Does forest certification really work?

21 Sep 2017
  • Based on a review of 40 studies of variable quality, we found that certified tropical forests can overall be better for the environment than forests managed conventionally.
  • But there wasn't enough evidence to say if certified tropical forests are better than, the same as, or worse than conventionally managed tropical forests when it comes to people.
  • We also found that profits and other economic benefits can be hard to come by for certified logging companies working in tropical forests.
  • This is part of a special Mongabay series on "Conservation Effectiveness".

Tropical timber has earned a bad reputation. When we think of timber from lush, tropical forests, it conjures up images of valuable old-growth trees pillaged by logging companies and illegal timber mafias, ignoring the plight of wildlife and local communities.

But tropical timber does not have to be bad, some experts say.

Tropical wood forms an integral part of many of our daily-use products, like furniture, toilet paper, flooring, construction, and packaging material. And this important resource can be harvested from forests responsibly and sustainably, experts say, ensuring that we meet our future wood needs while conserving forests.

“When you speak about tropical forests with anybody, my mom or whoever, it’s always corruption, it’s always blood, it’s always stealing, it’s always dirty. Nobody wants tropical timber anymore,” Paolo Cerutti, a senior scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) who has been working on sustainable forest management in sub-Saharan Africa, told Mongabay. “But that is bad because we can harvest the forest in a way that is clean and proper and sustainable.”

It is this need for “clean” timber that gave birth to the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) — a voluntary, worldwide certification program formed in 1993 by a group of environmentalists, indigenous groups, human rights organizations, and timber users and traders. The FSC, headquartered in Bonn, Germany, hopes to change the way forests are managed.


What is the Forest Stewardship Council?

The FSC is a certification program that works by laying down a series of standards to guide logging companies. If these standards are diligently followed, the FSC says that the companies will see better economic returns for their products while also being good for the environment, workers, and local communities.

The FSC logo — a green checkmark and tree — aims to assure consumers that the certified wood products have been tracked throughout their supply chains and are guaranteed to come from responsibly managed forests independently monitored by credible third party auditors.

“In the tropics, where illegal harvest and degradation are widespread, FSC represents the single-best tool that exists today to conserve tropical forests while also offering economic opportunities to the myriad landowners, especially communities and smallholders, working responsibly in those regions,” Corey Brinkema, president of FSC-US, told Mongabay.

Today, there are more than 50 certification schemes relating to the management of forests, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Of these, the FSC is the fastest growing scheme in terms of certified area added annually.

Between 2012 and 2017, nearly 50 million hectares (123.5 million acres) of forest — an area roughly the size of Sweden — was newly certified by the FSC. As of September 2017, about 198 hectares (489 million acres) of forests are being managed according to FSC standards across 84 countries. The bulk of these FSC-certified forests (about 83 percent) lie in Europe and North America. The tropics — Asia, Africa, and Latin America — account for 16 percent of FSC-certified areas.

FSC certification is not only expanding rapidly, but is also one of the most respected forest certification schemes out there.

The international conservation NGO World Wildlife Fund (WWF), a founding member of FSC, considers the certification program to be “the best certification system to ensure environmentally responsible, socially beneficial and economically viable management of forests.”

Catharine Grant of Greenpeace, another environmental NGO that is a founding member of the FSC, told Mongabay: “A 100 percent FSC-certified forest management system is the only system that has stringent social and environmental requirements when implemented correctly.”

But is FSC certification really effective? Has the certification scheme delivered the promises it set out to realize? To find some answers, we reviewed 40 studies that looked at the impacts of forest certification and talked to six experts (both independent researchers and experts within the FSC).


State of science on FSC certification

The scientific literature on FSC certification’s impacts is currently poor.

Very few studies directly measure the effectiveness of FSC certification. And many of these are biased by design or lack methodological rigor to prove causation. Very few make appropriate comparisons — simply comparing an FSC-certified forest with a non-certified forest, or comparing a forest before and after certification, is not enough to tell us if the changes we see are truly because of certification. The changes could be due to other factors that may have come into play since the forest was certified. Such studies can still show that certification was associated with various outcomes, but not that certification truly caused them. So the findings of these studies must be interpreted accordingly, as we have done.

For example, a reduced deforestation rate in an FSC-certified forest compared to a non-certified forest could be because of a number of reasons: it could be due to logging operation changes brought about by certification, due to the forest’s remote location, or simply because the logging company was already relatively environmentally friendly and may have had eco-friendly logging practices in place even without certification.

“This inability to demonstrate the extent to which changes on the ground have been due to FSC certification adoption is a major weakness,” Claudia Romero, a researcher at the University of Florida, told Mongabay.

Then there is the problem of connecting the dots. There are individual case studies on FSC spread across continents. But it is nearly impossible to average their results and come up with a unified conclusion about the effectiveness of certification.

“And that’s a big problem,” Cerutti said. “It is very difficult to come up with a clear, generalizable message that can cover at least a continent or an entire sub-region.”

Time is another shortcoming. Almost all the studies we reviewed have looked at FSC certification’s impacts over short time scales of one to five years. But certification’s intended impacts are multiple — higher profits, better resources for local communities, improved habitat for wildlife — and could show up in a certified forest only after several years of assiduously implementing FSC’s standards. Even though the FSC has been around for nearly 25 years, we found no studies that had looked at the long-term impacts of FSC certification.


How we reviewed available evidence

To build our evidence base, we targeted studies that specifically compared two different forest management regimes: certified forests with non-certified, conventionally logged forests in the tropics. We could find only 13 studies that fit our criteria. So we also included 27 studies that compared the effects of managing a forest under Reduced Impact Logging (RIL) standards with those of managing a forest conventionally. According to several scientific studies and communication with a number of experts, most FSC-certified forests appear to use RIL (a set of logging guidelines that experts believe leads to much lower damage in timber concessions).

FSC certification can be thought of as a toolbox with multiple tools for reducing environmental degradation. RIL is one of these tools. RIL is also currently one of the only tools that has been widely studied, and even so the studies are sparse. Here we have investigated the effects of both FSC certification, and RIL, arguably its most important and best-studied tool.

Overall, out of the several hundred studies we reviewed, we selected 40 of the most relevant peer-reviewed scientific studies focusing on FSC certification or RIL in tropical forests. These studies were highly variable in how they were conducted — they followed different methodologies, measured different outcomes in a variety of ways, and had different sample sizes, for example. So we could only consistently extract information on whether certification or RIL was better than, the same as, or worse than conventional forest management. Moreover, only a minority of studies could suggest causation; whereas the majority could only demonstrate a correlation between the forest management regime and outcomes. (These differences are reflected in the infographic below, through the “Select type of evidence” menu option.)

For detailed methodology, click here. To view the infographic on the evidence we collected click here.

Continue reading the full article here.