A critical look at tropical forest certification
Nowadays, we can easily buy a garden chair made from Malaysian rubber wood, an Asian oak table from wood grown in China, or a guitar with a piece of Brazilian mahogany. The possibility to make choices comes also with the responsibility for the environmental and social impacts that different products have. Timber extraction in the tropics is done by selective logging, which can (and unfortunately often does) cause huge areas of tropical forest to become degraded. As tropical forests loose value through degradation, they are less likely to be kept as forests, and more likely to be converted to other uses, such as oil palm monocultures, pastures for cattle, or agriculture.
Tropical forest certification has for aim to promote sustainable timber extraction in tropical forests: logging companies that can prove to external auditors, such as those from the Forest Stewardship Council, that they manage their forest in a sustainable way, receive a certificate. In theory, the wood products that are certified will fetch a higher price from environmentally aware customers, which will in turn encourage the logging companies to keep up the sustainable forest management.
What does sustainable mean?
But what does sustainable forest management actually mean? Management that is sustainable in terms of income from the extracted wood? Sustainable in terms of number of jobs for the local community that the logging operations provide? Sustainable in terms of carbon that is locked in the forest, helping combat climate change? Sustainable in terms of the number of animal and plant species that survive in the forest? The Forest Stewardship Council sets itself an ambitious goal of achieving sustainability in terms of all of these things, and many others, including for example indigenous peoples’ rights, combating corruption, and maintaining ecosystem services.
Forest certification has been around for several decades, and so it is time to critically look at what has been achieved in terms of environmental, social, as well as economic sustainability of tropical forest management. Such assessment is crucial to inform environmentally responsible customers about what it actually means to purchase a certified product from tropical forest. At the same time, it is important to give logging companies and the Forest Stewardship Council a balance sheet, that could serve to re-focus efforts, prioritize, or raise standards where necessary.
In a paper in Conservation Letters, you can see the full balance sheet for how well tropical forest certification has lived up to the goals and expectations of sustainable forest management. We assembled many different studies that have compared regular logging operations in tropical forests with those that were either certified or doing Reduced Impact Logging. Here is a simplified version of the balance sheet:
The existing (meager) evidence
We found a fair amount of evidence that tropical forest certification is better for the environment than regular logging: certified forests lost fewer animal species, as well as carbon emissions, when compared to conventional logging operations in the tropics. There was also much less damage to the remaining, unlogged trees in certified forests.
The picture is less convincing in terms of the wellbeing of the local communities living in the vicinity of commercially logged tropical forests. There was some evidence that certification brought about better living and working conditions to the local people working on the logging operations, and that the community wellbeing in general is improved with better roads, schools, and waste management. However, there were many cases where certification did not bring the hoped for benefits in terms of improved equality, reduced poverty, and fewer conflicts of locals with the company. Virtually no data exists on if, and how certification combats corruption, which is one of the largest obstacles in tropical forestry.
Whereas we know more about the economic sustainability of tropical forest certification, the news is not necessarily good. Managing forests properly, planning carefully each harvest, and making sure that as little damage as possible is caused to the rest of the forest is expensive. The price premium, the extra money that companies manage to get for certified products, does not seem to be enough to make up for the higher costs. As a result, the majority of studies that the researchers found showed lower profitability of certified forests compared to conventional logging operations.
Forest certification – yes or no?
What then, is the answer? Should we purchase a teak garden chair only when it is from a certified tropical forest operation? The simple answer is yes – environmentally, and socially, certification is certainly doing more good than harm. It is likely that paying a little bit extra goes towards an environmentally good cause, and that it is at least not worsening the situation of the local people. The more complicated answer is – yes, but we need to strive for more. First, companies, scientists, and the Forest Stewardship Council need to invest more time and effort into rigorously assessing the impacts of certification at all fronts, and ensuring that the benefits from timber extraction go more directly to local communities. Second, just because certification is better than the default is not a reason to become complacent: the default is often a drastic over-exploitation of the forest for all its valuable wood, without much regard for any other values that the forest offers. In healthcare, we also do not compare treatment outcomes to what the standard was in the 1950s – instead, we see whether a new drug has a significantly better outcome than all existing alternatives. This is the same approach forest certification need to take: forest certification should be an evolving, constantly improving golden standard in sustainable forest management.