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Logging in certified concessions drove intact forest landscape loss in Congo Basin

30 Jan 2017

A recent study found that certified forest concessions in Central Africa had the same or higher proportion of intact forest landscape loss as non-certified concessions. Here’s what one certification body, FSC, is doing about that.

A study published in the journal Science Advances this month found that, between 2000 and 2013, the global area of intact forest landscape declined by 7.2 percent, a reduction of 919,000 square kilometers, or a little over 227 million acres.

Intact forest landscapes (IFLs) are areas of natural land cover that are large and undisturbed enough to retain all their native plant and animal communities — defined at 500 square kilometers. For an IFL to be considered “lost,” its vegetation needs to be degraded to an extent at which it can no longer support its original levels of biodiversity.

Among the study's other findings, one in particular was quite surprising: Certification of logging concessions, which aims to ensure sustainable forest management practices, had a “negligible” impact on slowing the fragmentation of IFLs in the Congo Basin, home to the world's second-largest rainforest as well as high levels of biodiversity, including more than 600 tree species and 10,000 animal species.

The researchers behind the Science Advances study, a group led by scientists with the University of Maryland in the United States, found timber extraction to be the primary cause of IFL reduction across the globe. In Africa, the practice of selective logging - in which one or two valuable species are removed while the rest of the forest is left intact - was the dominant cause of IFL loss, responsible for 77 per cent of total loss of IFL area.

The rate of forest loss and fragmentation within IFL areas depends on the logging method and intensity of timber extraction, the researchers discovered. Clearcuts caused 15 percent of total IFL reduction, while selective logging accounted for 1.2 percent. The rest can be attributed to fragmentation caused by logging sites and the roads built to reach those sites and remove the timber being extracted.

In order to study how well legal protected status and voluntary forest management certification performed in terms of controlling IFL area reduction resulting from logging operations, the researchers analyzed protected areas and timber concessions in Cameroon, Gabon, and the Republic of the Congo, three central African countries where up-to-date spatial information on forest management is available. A number of the concessions included in the study were certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), a certification body that sets sustainability standards for the timber industry.

As it turns out, certified concessions in those countries were no better at preserving IFLs than non-certified concessions, and far worse than protected areas.

“Central African countries had the same or higher proportion of IFL area reduction as non-certified concessions, whereas the IFL area loss was at least four times lower in PAs than in timber concessions,” the authors of the study write.

FSC certification had the worst track record in Cameroon, where 84.5 percent of IFL area reduction between 2000 and 2013 occurred within FSC-certified concessions, compared to just 0.3 percent in protected areas. Certification was no bulwark against IFL loss in the concessions of the Republic of the Congo and Gabon, either, as 41.9 and 37 percent, respectively, of IFL area reduction occurred on FSC-certified concessions in those countries.

“Our results from the period 2000–2013 suggest that the pace of IFL fragmentation due to selective logging in central Africa is faster within FSC-certified concessions than outside them, due to selective logging and fragmentation by logging road construction,” the researchers write. “By definition, selective logging and establishment of associated infrastructure in an IFL reduce its area. Although we do not know the degree to which IFL fragmentation is actively avoided by logging operations, it is evident that selective logging within FSC-certified concessions is a significant driver of IFL area reduction in central Africa.”

Standards for responsible forest management like those of the FSC aim to balance the need for economic development in impoverished countries with the necessity to conserve forests and thus overall environmental health. FSC regards IFLs as a type of “high conservation value” forest, and its standards explicitly state that the degradation of IFLs should be avoided. But, at least from 2000 to 2013, that standard does not appear to have been adhered to rigorously in Central Africa.

“The conclusion of this is clear: So far, FSC hasn’t worked as a tool to prevent intact forest landscape degradation and loss in the Congo Basin,” Greenpeace’s Filip Verbelen told Mongabay. “For Greenpeace, large-scale intact forest landscape degradation is not compatible with claims of responsible logging practices, hence Greenpeace’s efforts in the last years to strengthen FSC policies on IFL protection.”

