SmartWood’s certification of the Forest Industry Organisation – Introduction

28 Aug


By Chris Lang. Published by WRM, August 2003.

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In June 2001, two teak plantations managed by Thailand’s Forest Industry Organisation (FIO) were awarded a certificate as “well managed” under the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) system. The plantations at Thong Pha Phum and Khao Kra Yang, were assessed by SmartWood, an FSC accredited assessor, which is run by Rainforest Alliance, a New York-based NGO. SmartWood’s team assessed the two plantations in October 2000.

Despite the fact that the certified area covers less than 3.5 per cent of FIO’s total plantation area, the certificate enables FIO to claim that it is practising “sustainable forest management”. Before the assessment was carried out, FIO’s Chittiwat Silapat told the Bangkok Post, “It’s a major step towards the end of deforestation and the beginning of sustainable development” (Umdao 2000).

FIO is a state-owned forestry enterprise formed in 1947 with the mandate to manage logging concessions in Thailand. Until the government’s logging ban of 1989, FIO was responsible for organising the logging and destruction of large areas of Thailand’s forests. FIO has also established plantations on 140,000 hectares in Thailand, often without the consent of the local communities who were using the land. Certification under FSC enables FIO to cover up its history and its financial problems, which have become severe since the logging ban deprived the organisation of its main source of income.

The certification process did not start with SmartWood’s assessment. Between 1993 and 2000, the Swedish aid agency Sida (Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency) funded a project aimed at “finding a new life for FIO”. A Swedish consulting firm, SCC Natura, spent five years preparing FIO for certification and was supposed to have started a process to develop national standards for sustainable forest management in Thailand. They failed to do this. The first many NGOs knew about the certification was when a short article appeared in the Bangkok Post in August 2000.

FIO plans in the future to get all its plantations certified. According to Jeff Hayward of SmartWood, this could be carried out as a “group certification”. However, in May 2002, SmartWood’s team assessed five more of FIO’s plantations and found they did not comply with FSC’s Principles 2, 3, and 5.

FSC certification of FIO raises several issues of concern to local people and NGOs in Thailand:

  • FSC certification of two of FIO’s plantations allows FIO to legitimise its overall operations and to expand them even further.
  • Certification of only two plantations also allows FIO to deflect attention from its financial situation. Although the two plantations may be financially feasible, the FIO faces debts of US$11.5 million, and makes a loss every year.
  • Certification of these two plantations could result in an increase of monoculture plantations throughout the country under the guise of “sustainable forest management”.
  • The certification could undermine Thailand’s ban on logging concessions, in place since 1989. SmartWood’s public summary makes no mention of the ban.
  • FIO’s main reason for wanting the certification appears to be to sell exports of its timber internationally, in an attempt to raise the money needed to rescue the organisation.

The introduction to FSC’s Principles and Criteria states, “FSC intends to complement, not supplant, other initiatives that support responsible forest management worldwide.” Yet in Thailand, SmartWood has effectively undermined an ongoing discussion about people and forests and what constitutes “sustainable forest management”. Rather than contributing to a discussion of forestry issues in Thailand, the SmartWood’s certification process has side-stepped an existing discussion and threatens to undermine it.

SmartWood’s certification process raises a further series of issues:

  • SmartWood’s assessment was not thorough and involved little “consultation” either with Thai NGOs or with local people.
  • SmartWood’s public summary of the certification does not conform to motion 26a, passed at the 1999 FSC General Assembly, which states that “Public Summary Documents shall contain sufficient information to make clear the correlation between the specific results of the certification assessment and FSC Principles and Criteria”.
  • The certification took place before any broad-based discussion about certification in Thailand had started. There was no Standards Working Group at the time of the certification. However, rather than developing an interim standard, which according to Motion 29, passed at the 1999 FSC General Assembly, “must be finalised and circulated to stakeholders at least one month prior to the certification decision”, SmartWood used the SmartWood “Generic Guidelines for Assessing Forest Management” to carry out the assessment.
  • The certification seems to have been awarded on the basis of hoped for improvements. SmartWood set 26 conditions, 15 of which FIO had to meet within one year. According to SmartWood’s first year audit, FIO had failed to meet five of the conditions and had only “partially met” seven more conditions. However, instead of revoking the certificate, SmartWood issued a series of “corrective action requests” with new deadlines.

The issues raised in this report are presented to encourage debate in Thailand and internationally about the role of the FIO, and the role of the various international institutions supporting FIO and its model of industrial forestry.

Section 2 looks at the history of FIO and the impact the organisation has had on Thailand’s forests and local communities. FIO has been, and still is, involved in several controversial activities, including proposed logging plans at Ban Wat Chan, proposed pulp mill and eucalyptus plantations, auctioning of illegal logs and a system of employment through “forest villages”, which has deprived villages of their land rights.

Section 3 examines how the idea of certifying FIO arose – through a Swedish government funded project entitled Organisational Development Project. A Swedish consulting firm, SCC Natura advised FIO for the seven years that the project ran. However, during this period, SCC Natura failed to encourage a debate about certification in Thailand as part of their project.

Section 4 describes some of the problems with the certification process itself, particularly how SmartWood failed in its attempts to consult with Thailand’s NGO movement.

Section 5 looks in detail at whether FIO’s management complies with FSC’s Principles and Criteria. Based on the information in SmartWood’s Public Summary (particularly the conditions that SmartWood’s assessment team issued) and interviews with villagers living near the plantations, it appears there are several major failures to meet the principles. FIO’s failure to meet five of SmartWood’s conditions before the first year audit, should have resulted in SmartWood revoking the certificate. Instead SmartWood replaced the conditions with a series of corrective action requests.

The report concludes that SmartWood’s certification process has in effect undermined democracy in Thailand and that FSC should revoke FIO’s certificate.

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