Comments on the article by Freris/Laschefsky on Precious Woods and the FSC
The author is GTZ consultant in the Natural Resource Policy Program in Pará (Brazil), recent publication: "Overexploitation or sustainable management? Action patterns of the tropical timber industry", London: Frank Cass, 2000
The main idea of the article is that there is no sustainable way of using Amazon timber, therefore, certification is no "green" alternative for local economic development in the Amazon region. The real alternative would be to promote non-timber forest products harvested and processed by local communities. In order to make their point, the authors enumerate a list of problems which FSC is facing, but they fail to realise that FSC can be held responsible only for some of these problems.
In addition to that, the authors fail to recognise that the use of non-timber forest products (known as "extractivism" in the Amazon) has a long tradition in the region and often contributed to a drastic reduction of the regeneration capacity of the species involved, and, as a consequence, to a boom and bust cycle, e.g. in the case of rosewood - pau-rosa or macaranduba (see Homma 1992 for an analysis of the economics of extractivism).
The other "misunderstanding" is that certification is meant to constitute an alternative development model for the region in itself. This has never been the case, certification is merely intended to be an instrument for the conversion of timber harvesting to more sustainable patterns. However, the authors are right to question whether large-scale timber harvesting and processing really is a sustainable option for the economic use of tropical forests. But they fail to mention the economic reasons, mainly technological progress which favours the production of technology-intensive panels on the basis of homogeneous wood fibres from monocultures (pine and eucalyptus plantations). Certification has been successful so far with big firms, which are able to invest large sums in the acquisition of learning, machines, sophisticated inventory systems, electronic equipment and forest areas. In the Amazon, these firms are the exception in the timber sector. Certification still is not a real alternative for the majority of timber processing enterprises in the region, because the necessary investment is too high and prices still do not compensate the effort. But these arguments are not taken into account by the authors.
Regarding the myths the authors try to deconstruct, it is sad to see that the arguments they use often do not hit the target:
Myth 1: First, it is true that the real impact low-impact logging will have on the forest ecosystem is still unknown. There is urgent need for long-term accompanying research in order to know and measure these impacts. But certification has never pretended to leave the forest untouched; it is an explicit aim of silvicultural practices to change the ecosystem and make it more productive in terms of marketable timber volumes. Protection of the forest ecosystem and its original biodiversity is nothing you may expect from certified logging, this is an aim pursued by the demarcation of protected areas. The idea of certified logging is to maintain forest cover and its basic ecological services (protection against erosion, protection of the water cycle, etc.).
Second, the opening up of undisturbed forest areas for logging is not a problem of certified logging but of logging in general. The difference is that certification aims at fixing the logging firm on one area and thus interrupt the traditional pattern of migrant logging.
Myth 2: Of course certification alone does not represent a fundamental change of the incentives that influence land-use patterns. But certification as a voluntary market instrument cannot be blamed for this. Certification tries to show that forest use may be an economically interesting alternative if pursued on a long-term basis (long-term commitment of the forest area under a management plan is binding, both under FSC rules as under Brazilian law). This is a weak argument in an economic setting characterised by short-termism. FSC defenders hope that the success of the instrument (growing voluntary adherence) may strengthen those forces within government who advocate a more radical change of incentives influencing land-use patterns.
Voluntary market-based instruments for environment and resource protection always need strong environmental control as a basis; certification was never meant to substitute this but to show that certain protection rules converge with the interests of the forest user.
Again, certification means a fundamental change in forest use (mainly diversification of marketable species) in order to fix firms on the same area. This is the contrary of the traditional pattern, which consisted in constant migration to remote areas. However, the authors may not be solely blamed for not acknowledging this fact - industry itself hesitates to acknowledge it because it means a major change of its routines.
Myth 3: The "timber bias" criticised by the authors certainly exists in Brazilian institutions, especially in the forest lobby. To see the forest as a multiple resource is still new in Brazil. However, the MMA (Federal Ministry of the Environment) has invested a lot in promoting the use of non-timber forest products, much of it with support of the PPG7. It is not fair to describe the Promanejo project as focussing only on timber production. Project design and activities include support to the traditional population of the Flona Tapajós and the processing and marketing of non-timber forest products. The results of these measures should be replicated in other areas later on.
The main argument against the "timber vocation" of the Amazon is the lack of competitiveness of tropical timber as an input for industrialised mass production in comparison to homogeneous wood fibre from plantations, due to the species diversity of these rain forests (unfortunately, in Indonesia, with forests dominated by dipterocarpacea, this has been different).
Myth 4: The authors are right to state that certification in itself cannot provide for a new basis of local economic development. But there are many municipalities in the Amazon, especially in the poor rural areas of Pará, where non-agricultural labour revenue depends to 80 - 90% on timber industry. This dependence is worsened by the traditional migration of sawmills to new agrarian frontiers when timber resources are exhausted. This pattern can be changed by certification. The fact that Precious Woods is now acquiring a forest area in Pará is a reflection of many errors of evaluation they made when deciding that Itacoatiara would be the ideal location for them, it is not part of a traditional migration process.
Regarding labour it is clear that forest operations are not as labour intensive as family agriculture production systems. The traditional argument in favour of forestry instead of agriculture on a specific area mainly refers to ecological conditions, which determine a higher sustainability for forestry also in economic and social terms in comparison to other forms of land use. In this context, the calculation that the 2.700 ha used for transport infrastructure by Precious Woods would give sustenance to 540 families shows a poor understanding of family agriculture in the Amazon: a traditional family needs at least 24 ha for its rotation system (3 hectares are used per year and then left fallow in order to recuperate soil fertility; with a fallow period of 8 years, a family needs a total of 24 hectares), therefore the 2700 ha would just be enough for 112,5 families.
The other case put forward by the authors, traditional families expelled from the area to be managed by Gethal, refers to the larger problem of land titles and agrarian reform which cannot be solved by certification, but for which certification cannot be blamed either.
Myth 5: Lack of transparency - here the authors name a real problem the FSC is facing, and which could compromise its credibility in the near future. This would favour those who say that there is no possibility of co-operative learning in tropical timber industry, and strengthen calls for boycott, which, in turn, would again increase illegality in the timber sector (and failing to reduce logging). The authors are completely right to say that it is wrong to hide the systematic breaking of FSC rules by certified enterprises. Under these circumstances, enterprises learn that the political agreement between industry, NGOs and environmental authorities is more important than rule compliance, and this undermines the authority of NGOs, which have to rely on transparency and information of the public.
Myth 6: This is a call for a CO2 balance along the production chain of timber industry!
Myth 7: It is true that the "green bonus" for certified timber on international markets is not very high. This is one of the factors that have to be taken into account when calculating the economic feasibility of sustainable large operations in tropical forests (see above). Regarding the case presented by the authors, it is sad that they omit the Brazilian buyers' group which has been created by Friends of the Earth because the domestic market is much more important than external markets for Amazon timber. Already now, however, external and internal demand for certified timber is larger than the offer. Which means, that Brazilian industries committed to process certified timber buy timber from certified plantations in the South of the country.