Certified nonsense

Ugandan cattle herders

Ugandan cattle herder Lawrence Kamonyo and his wife, flanked by rows of pine trees planted by the German company Global Woods. The wood is certified but Kamonyo lost his land and his livelihood. © Susan Götze

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) was formed in 1993 by a group of environmental NGOs, timber companies and traders to promote ‘environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial, and economically viable management of the world’s forests’. Today, more than 187 million hectares of forests and tree plantations have been certified under the FSC system. Consumers buy FSC products believing they exclude timber from socially and environmentally damaging forestry operations. But is this really the case?

In 2002, I looked at FSC certification of two teak plantations run by the Forest Industry Organization (FIO) in Thailand. The case study was part of a report by the UK Rainforest Foundation, ‘Trading in Credibility: The myth and reality of the Forest Stewardship Council’. While the FIO’s certification was subsequently withdrawn, the FSC ignored the underlying structural problems.

‘There are too many cases on record of illegal timber coming through the FSC for it to be able to guarantee that certified timber is not illegal'

More than a decade later, those problems remain. One major issue is that certification is voluntary. Another is that the FSC certifies tree plantations and logging in primary forests, despite the impact on local communities and the environment.

But the central conflict of interest is that to vet forestry companies the FSC uses third-party certifying firms – which are paid directly by the forestry company. It is clearly not in the certifying company’s interest to raise too many difficulties; it is in the forestry company’s interest to hire a certifying company with a reputation of not interpreting FSC standards too strictly.

Critics point out that ‘there are no real consequences for certification bodies for poor performance, and few incentives to do better… It is cheaper to do a poor-quality audit and consultation than a high-quality one.’1

Simon Counsell, head of Rainforest Foundation UK and an FSC founder, agrees: ‘There are too many cases on record of illegal timber coming through the FSC for it to be able to guarantee that certified timber is not illegal. FSC certification is neither a guarantee of legality, nor of sustainability. Its main purpose now is to help market timber and to prop up companies’ value, rather than protecting forests.’

Since 2006, Simon and I have run FSC-Watch, a website highlighting abuses and infractions under the FSC system. In that time we’ve featured dozens of examples of serious breakdowns in the certification process.

Two recent cases shed light on the FSC’s shortcomings.

Uganda: German pine trees

For the past 14 years, a German company, Global Woods, has been planting pine trees in the Kikonda Forest Reserve, 200 kilometres northwest of Kampala. The company claims the plantation produces ‘sustainable timber’. Since 2012, its operations have been FSC certified – despite the fact that local farmers were forced aside to make way for the plantation and cattle herders lost their grazing land. Officially, the Forest Reserve is state land and Global Woods has a 50-year lease to more than 12,000 hectares.

In September 2012, Göran Eklöf, from the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, visited Kikonda2 and discovered ‘a high level of conflict’ between local communities and Global Woods. Sore points included ‘arbitrary arrests of people, impoundments of cattle entering the reserve, and widespread corruption among forest rangers’.

Last December, German journalist Susanne Götze followed up and found that the conflicts are far from resolved.3 Herders complain that the herbicide regularly sprayed between the rows of trees is killing their cattle. But Global Woods manager Matthias Baldus dismisses the claims. He told Götze there is no scientific connection between the chemicals and the sick cattle.

In their assessment of Global Woods’ plantations, the certifying company, SGS Qualifor, clearly sides with the company. SGS explains that the Kikonda Central Forest was formally declared a ‘forest reserve’ in 1968 and that under Ugandan law no-one can live or farm in a forest reserve.

When dictator Idi Amin seized power in 1971, he encouraged forest clearing so his opponents could not retreat to the bush. In 1975, he issued a decree allowing Ugandans to buy land anywhere (including forest land) for ‘development’. Those changes and general chaos inside the country fuelled internal migration.

But to SGS, the local farmers and herders are ‘migrants’ who carried out ‘illegal activity including agricultural encroachment, charcoal burning and grazing’. Their analysis is categorical: ‘There are no customary use-rights of the land, since the area is a Forest Reserve.’

Cattle herder Lawrence Kamonyo describes Global Woods’ activities as ‘rich white people doing business’. But Kamonyo had the misfortune to be living where Global Woods decided to plant its pine trees. He was evicted and arrested. His house was torched, his children beaten.

Brazil: laundering dirty wood

In December 2015, FSC suspended Brazil’s largest certified forestry operation, Jari Florestal. Since 2004 the company’s 715,000 hectares had been certified by the California-based SCS Global Services.

The suspension followed an investigation by Brazil’s Federal Public Ministry, the Federal Police, the Brazilian Institute of Environment (IBAMA) and the Federal Justice department. Jari Florestal and its subsidiaries are suspected of large-scale fraud and laundering of illegal timber. Brazilian authorities say it involves 9,000 cubic metres of timber: about 220 truckloads.4 Between December 2014 and February 2015, more than $7-million worth of timber was transported from just one of the fraudulent forest management areas.

A company with a forest concession is allowed to log an agreed amount of timber. Once the trees are cut, the timber is given a tracking number. Laundering illegal timber involves using the tracking number from a legal operation.

Playing by the rules: access to the FSC-certified pine plantation in Uganda is heavily restricted.

The tracking numbers on Jari Florestal’s timber suggested that the logs came from a legal forest management area 500 kilometres away. Despite the fact that no road connection exists between that forest area and Jari Florestal’s timber yard, the logs arrived in less than two days – an impossible feat, and part of the evidence that the timber was illegal.4

SCS conducted its annual assessment of Jari Florestal in November 2013 and this was the basis for the company’s re-certification in July 2014. Several ‘corrective action requests’ were issued – pre-conditions that Jari Florestal had to meet to remain certified. One notes that ‘the information entered in the traceability control system does not match the real situation found in field operations’. Another confirms that: ‘The company did not abide by the forest management legislation regarding product list on the transport document for logs found at the log yard.’

Unfortunately, SCS didn’t dig any deeper. That was left to the Brazilian authorities.

In both these cases, FSC’s certifying companies were generous in giving the lumber companies the benefit of the doubt. In Brazil, SCS failed to uncover what appears to be large-scale fraud and illegal timber laundering. In Uganda, SGS Qualifor sided with Global Woods against local communities.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised. With certifying companies paid directly by logging companies, there are strong incentives to issue the certificate and hope for the best.

Chris Lang is a long-time forest activist and blogger. He runs the websites FSC-watch (fsc-watch.org) and REDD-monitor (redd-monitor.org).

  1. Fern, fern.org/node/4297.

  2. REDD Monitor, nin.tl/redd-light.

  3. Der Spiegel, nin.tl/spiegel-uganda.

  4. MPF, nin.tl/mpf-investigation.

Carbon cowboys

The destruction of forests accounts for about 20 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Governments, companies or forest owners should be rewarded for keeping their forests instead of cutting them down. It’s a simple idea. But putting it into practice is proving immensely complicated.

There is currently no international agreement to reduce carbon emissions from forests, but negotiators are working on one. It’s called ‘Reduced emissions from deforestation and degradation’, or REDD for short, and is being developed in the build up to December’s UN climate negotiations in Copenhagen. The problem is, in the words of Marc Stuart, head of UK-based carbon consultancy EcoSecurities, ‘REDD is the most mind-twistingly complex endeavour in the carbon game. It involves scientific uncertainties, technical challenges, heterogeneous non-contiguous asset classes... There’s brutal potential for gaming and getting it wrong means that scam artists will get unimaginably rich while emissions don’t change a bit.’ Nevertheless, Stuart is in favour of financing REDD through carbon trading. Since he made his fortune through, er, carbon trading, perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised.

But an early warning of what can go wrong has been provided by Papua New Guinea (PNG). Its Government is embroiled in a scandal over the issuance of REDD ‘credits’, despite having no legislation covering trading in forest carbon. ‘We’ve had every carbon cowboy in the world descend,’ PNG’s Special Envoy for Environment and Climate Change, Kevin Conrad, complained recently.

But the PNG Government appears to have encouraged these ‘carbon cowboys’. In 2005, the Minister for Trade and Industry, Paul Tiensten, issued a certificate which ‘represents ownership in carbon sinks’ to an Australian company, Climate Assist. More recently, PNG’s Office for Climate Change (OCC) has issued REDD ‘credits’ for 40 forest projects, each denoting one million tonnes of carbon. This, despite the fact that, as The Economist points out, ‘no government is able to issue any legal REDD credit, as no framework exists for doing so’.

One of the projects, the ‘Kamula Doso REDD project’ is particularly controversial. In October 2008, PNG’s Supreme Court issued a ruling preventing the notoriously destructive logging company Rimbunan Hijau from logging the Kamula Doso forest. A few days later, the OCC issued a certificate granting the rights to one million tonnes of carbon from Kamula Doso to a company called Nupan Trading Ltd. Nupan Trading is run by an Australian former horse-trainer called Kirk Roberts. More recently he ran a cock-fighting business in the Philippines, where he is under investigation by the immigration department.

