Certifying logging concessions certifies social benefits in Congo Basin

Picture shows the workers' compound in FSC-certified concession and the workers coming back from work. Credit Edouard Essiane, CIFOR.
Picture shows the workers’ compound in FSC-certified concession and the workers coming back from work. Credit Edouard Essiane, CIFOR.

When it comes to sustaining forests so that they can sustain people, forest certification has been heralded as an important tool for improved forest stewardship. The jury is still out on just how much forest certification schemes can tackle deforestation and forest degradation. But a recent study by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) shows that logging concessions in the Congo Basin that have been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), one of several certification schemes in use around the world, can indeed outperform noncertified concessions on a range of variables used to measure social outcomes.

The study was undertaken in 2013 in Cameroon, Gabon and the Republic of Congo on nine certified and nine noncertified Forest Management Units (FMUs), which in 2013 covered the largest area of certified natural tropical forest in the world, with about 5.3 million hectares. Still, this represents only about 10 percent of the entire surface granted to FMUs in the Congo Basin. There also lies the importance of this study. Before certification expands further, it is important to know whether it brings any social improvement to the people living in and around certified FMUs when compared with noncertified ones.

Our research team found a strong association between the presence of certification and improved working and living conditions in and around certified FMUs. Positive social outcomes occurred in certified FMUs more than in noncertified ones because companies were required to adhere to schedule for meeting the standards defined by a set of clear criteria, which were evaluated by an independent third party. This is a key difference with what normally occurs with most noncertified FMUs that are operating ‘only’ within the legal framework: forestry officials mandated to monitor such FMUs can be effective in checking timber-related variables (e.g. authorised volumes), but have generally low capacities and no incentive to check social standards.

We also found that improvements occurred because companies in certified FMUs set up ‘discussing’ platforms to maintain a permanent open channel of communication with local populations, and because companies were more conscious of the importance of maintaining a good reputation. Conflicts did not disappear from dawn to dusk, but regular discussions help creating a more relaxed environment where negotiations can occur.

In short, FSC can push logging companies towards remarkable social progress.

The study shows that certification also has its limits, cautioning that there is no room for complacency from the FSC or logging companies with certified FMUs in comparing themselves with currently less well-managed or less well-resourced FMUs. Regular improvement is key, as it cannot be assumed that the positive changes found will translate into positive long-term impacts on the livelihoods of all people living in and around certified FMUs. This is especially true in a region where FMUs do not operate in a vacuum, and where large-scale agricultural and mining concessions are now the top priority of governments to meet their development goals.

The report also notes that the presence of an FMU, certified or not, doesn’t bring about any significant change in how local agriculture, hunting or collection of non-timber forest products are practised. In fact, customary practices are almost always the primary source of income for rural people, but some of them are illegal, so companies with certified FMUs establish procedures and rules to enforce the law and hire personnel to enforce them. Communities perceive these efforts as a new constraint that goes against their customary rights. Paradoxically, in this regard, social peace is more likely to be maintained in noncertified FMUs!

The research team make several recommendations for logging companies, certifying bodies and the FSC, including establishing clear, written procedures for conflict resolution, social baselines against which certifying bodies, other companies and consumers can monitor social changes, and better career planning to make the logging sector more attractive.

This study is one piece of a broader jigsaw that CIFOR and several partners are trying to put together to assess the effectiveness and impacts of forest certification in the tropics. By using robust research methods that have been largely lacking until now, the idea is to check whether some of the scepticism that exists among many about the true effectiveness of certification can be dispelled. The next steps will be to assess how governance impacts the effectiveness of certification, as well as the ecological and economic improvements that certified FMUs might be able to bring about.

Written by: Joan Baxter & Paolo Omar Cerutti
Affiliation: Center for International Forestry Research
Country: Kenya

This post is entry #11 in the #IUFRO2014 Blog Competition. The most popular entry will receive a certificate and 500 USD. The second and third most popular entries will receive a certificate and copy of the new book, “Forests and Globalization: Challenges and Opportunities for Sustainable Development”.

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