In 2013, those efforts by Greenpeace and others led to the General Assembly of FSC adopting a motion, known as Motion 65, that urges the certification body to “ensure that Certificate Holders implement protection measures (for example, set-asides, legal protected areas, conservation reserves, deferrals, community reserves, indigenous protected areas etc.) ensuring management for intactness” within IFLs.

According to Corey Brinkema, president of the Forest Stewardship Council US, the findings of the study may be noteworthy, but they don’t apply to how FSC operates today. FSC implemented the precautionary clause in Motion 65 in late December 2016, which requires certificate holders to protect at least 80 percent of IFLs in FSC-certified forests from the impacts of logging operations until indicators to protect IFLs are integrated into national standards.

“At the 2013 FSC General Assembly, our members voted overwhelmingly to add protections for intact forest landscapes to FSC forest management standards,” Brinkema told Mongabay. “So while the new study is eye opening, it addresses a period of time before FSC had protections in place. We are now moving to protect intact forest landscapes around the world.”

There’s a longstanding argument by some in the forestry industry that clearcuts actually protect intact forests by concentrating harvest into smaller geographic areas, Brinkema notes. “Of course, in that concentrated area ecological function can be severely harmed, which is why FSC tightly restricts ‘even-aged management’ - as clearcuts are known in the industry,” he said. “Because FSC tends to favor selective harvest, it is not entirely surprising to see harvest in intact forests during the study period, as forest managers may end up taking fewer trees over a larger area, generally speaking.” That is precisely the concern that Greenpeace, among others, raised during FSC’s General Assembly in 2013, prompting action to protect IFLs.

This issue may seem cut-and-dry on the surface, Brinkema added, but in reality it is quite complex: “There are important social and economic issues that also must be factored into the equation, including the rights of local and Indigenous people and communities to access natural resources for traditional cultural uses as well as local economic development. That said, our membership recognized both the importance and rarity of remaining intact forest landscapes when they voted to add protections. These new protections have been developed and are now being pilot tested before they are broadly rolled out.”

FSC’s new approach to IFLs is being developed and tested in Canada, the Congo, Russia, and South America, Brad Kahn, communications director for FSC US, told Mongabay. “The approach and intensity varies across geographies, with Canada being out front,” he said. “This is very complex work, and it is integrally related to Free, Prior and Informed Consent for Indigenous Peoples - this is the key to managing large landscapes in Canada to be certain.”

The certification body is not rushing the effort, but taking a staged approach aimed at achieving long-term gains, Kahn said. FSC Canada has a draft document focused on managing for IFLs that is going through the development process as well as seeking public input and technical advice right now.

An “advice note” issued by FSC for the interpretation of Motion 65 that came into force on January 1, 2017 states that forest management operations within IFLs, including both harvesting and road building, should only proceed if they will not impact more than 20 percent of IFLs within a concession and will not reduce any IFLs below a 50,000-hectare threshold. The note adds that IFL maps from Global Forest Watch, or recent inventories using the same methodology, such as those of Global Forest Watch Canada, will be used in all regions as a baseline for identification of IFL areas.

According to Greenpeace forest campaigner Grant Rosoman, the advice note allows space for national and regional processes to create robust indicators that achieve the intent of Motion 65, which is to protect IFLs, while also allowing time to achieve the Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) of indigenous peoples. “But in the meantime IFLs are offered some protection,” Rosoman told Mongabay.

Rosoman said that Greenpeace is pleased FSC is upholding the precautionary approach in implementing Motion 65 by putting a cap on industrial logging in IFLs during the implementation process. To protect forests, however, FSC has to implement the advice note strictly, Rosoman said, adding that Greenpeace will be watching to see that FSC transparently monitors compliance with the motion.

“But it is important to note also that FSC is the only forest certification system which is actively working to protect Intact Forest Landscapes — a clear point of difference from other weaker industry dominated schemes such as PEFC and SFI,” Rosoman said. “We are tentatively optimistic that with FSC taking the next step in implementing motion 65 on IFL protection we will see a reduction of IFL loss within FSC certified areas.”