Timber certification schemes and corporate sustainability commitments are failing to protect tropical forests, according to new analysis from Global Canopy.
The research, based on Forest 500 data that ranks the most influential producers, processors, manufacturers and retailers involved in deforestation-risk commodities, found that 80% of companies with timber and / or pulp and paper sustainability policies use Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) certification to meet sustainability commitments
Certification schemes are an important mechanism to ensure sustainable sourcing, but in the case of timber, there is limited uptake in tropical countries where most deforestation occurs.
Almost 430 million hectares of forests, an area about half the size of Brazil, are currently certified under the two largest certification schemes, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC). Yet, only 7% of certified forests, an area roughly the size of Italy, are located in tropical countries.
Figure 1: Combined area of FSC and PEFC certified forests at the end of 2016 (million ha).
Tropical forests matter
Global tree loss is at an all-time high, with almost 30 million hectares of forests lost in 2016, including 3.7 million hectares in the Brazilian Amazon. Total loss is more than 50% higher compared to 2015, driven mainly by forest fires, agriculture, logging, and mining.
Forests play a crucial role in regulating the climate, are vital to water supplies, provide important habitat for wildlife, and valuable resources for communities. Sustainable forest management is thus necessary to preserve these values.
A regional problem
More than two thirds of the Forest 500 companies that rely on certification are headquartered in Europe and North America, where demand for certified materials is higher and where restrictions on illegal timber imports are tighter. Many companies importing timber into Europe and North America use certified timber to demonstrate legal compliance, as required under import laws, increasing demand for certified products in these areas.
Given the low volumes of certified timber available from tropical forests, these companies have limited options for sourcing sustainable timber products from the tropics. They must rely more heavily on certified timber from temperate and boreal forests in Europe and North America to meet their commitments, which does little to promote sustainable forest management in the tropics.
A large proportion of tropical timber is consumed in the countries where it is produced. But few companies operating in these regions have strong policies to source sustainable timber, pulp and paper. This needs to change — urgently — as our data shows.
Figure 2: Regional variation in Forest 500 company policies across different supply chain actors in 2016
Protecting tropical forests
In order to better protect tropical forests, there is an urgent need for companies operating in, or sourcing timber from the tropics to strengthen their sustainability policies.
Strengthening traceability requirements in company policies, especially in high risk tropical countries where rates of deforestation and illegal timber sourcing are high, is important as it provides a quality assurance that sourced timber was sustainability produced.
Companies should also develop strong zero net deforestation policies that allow certified and non-certified materials to meet their sustainable sourcing commitments. This flexibility can be used to help promote sustainable forest management practices in tropical countries by allowing smallholder producers, who are often excluded from obtaining certification due to high costs, to gain access to these markets.
Timber-sourcing companies have an important role to play in reducing deforestation. Better traceability, and stronger and more flexible sourcing requirements will help them implement their sustainability claims — while also providing more secure livelihoods for smallholder producers, and better protecting the tropical forests that are left.
Michael Guindon is a project manager with Global Canopy