Plantations are not forests – even when they are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council

1 Jun

FSC certifies industrial tree plantations as well managed forests. This is a fraud – plantations are not forests.

By Chris Lang. Published in Watershed Vol. 9 No. 3, March – June 2004




The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) claims to have certified a total area of more than 40 million hectares as well managed “forest”. However, this figure is a fraud. It includes an area of more than 12 million hectares which is not forest but industrial monoculture plantation. A further 25 million hectares of FSC’s certified “forest” falls into another category of “Semi-Natural and Mixed Plantation & Natural Forest”. FSC does not produce figures to indicate how much of this area is plantations.

The vast majority of FSC-certified forests and plantations is in the North. Of the area certified in the South, well over half of the area certified is plantations.

Although FSC has a specific principle for certifying plantations (principle 10) the organisation makes no formal differentiation between forests and plantations. On the contrary, FSC deliberately confuses the two.

For example, in November 2003 FSC produced a two page information leaflet titled “Forest Plantations”. The leaflet explains that FSC defines forest as “a tract of land dominated by trees”. According to FSC, plantations are “forest areas lacking most of the principal characteristics and key elements of native ecosystems, which result from the human activities of planting, sowing or intensive silvicultural treatments.” As such, “Plantations are included in the FSC definition of forests”.

FSC, then, sees no fundamental difference between a forest and thousands of hectares planted with monocultures of eucalyptus, acacia or pine — trees which are often exotic to the country in which they are planted. To FSC a plantation is just another type of forest.

According to FSC’s “Forest Plantations” leaflet, “FSC believes that plantation managers have an important role to play in the conservation of biodiversity, water and soils at the local level, and that plantations can contribute social and economic benefits to local communities.” FSC gives no evidence to defend this statement. People living near plantations throughout the South point out that fast-growing tree plantations have disastrous impacts on biodiversity, water and soils. Plantation companies provide few jobs and many of the jobs they do provide are during planting or harvesting periods only.

Despite the problems caused by industrial tree plantations, FSC’s principle 10 is by far the weakest of FSC’s principles. The other principles include the word “shall”, requiring that the forest management unit being assessed comply with the principle. For example, principle 1 states: “Forest management shall respect all applicable laws of the country in which they occur.”

In the context of forest certification, principles can be defined as providing an overall goal or objective. Principle 10 does not do this. Instead it recycles pulp and paper industry propaganda in favour of plantations.

Principle 10 states, for example:

“While plantations can provide an array of social and economic benefits, and can contribute to satisfying the world’s needs for forest products, they should complement the management of, reduce pressures on, and promote the restoration and conservation of natural forests.”

This is not a principle against which plantation management can be judged. The language used does not lend itself to precise interpretation. The principle does not state that plantations shall provide an array of social and economic benefits, or that they shall contribute to satisfying the world’s needs for forest products. The principle states simply that plantations can do such things. This is a highly contentious statement. In Thailand, and many other countries of the South, farmers and local communities have long campaigned for the right not to have monoculture plantations established on their farmland, commons and community forests.

In discussing the “world’s needs” for forest products, FSC’s principle 10 ignores the question of whether, by providing forest products (mainly timber and fibre in the case of plantations) for the “world”, plantation managers are forcing local communities to do without forest goods. FSC’s principle 10 ignores questions such as whether the world needs an increased supply of, say, toilet paper, more than local communities need medicinal plants, mushrooms, firewood, timber for houses, land for swidden cultivation, grazing land or any of the many other benefits of community managed forests and lands.

“The FSC was created with the aim of protecting forests and not for promoting large-scale tree monocultures. The issue itself is in fact very simple: plantations are not forests and should not be certified as such,” wrote World Rainforest Movement’s Ricardo Carrere in November 2002. Carrere continued, “we sincerely hope that the FSC will be able to change course in this respect and that [the November 2002] general assembly will be the starting point in that direction”.

At the general assembly, FSC passed a motion which stated, “The current version of the FSC Plantation Policy Draft (30 May 2002) is not clear enough and needs improvement.” The motion continued to state that FSC should produce a revised plantation policy “after a broad consultation with the membership” to give “concrete guidance on the interpretation of P10 [principle 10]”. This was to take place by May 2004.

So far, so good. Unfortunately, since November 2002 FSC has done little to address the concerns about its certification of industrial tree plantations.

Eighteen months before the general assembly, FSC’s secretariat had included the organisation’s position on plantations in a list of issues which FSC needed to clarify. Subsequently, Tim Synott, then FSC’s Policy Director, wrote the FSC Plantation Policy Draft mentioned in the motion passed at the general assembly.

Synott’s draft paper acknowledged that “Disputes have arisen around plantation certification, and some of the disagreements and confusion has been caused by different interpretations of the FSC Principles and Criteria and other policies.”

