see also: Timber Labelling You Can Trust, below
by Tim Cadman - Native Forest Network1, Tasmania
Regardless of whether one supports the logging of native forests or not, there is a great deal to be concerned about within the growing debate on ecolabelling of wood products.
On first impression, it seems there is nothing to worry about: the establishment of the international body, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) in 1992 indicated that the conservation movement was coming to grips with this thorny issue. The FSC consists of a General Assembly of two chambers: the first with a 25 percent voting-bloc and representing economic and timber interests; the second comprising social and environmental groups.
So, what's the problem if the Council is skewed in favour of the environment? A close examination of the FSC's Principles reveals that there are areas for concern. At the outset, plantations were not even considered; instead, they have now been tacked on as a 'Draft Principle'. Within an Australian context, this is important, as most forest groups recognise the significance of plantations as an important interim step in reducing the impacts of industrial forestry on native forest ecosystems. By transferring industry into plantations, the debate becomes one of appropriate agricultural practice, not habitat, biodiversity, old growth, wilderness and the rest. While many countries have very real fears of plantations - Greenpeace New Zealand's publication, The Plantation Effect, is an eloquent testimony to this - the FSC from the beginning entrenched itself in native forest logging. Plantations don't just have to be tree farms; they can be street trees, on sewage farms, or part of land restoration projects.
This decision is reflected in the principles that FSC member groups have agreed to - many detailing "management" of native forests. One of the strong-points of the timber industry has been its ability to appropriate previously definitive forestry terms and change them in order to subvert public opinion. Wise use of sustainable resources is a good example of industry-speak for clearfell, burn, lay wildlife poison and spray herbicide. The language of the FSC Principles is couched in such terms as: "The forest management operations shall encourage the efficient use of the forest's multiple products and services to ensure economic viability and a wide range of social and environmental benefits". This could easily be mistaken for the Mission Statement of Forestry Tasmania! This is of course to pick one principle in isolation, but from a Deep Ecology perspective, such language is repugnant. The forest is a living, breathing being, not a resource.
What message does this give to the global timber industry? It is an invitation for abuse. There is no doubt that the industry is deeply concerned about its environmental image and is quite prepared to shamelessly exploit any break it gets. One only has to read Boral's May '95 announcement that it will be seeking accreditation under Scientific Certification Systems (an FSC-affiliated body). It doesn't stand a chance, but what the heck, there's no harm in putting it in a press release, and telling concerned shareholders. This shameless exploitation is apparent in the role Canada (and Australia) has played in its attempts to promote existing forest practices as being worthy of receiving environmental certification under the International Standard Organisation (ISO) standard number14001, "Labelling of Forest Products". Australian industry for one has sought to make claims of purity by association. The connection between ISO 14001 and the FSC scheme is that the latter provides the operational targets for sustainable forest management while the environmental management system ensures that the targets are achieved. So says National Forests and Timber, the industry journal of Van Dieman Consultants, one of North Forest Product's proteges. Phrases like this appear throughout a number of the Federal Government's National Forest Policy processes, particularly the so-called JANIS reports, generated by the Department of Primary Industry and Energy.
Fortunately, Australia and Canada's push for ratification of ISO 14001 as an "eco-label" (Canadian forest industries' own terminology) was defeated at a Commission for Sustainable Development meeting in Oslo in June, '95. There is a lesson to be learned from this use of language. The global timber industry is out to confuse and subvert, and the environmental movement should avoid confusing the public further as to who are the greenies and who are the pigs, to paraphrase George Orwell.
On an ecological level, the scientific community is still 'out to lunch' as to whether any extraction timber from native forests is "sustainable". It certainly impacts on the forest ecosystem; US Forest Service research has shown that the removal of even a few trees from an area can lead to increased water runoff and stream sedimentation, simply through lack of absorption. "Ecoforestry" management techniques can also vary greatly, while still theoretically adhering to FSC principles. The Tasmanian company Pro Silva, for instance, advocates the German technique of "single-stem management" and recommends allowing forest access through "laneways". Such activities can lead to increased introduction of weeds and may even be structurally damaging. Wet eucalypt forest does not regenerate particularly well in the absence of fire, and removing individual trees may simply degrade the ecosystem.
"Management" of native forests should be acknowledged for what it is: an open-ended experiment, with making money as the bottom line.
There seems to be a belief that, if only forestry guidelines can be improved, then timber can continue to be supplied from native forests indefinitely. Many ecoforesters would agree, however, that current levels cannot be maintained. Given that Australia is (unfortunately) an industrial society, how then can it continue to consume industrial quantities of timber from native forests? If ecoforestry cannot provide the alternative, then its advocates should accept that they are seeking to satisfy a specialty market, and as such are simply another sector of the native forest logging industry, albeit preferable. How long will it be before eco-sawmillers will be demanding their own form of "resource security"?
What then, is the solution to this issue? If eco-labelling is to receive environmental support, labelling bodies must be clearly separated from the rapacious and cynical grip of the native forest logging industry. Meetings (in early 1995) with state members of the pro-woodchipping, extremist lobby group, the National Association of Forest Industries, left many conservation groups suspicious of the motives of the FSC in Australia. International environment groups in Australia who have endorsed the FSC need to be aware that they cannot override the very sincere concerns of groups that are more specialised in forest issues. In addition to the obvious need to reduce consumption of native forest timbers, other alternatives need to be seriously considered. These would include plantation timbers, bamboo, hemp and the whole suite of alternatives. The use of the latter will not impoverish native forests and will clearly put the debate where it belongs: on the farm and out of the woods.
Questions surrounding processing and production methods, or PPM's as they are known to trade law aficionados, present major challenges in the debate over the links between trade and environment policy. With fears of misuse potentially leading to either "green protectionism" or "environmental subsidies", it is not surprising that it has been difficult to develop a model for an eco-labelling system that will ensure the internalisation of environmental costs and ensure a transparent, non-discriminatory trading system.
That such a model has been successfully developed for the controversial timber trade is no small achievement. Timber is a renewable, functional and aesthetically pleasing resource. When facing a choice of materials, people with concern for the environment would choose timber over metals or plastics.
The dilemma comes when a purchaser cannot tell if the timber they want comes from a well-managed forest or if it was logged in an old growth forest or wilderness area. The same predicament afflicts plantation-grown timber: does the plantation use toxic pesticides, or was an endangered grassland destroyed to plant the trees?
The inability of consumers to tell "good wood" from bad has been a major concern. There is a crying need for a system that rigorously assesses the forest sources and the methods used in extraction so that consumers of timber can be sure their purchases contribute to better forest management, rather than destruction.
The task of labelling "good wood" has been given to the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an international body established by a diverse group of environmental organisations, indigenous peoples' organisations, timber traders, community forest associations, and forest product certification institutions. WWF, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are among the FSC's members, as are large timber retailers like B&Q, the largest hardware chain in Europe.
The FSC's task is to provide an independent assessment of forest management against a set of performance standards agreed between the major stakeholders in the forests debate.
The FSC has negotiated a consensus on criteria for forest management from its diverse membership. These criteria are both consistent and flexible, allowing for their adaptation to different forest types on a national or regional basis. Issues covered by the FSC's criteria include maintenance of natural forests, environmental impacts, community relations, workers' rights, indigenous peoples' rights, and monitoring and assessment.
The strength of the FSC system is a requirement for independent auditing. Auditors accredited by the FSC will use national standards for the assessment of individual company forest operations. These standards will be compatible with the FSC's criteria but developed locally in consultation with all stakeholders.
A large Australian market exists for certified timber. Recent public opinion-polling by the National Association of Forest Industries (NAFI) reveals that nearly 9 out of 10 consumers want the option of buying credibly labelled timber from well-managed forest. Only the FSC system can provide the credibility consumers demand as nobody trusts forest industry self-assessed claims.
WWF is seeking to have the FSC system applied in Australia and is discussing the proposal with environment organisations, the timber trade, unions and government agencies.
1. See under Forest Activists in the Alternative Directory. (See also Tim Cadman's article Assessing Sustainable Forest Management in Australia at: http://www.dpie.gov.au/dpie/conference/asfma/speeches/cadman.html. Tim's brother Sean has written an article called The Case For Plantations, at: http://www.nfn.org.au/)
2. Michael Rae is the ESD Program Manager for Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF Australia), and the coordinator of the Australian Certified Timber Buyers Group.