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AFRICA: Eco-Labels “Greenwashing” Forest Exploitation

PARIS, Jun 8 2011 (IPS) - “Eco-label fatigue” is setting in as green logging certification schemes are undermining proper government management of forest resources while “greenwashing” private ownership of these public resources, critics say.

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), created in 1993, is an internationally recognised scheme for the certification of the responsible management of forests.

It aims at ensuring that the exploitation of woods and plantations is sustainable, respectful of biodiversity and supportive of the social and economic development of its workers and neighbouring residents, particularly in Africa.

Many of the 13 African countries where forests were certified as FSC-compliant are low-income countries.

In Kenya, Madagascar or Tanzania, for instance, the benefits of responsible forest management could be massive for a mostly rural population.

Africa’s largest expanse of tropical forests covers the Congo Basin and Cameroon, where illegal or destructive logging practices threaten not only the environment but also local livelihoods.

These significant stakes explain why the surface of FSC-certified territory in sub-Saharan African countries has more than doubled, from three million ha in Apr. 2008 to 7,6 million ha in Apr. 2011.

Yet, African and international civil society organisations are increasingly wary of what some nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) call “eco-label fatigue”, and particularly of the FSC labelling scheme.

“Such certification weakens states’ resolve to properly manage their forests and wildlife,” warns Sylvain Angerand, who heads the forest campaign for the environmental NGO Friends of the Earth’s French section.

In order to be certified as FSC-compliant, a forest or plantation must satisfy environmental criteria ensuring proper conservation of the land, but it must also protect workers’ and indigenous people’s rights.

“Sites of special cultural, ecological, economic or religious significance to indigenous peoples shall be clearly identified in cooperation with such peoples, and recognised and protected by forest managers,” states criterion 3.3 of the FSC Principles.

The FSC additionally clearly states that it “intends to complement, not supplant, other initiatives that support responsible forest management worldwide”.

But, according to Angerand, “the scheme gives legitimacy to the industrial management of forests by shifting responsibility from public authorities to private outfits; it is largely used for its image value and ‘greenwashes’ many private ventures.”

As a consequence, “FSC certification is no guarantee that the poverty of people living off the forests will be alleviated”, he explains.

This has led to the withdrawal of some NGOs’ support for the scheme, explains Virginie Leroux, who authored a report surveying civil society positions on eco-labels.

“NGOs reckon that consumers get lost and are misled by the proliferation of eco-labelling initiatives. They point to the doubts one can have about the quality of the labels and the seriousness of the assessment procedures,” she wrote.

“A growing number of NGOs acknowledges that FSC is ‘the most credible’ forest certification system – but seemingly no longer credible enough to be associated with,” she concluded.

Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Ireland stated back in Sept. 2008 that it would not recognise the value of FSC certification anymore, according to Leroux.

The debate has gained new impetus in the light of planned regulations in the European Union to ban the importation and sale of illegally source timber by 2013.

“One of the fundamental criteria for FSC certification is respect for existing laws,” explains Alison Kriscenski, communications director at the FSC.

“A strengthening of EU laws in this field is great news,” she adds, as importers are expected to rely even more on certification schemes to demonstrate that their timber was legally sourced.

But this prospect does not deter critics. “The debate of legally-sourced versus illegally-sourced timber misses the point,” retorts Angerand.

“What matters is how sustainable the exploitation of a forest or plantation is, and how it contributes to reducing poverty locally. In some certified forests, the rates of renewal are far from sufficient, and there is often a strong case for management by the community, as opposed to management by industry,” he insists.

This tension sometimes translates into conflicts on the ground. Angerand was himself briefly detained by police last November while trying to interview former employees of the Congolaise Industrielle des Bois in Pokola, Republic of Congo (Brazzaville).

Similarly, Greenpeace alleged in April that several residents were severely beaten and also incarcerated by police forces in Yalisika in the Democratic Republic of the Congo while demonstrating against what the environmental NGO describes as a lack of any zoning regulations delimiting the exploited areas.

Problematically, some of these ventures are FSC-certified.

Africa’s 7.5 million ha of certified forests are a small portion of the global total of 140 million FSC- certified ha. But the growth expected on the continent in months to come should, if anything, swell the controversy.

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