“In due course”, wrote Synott when he circulated the draft policy paper in May 2002, “the final revised version of this paper will be incorporated into official FSC guidelines.”

Synott left FSC in July 2002. However, he promised, the Head of FSC’s Standards and Policy Unit would take over the work, “including the building of these interpretations into official FSC documents and rules.” This has not happened.

In December 2003, at a meeting in Amsterdam, organised by Brussels-based NGO FERN, FSC’s Matthew Wenban-Smith explained that he was behind schedule with the review of FSC’s position on plantations, because of a lack of funding. However, he assured those present at the meeting FSC was working out what the process of the review might be and the information he had received during the meeting would feed into planning the review. During the meeting Wenban-Smith heard presentations from Brazil and South Africa explaining how FSC certification of industrial plantations in those countries was undermining local struggles.

Underlying the problems with FSC’s certification of plantations is the fact that the organisation doesn’t distinguish between plantations and forests. This position perhaps makes sense in some contexts in Europe, Scandinavia or North America, where it is very easy to run together plantations and forests which have been simplified for many decades (although in Scotland and Ireland there is a clear difference between plantations of exotic Sitka spruce and the native forest, which once grew there).

But in Brazil, Thailand, South Africa, Indonesia and other countries where people are facing the impacts of monoculture industrial tree plantations, the failure to differentiate between plantations and forests undermines local struggles against plantations.

In November 2002, FSC’s Director, Heiko Liedeker, told Bob Burton, a journalist with Inter-Press Service, that he had “not heard claims from NGOs in the south that we are actually undermining their campaigns.” Liedeker added that “We would take that sort of information very seriously.”

In September 2003, World Rainforest Movement sent Liedeker a copy of a book titled Certifying the Uncertifiable. The book describes in detail problems with three FSC-certified plantations, one in Thailand and two in Brazil. The certificate of the Forest Industry Organisation in Thailand has since been withdrawn.

In a letter sent to Liedeker with the book, World Rainforest Movement wrote, “We believe that this book will allow you to understand that, in the case of large-scale tree monocultures, FSC certification is in fact undermining struggles in many Southern countries.” Liedeker did not reply to the letter. There is nothing to indicate that FSC is taking the information “very seriously”.

In fact it appears that FSC is paying more attention to the problems faced by the pulp and paper industry than those faced by communities living near the industry’s plantations.

One of the most common products from industrial tree plantations is wood fibre for the pulp and paper industry. FSC is currently reviewing and revising its requirements for tracking wood (‘chain of custody’ in FSC-speak) from forests or plantations to the end product and the consumer.

While FSC could not find the money to carry out a review of its plantations policy, it used FSC core funding to finance the review of its requirements for tracking wood. So far this review amounts to a serious weakening of FSC standards for sourcing of fibre for paper products that can carry the FSC label.

Under the proposed system, which FSC pilot tested between July 2003 and March 2004, paper which contains no fibre from FSC certified plantations or forests could carry an FSC label. Although according to FSC rules, no product carrying an FSC label should include fibre from “controversial sources”, companies themselves will be able decide whether their fibre sources are controversial or not. This calls into question FSC’s claims of carrying out independent third party certification.

In March 2004, 11 organisations, including German NGOs Robin Wood, Urgewald and WWF-Germany, wrote to FSC’s Board of Directors demanding that they “Do not implement the draft standards [for tracking wood] in their proposed form under any circumstances”. As of end of April 2004, FSC has not replied to the letter.

With or without the proposed changes to FSC’s standards for tracking wood, FSC’s continuing certification of industrial plantations has serious implications for the credibility of the FSC certificate, particularly since these certifications are based on a draft plantations policy that FSC members acknowledge is not clear and in need of improvement.

The confusion between plantations and forests underpins all arguments in favour of industrial tree plantations. By pretending that plantations are forests, FSC is involved in a fraud which is helping legitimise an unsustainable model of forestry. The fraud allows plantation proponents to claim that plantations are “reforestation” even when the plantations are repeatedly logged and replanted in short cycles. The beneficiaries of this fraud are companies and states managing industrial tree plantations. The victims of this fraud are the people who live near the plantations, who face the destruction of their livelihoods and environments by these plantations.

According to the introduction to FSC’s Principles and Criteria, “The goal of FSC is to promote environmentally responsible, socially beneficial and economically viable management of the world’s forests, by establishing a worldwide standard of recognized and respected Principles of Forest Stewardship”.

This statement alone should exclude industrial tree plantations from the FSC system, since plantations are not forests, they are not environmentally responsible or socially beneficial and do not contribute to the viable management of the world’s forests.

%d bloggers like this: