Certify your foresty or risk losing business

Forest certification has been around for nearly 20 years but only now is becoming crucial for even the smallest growers to be able to gain access to any of the main sawmills in Ireland

At a recent public meeting, a representative of one of the 'big eight' sawmills exp-ressed the view that at least 60pc of all private forest owners will need to be certified within three years.

This is because under the terms of their certificates, the mills can typically take in up to 30pc uncertified timber, provided it is legal.

Currently just Coillte, the Irish Forestry Unit Trust, and one private group have Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification. With the volume of timber from the private sector steadily increasing we are now at the stage where, on occasion, some mills are having to turn away timber from private sources, or put it to the back of the queue.

Forest certification for the private sector has been talked about for some time, but most owners know little of what is involved, some are wary of the concept, and many are understandably concerned at the likely extra costs involved. In this article I will attempt to explain the background to it all.

One of the targets set at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 was an internationally binding convention on sustainable forest management.

While certain criteria defining sustainable forest management were agreed, the summit failed to enshrine these in international law.

This failure led to the formation of the FSC in 1993 and the beginnings of forest certification. The result, therefore, is that rather than sustainable forest management being a legal requirement in all UN member states, it is effectively administered by non-government organisations on a voluntary basis.

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The growth of certification has been largely due to the success of the various schemes in convincing the key markets to demand wood-based products that are proven to come from responsibly managed forests.


Originally, FSC's sights were set on the tropics. By 1992 the world was alert to the alarming rate of tropical deforestation, and clearly ways to slow this were exercising the minds of the delegates at Rio.

However, because tropical deforestation is inextricably linked with so many issues from poverty to criminality, the FSC diverted a large part of its attention to the temperate world where forest industries are both highly regulated and sustainable forest management is already well embedded in the forest culture.

But the FSC ran into problems with the forest owners in Europe and North America because it came to the issue of certification with a tropical mindset.

This was due in part to a misunderstanding of the fundamental differences between the tropics and the temperate world, especially with regard to land tenure. In the former, forestry is typically in very large areas in single ownership, whereas here we have very large numbers of small owners. This chasm also led to disagreement over ownership of the process.

The FSC continued to promote awareness and demand for certified material with increasing success. But at the same time the negotiations between it and growers' groups became increasingly fraught and on occasion broke down altogether.

It wasn't until the late 1990s that growers realised that certification was increasingly essential in order to satisfy the market.

This led to the start of a number of independent national schemes. In turn these were followed quickly by an appreciation that a collective approach was preferable in order to ensure that these schemes all met the same criteria and high standards.

As a result, in 1999 11 European countries formed the Pan European Forest Certification Scheme (PEFC) as an alternative to FSC.

PEFC arose out of a specific need to address the issues faced by the thousands of small private forest owners throughout Europe, which until then FSC had failed to do.

Its 'bottom-up', mutual recognition approach was very successful.

PEFC grew rapidly beyond Europe so the name was changed to the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification Schemes, thus keeping the acronym, and it is now by some margin the largest scheme and accounts for over 60pc of the total certified forest area worldwide.

However, as only about 10pc of the total global forest is certified by any scheme, both FSC and PEFC are concentrating their efforts again in the developing, tropical regions.

Undoubtedly, the choice between FSC and PEFC has been good for the grower. FSC has adapted and now offers a viable option for the small forest owner in Europe, and the competition between the two ensures constant improvement to standards and a containment of costs.

The main differences between the two are in their organisational structures rather than in their approach to sustainable forest management.

This is recognised by all the key markets, both public and private, which accept both schemes as offering equivalent guarantees of responsible forest management.

I will examine the current situation in Ireland and how forest owners can prepare for the inevitable in my next article on June 5.

William Merivale is national secretary of PEFC Ireland and a forestry consultant based in Cork. Email: william@cjandco.net

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