In June 2009, Bertha Somare, the Prime Minister’s press secretary, issued a formal statement saying: ‘The OCC has no legal mandate to issue any forest carbon credits… nor is there currently any REDD asset in existence due to a lack of a regulatory framework for forest carbon in Papua New Guinea.’ The director of the OCC, Theo Yasause, has now been suspended, while an internal investigation is carried out into the issuance of the ‘credits’. Yasause denies any wrong-doing, claiming that the certificates were ‘samples’. Asked why he would make sample documents, he said: ‘We wanted to see what it looked like.’

None of which inspires much confidence in the brave new world of REDD carbon trading. Subprime carbon, anyone?

Chris Lang


It all sounds so easy. ‘When we decide to fly we can’t get around the pollution (CO2 and other gases) that this causes, but we can compensate for these emissions by planting and protecting trees that ‘soak up’ the CO2 as they grow,’ a Dutch company called GreenSeat explains on its website. They calculate that for the paltry sum of $28 you would be able to cover the costs of planting 66 trees to ‘compensate’ for the CO2 emissions of a return flight from Frankfurt to Kampala. But a closer look on the ground at one of these projects, in Mount Elgon National Park in Uganda, reveals serious problems which are invisible to anyone paying to offset their guilt about flying. A Dutch organization called the FACE (Forests Absorbing Carbon-dioxide Emissions) Foundation is GreenSeat’s main partner in the project and is largely responsible for overseeing the tree-planting activities, working with the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA). The UWA-FACE project involves planting a two to three kilometres wide strip of trees just inside the 211 kilometre boundary of the National Park. To date, 8,500 hectares out of a planned total of 25,000 hectares have been planted, according to FACE Foundation Director Denis Slieker. No-one is saying that the project hasn’t brought benefits. It has improved forest regeneration along the park’s boundary, especially in areas that had been used for agriculture. The project is certified by independent bodies and is routinely monitored. Fred Kizza, FACE’s project co-ordinator in Uganda, claims that the project has improved income and standards of living among local communities. A contracted certifier of the project, Société Générale de Surveillance (SGS), says the same thing: ‘The project has provided significant amounts of paid labour and training to the surrounding communities in an area where there are very few other sources of paid labour.’ It seems that the Mount Elgon project ticks all the right boxes.

