduce their impact on the forests, but to be most effective it has to resolve long-running issues and controversies surrounding plantation practices.
The motion passed on Friday reopens debate on what kind of land should be certified, in what condition and whether land that might be converted would still be given FSC approval. Those who voted against the motion say it is too broad, and provides little guidance for how to improve forest management, which is at the heart of the FSC's activities.
The FSC certifies forest-related businesses based on strict standards that must meet environmental, social and economic responsibility criteria. Its seal is supposed to guarantee that wood and paper products are harvested sustainably.
This kind of certification is increasingly important in markets where concerned consumers want to know their products carry a commitment to environmental responsibility.
Alistair Monument, Asia Director of the Forest Stewardship Council, says certification creates incentives for sustainability.
"I think by having a very strong system and a very strong market pull it creates the incentive for those companies to change," he noted. "And we're seeing that now where these big forest management companies are looking at ways of getting into the market, otherwise they're going to lose out financially."
Forest activists say that while certification does reduce the amount of forest that is cut, it alone is not enough to ensure sustainable forest management.
In recent years, they have raised concerns about the credibility of the auditors who certify timber operations. Others worry that in countries like Indonesia, where deforestation results from corruption and poor law enforcement, certification matters little.
Less than 1 million of Indonesia's 120 million hectares of forest are FSC certified, and several of the biggest paper companies operating in the country have had their certification revoked.
In 2007 the council dropped Asia Pulp and Paper under pressure from groups that accused it of large-scale rainforest destruction. The environmental advocacy group Greenpeace recently targeted the company again for supplying Mattel with fibers from destroyed forests for use in Barbie packaging.
Last year, the FSC also dropped paper company APRIL for failing to resolve conflicts with local forest communities.
Clashes between corporations and local communities over rights to forest land are common. Critics accuse schemes aimed at improving forest management of ignoring the voices of local communities and failing to understand their needs.
"It's not a question of understanding, it's a question of whether the indigenous community has been fully invited or been fully involved in this negotiation and discussion," explained Nicholas Mujah who represents an indigenous Dayak community in Malaysian Sarawak.
Mujah says the FSC has not prioritized the social element of its negotiations, which it highlights as part of the democratic nature of its operations. Many of those who opposed the motion passed on Friday voiced their concern with any standard that could allow the expansion of large-scale deforestation.
Despite the criticism, Mujah does mention that so far the FSC is the only mechanism that requires companies to engage with local communities before they can gain certification.