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--  Forestry Certification  --

A Certifiably Uncertain Situation

The Forest Stewardship Council appears to have the lead in the forestry certification battle — with the Forest Alliance of BC now seeking membership — but some kind of "equivalency" in certification standards with the CSA may be down the road.

By John Clarke

The Forest Alliance of British Columbia has given notice it wants membership in the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) to enable it to influence the direction of forest practices certification.

There are already 22 members from BC in the FSC, and another 18 applicants are pending, including a couple of corporations, though most are individual consultants, representing one of the largest regional groups among the 400 FSC members world-wide.

This move is important in that the Alliance is the first significant industry association to seek to join the FSC.

Until recently, Canadian producers had run up their flag with the Canadian Standards Association (CSA). The CSA has been working with the International Standards Organization (ISO) based in Geneva to develop guidelines for sustainable forestry in line with a United Nations mandate. Its approach has been more technically professional than that of the FSC, but public acceptance has followed the more politically astute FSC.

Nobody is giving up on the CSA or the ISO or, for that matter, Alberta’s lesser-known Forest Care program. In fact, Forest Alliance president Tom Tevlin has said that eventually all the certifying bodies will have to come together to create a broadly uniform set of standards for certification.

That will be a tall order. Even with Alliance membership the FSC, CSA, ISO and Forest Care are only four organizations in a virtual global certification industry.

Certifying or would-be certifying agencies are springing up not just in the advanced economies of Europe and North America but also in South East Asia and Africa. And they’re not all getting along in a brotherly crusade to save the environment. Some are snapping at each other like angry puppies.

There’s something tangible to fight over: sustainable forestry is now in worldwide demand because that’s the way the public worldwide wants it.

A new organization, the Pan European Forest Certification group (PEFC), launched a conservation program last April that immediately ran into opposition from the powerful World Wildlife Fund and some other European-based environmental lobbies.

They all reject the PEFC eco-label as the creation of forest owners’ associations, saying it wouldn’t have a "positive impact on forest management in ecological and social terms" and wouldn’t guarantee equal participation by other groups in PEFC decisions.

Whether a similar case can be made against any of the other certifying groups is a moot point.

In the case of the FSC, its most effective strategy is the chain-of-custody control it asserts over lumber in the retail sales yards. Chain-of-custody has pressured lumber buyers’ groups to take only FSC-approved supplies. The idea is to make sure —formally — that FSC wood doesn’t get mixed in with other wood in the lumberyard.

Chain-of-custody is what makes a buyers’ group model work and has put the FSC ahead of all other certifying agencies in North America and Europe. Even before it had begun establishing logging principles, this little organization, born in Toronto six years ago and nurtured from headquarters in Oaxaca, Mexico, was getting large retail chains to commit to FSC-labeled wood.

But the FSC is only now developing regional standards. An ad hoc committee recently struck in BC has produced draft regulations which nobody in the industry believes will be good enough, or even workable, as they stand.

Bill Dumont, chief forester at Western Forest Products of Vancouver, says the fact that FSC’s market-oriented strategy has the momentum at the moment gives it authority to push its own standards agenda.

"Right now the FSC is the only credibly accepted certification," he says. "That doesn’t mean the situation won’t change. The PEFC scheme in Europe is gaining a lot of steam. But people are still protecting their own turf and they’re not in a mood for collaboration at this point."

The FSC seems less troubled than the other groups about potential problems in the whole certification process.

Dumont believes there are legal questions about one organization trying to control the situation. "There’s the aspect of trade restraint to consider," he says. "One has to be careful about saying certification is not a trade issue. Even so, our assessment (in seeking FSC certification for Western Forest Products) was that our customers were asking us to consider it."

The World Trade Organization (WTO) has already hit Canada with some potentially damaging decisions, notably on technological research subsidies in the aircraft industry. It’s thought WTO decisions could eventually undermine the huge Canada-US Auto Pact.

The Forest Alliance believes a system will emerge to match the interests of lumber producers and buyers. The feeling is that the FSC will not end up in a "winner take all" position. But if the Forest Alliance wants to be able to critique the FSC sys-tem, it’s important that it be at the table.

It has conceded that the FSC has done the job politically by marketing itself inter-nationally far more aggressively than the CSA model has so far. The buyers’ group strategy has tapped psychologically into the public’s deepening concern for wilderness preservation.

It’s a narrow approach. While focusing primarily on the physical environment, it has done much less work on social, economic and First Nations rights issues.

Ironically, the whole certification business is being characterized in corporate boardrooms as a kind of victory over militant environmentalism.

"We have managed to chase the activists out of the province," says Tevlin. "You don’t see mass demonstrations any more. But we’re now at a point where we have to develop our market-based tools very carefully."

There’s frustration in those same board-rooms with both the FSC and the CSA. The FSC is prescriptive, not objective oriented. With regional standards development so piecemeal, the industry can’t commit to two or three different sets of vague guidelines that may change at any moment.

The CSA process has been too slow. Tony Rotherham, whose Canadian Pulp and Paper Association has been leading the CSA effort, says the FSC’s high pressure tactics have made potential customers feel the need for FSC protection while the fight is on.

The CSA has involved a wider group of experts from federal and provincial governments, environmental groups, First Nations, recreationists and the academic world. That kind of process takes a lot of time.

This is why Tevlin sees convergence as the key. "The industry sees the way for-ward as some kind of equivalency between these groups so that the FSC and CSA can come together," he says. "It seems logical to me that equivalency should be discussed. The public is not going to under-stand several models, just one."

One model is already on the table in the United Kingdom — the Woodland Assurance Scheme — announced by Prime Minister Tony Blair in June, which negotiated standards between the industry and the FSC.

For Tevlin, the bottom line is a commitment to sustainable forestry. "That’s the number one point. Subsidiary to that is that certification is being more and more demanded simply as a way of verifying that. Certification is just a tool."

The key will lie in reconciling two views of sustainability which may be very different — one of the industry producing the wood and the other of the public that needs it while wishing at the same time to preserve the forests. It will likely be a painful process.


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