Uprooting communities

But local council officials dispute the employment claims. They point out that most of the jobs are only available during the planting period and employ very few people. They also complain that the project has taken away what little local communities had. Collecting firewood has become a serious problem and people have had to abandon the preparation of foods that take a long time to cook such as beans. FACE’s Denis Slieker, from his office in the Netherlands, refers to an impact assessment carried out in 2001, which found that employment was the main plus point of the project. According to the report, the main negative impacts were increased scarcity of land, reduction of access to park resources and the increase of dangerous animals. ‘Closer research,’ Slieker says, ‘demonstrated that the negative impacts were caused by the conversion of the area into a National Park rather than reforestation by UWA-Face. In the absence of the project, people would have experienced the same impacts.’ In 1993, a year before the UWA-FACE tree-planting project started, the Ugandan Government declared Mount Elgon a National Park. The people living within its boundaries lost all their rights. According to SGS they never had any: ‘The encroachers have never had legal rights to farm the land and UWA are legally entitled to evict settlers from inside the boundary.’ The Government ruthlessly evicted people from the park without any compensation. Several court cases on behalf of local communities have not yielded much. UWA’s park rangers receive paramilitary training. ‘The wildlife people who operate there are very militarized, and have killed over 50 people. People feel that the Government favours animals more than the people,’ David Wakikona, Member of Parliament for Manjiya County told the Ugandan newspaper New Vision. Masokoyi Swalikh, Mbale District Vice Chairman, said that UWA’s approach has resulted in conflicts where communities have deliberately destroyed the trees – for them a symbol of their exclusion from land that was once theirs. In 2003, for example, a strip of eucalyptus trees over four kilometres long marking the park boundary was destroyed in one night. Park rangers actively patrol the boundary region and prevent villagers from grazing their goats and cows. In March 2002, UWA evicted more people from Mount Elgon, many of whom had lived on the land for over 40 years. Park rangers destroyed villagers’ houses and cut down their crops. With nowhere to go, the evicted people were forced to move to neighbouring villages where they lived in caves and mosques. The families living in the caves had to keep fires burning all night to protect their children from the cold. Cosia Masolo, an elder who lived in nearby Mabembe village for over 50 years describes the current situation: ‘When the UWA people came with their tree-planting activities, they stopped us from getting important materials from the forest. We were stopped from going up to get malewa (bamboo shoots), which is a very important traditional food here and is a source of income.’ Since eviction, Masolo, who has 20 children, now lives on a piece of land covering just a third of a hectare. In 2002, SGS stated that in order for the tree-planting project to continue, more people will have to be evicted. They even recommended that ‘more speed may be required to ensure the evictions are carried out successfully.’ When contacted by us, Niels Korthals Altes of GreenSeat denied at first that any evictions had taken place. ‘That’s not the case in our projects for sure,’ he said. When it was pointed out to him that SGS mentioned the evictions in its Public Summary, Korthals Altes said he couldn’t answer specific questions on this and suggested asking the FACE Foundation. A few days later, he acknowledged that evictions had indeed taken place, but he denied GreenSeat had any responsibility. ‘Evicting people is not part of the UWA-FACE project,’ he said. ‘It is a result of the Government’s decision to enforce the laws regarding farming in the National Park.’ Denis Slieker, FACE’s director, was also in denial mode. ‘We carry out a reforestation project in a project area which has been assigned by the Uganda Wildlife Authority and the Ugandan Government as a National Park,’ he said. ‘If for some reason there is uncertainty on that area then that needs to be solved. If the Ugandan Government decides, together with the UWA, that there should be an eviction then it’s their responsibility. That is not our responsibility.’ Slieker explained that the boundary of the tree-planting project includes a 10 metre-wide strip of eucalyptus trees. ‘This is designed to provide a resource that can be managed by local communities to provide pole and firewood, reducing the pressure on the park’s resources,’ he said. ‘People aren’t being evicted right now,’ he added. ‘At this point we have stopped the major planting activities.’ The main reason for stopping, he explained, is lack of funding. ‘Of course the issues that you mention worry us as well. If we were to proceed on a larger scale we would require some investigation on the evictions that you mention,’ he conceded. The FACE Foundation (who plant the trees), and GreenSeat (who sell the offsets that pay for them), have a further problem – they cannot guarantee that the trees planted will survive. In February 2004, New Vision reported that the police were holding 45 people ‘suspected of encroaching on Mount Elgon National Park and destroying 1,700 trees’ – trees planted by FACE. According to Slieker, this is not a problem from a carbon point of view. ‘Millions of trees have been planted, so a number of 1,700 is to be seen in that perspective,’ he said. ‘Of course some trees die if you plant such a large area, some trees just won’t live, they’ll be overtaken by other trees. That’s normal in an ecosystem. That is already incorporated in the CO2 calculation model. The model calculates the net positive benefit in carbon sequestration. We even take into account the risk of people cutting down trees. If that happens we do not get the carbon credits. It’s as simple as that.’

Offsetting responsibility

But GreenSeat and FACE cannot even guarantee the climatic impact of the Mount Elgon project. The only way of knowing the true impact of the project on carbon stored is by following the thousands of people who have been evicted from the national park and comparing their carbon emissions before and after the evictions. It is simply impossible to predict with any degree of accuracy the actions of people evicted from Mount Elgon National Park. Some of them may clear other areas of forest to continue farming. Others may overgraze the land around the park, causing soil erosion. Others may try to continue farming in the National Park. Others may move to the city and take up a higher carbon emitting lifestyle. GreenSeat is supported by WWF Netherlands and among GreenSeat’s customers are the Dutch House of Representatives and Senate, the Body Shop and Amnesty International. In response to our questions, Ruud Bosgraaf, press officer for Amnesty International Dutch Section, said, ‘We are not aware of any involvement by GreenSeat in evictions in Mount Elgon.’ Bosgraaf is right – GreenSeat has not evicted anyone. Neither has the FACE Foundation, nor has SGS. But on its website GreenSeat advertises its tree-planting project in Uganda to sell carbon offsets. The planting is along the boundary of the National Park and is part of the management of the Mount Elgon National Park. The FACE Foundation’s partner at Mount Elgon, the Ugandan Wildlife Authority, has forcibly evicted people with its military-trained rangers. If the tree-planting is to continue, more people will be evicted. Rather than offsetting carbon emissions, GreenSeat, FACE and SGS have been offsetting their own responsibility for evictions.

*Timothy Byakola* is a researcher for Ugandan NGO Climate and Development Initiatives. Chris Lang works with the World Rainforest Movement and is based in Frankfurt, Germany.

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