Stepwise approach to certification raises questions

Down to Earth No 59  November 2003

What does 'good practice' in timber certification really mean?

"Greenwashed Indonesian Wood Hits U.S. Market" was the headline of the Rainforest Action Network's press release when the first shipment of meranti from a 'good practice' pilot project sanctioned by WWF arrived in August. This tropical hardwood had come from PT Suka Jaya Makmur (SJM), part of the Alas Kusuma Group, which owns a plymill and concession in the Ketapang district of West Kalimantan. It had been "certified legal" as part of a scheme which the timber industry is pushing hard to the media and governments as a solution to Indonesia's forestry crisis. But this 'forest-market linking mechanism' misleads consumers in Northern countries and does nothing for local communities.

The Global Forest Trade Network (GFTN) is a WWF initiative to encourage responsible timber producers and buyers of wood products to work together in order to improve forest management. It aims to promote partnerships between non-governmental organisations and companies to improve the quality of forest management worldwide. In June, GFTN informed participants at an international meeting on illegal logging that it was working with PT SJM as a potential example of good practice. This work was through the Tropical Forest Foundation, an industry-funded organisation.


Certification, verification and chain of custody

TFF had, by June, only carried out a quick 'scoping' of SJM's operations and drawn up an action plan for reduced impact logging. The program basically involves better planning for tree felling and road placement but totally neglects community issues. GFTN initially stated that Smartwood had provided SJM with chain-of-custody certification. Smartwood later corrected this saying it had done a verification audit of PT SJM. These differences over confusing technical terms detract from the broader issues. As the Rainforest Action Network put it: "reduced impact logging doesn't protect human rights or endangered forests". Meanwhile, TFF has been developing promotional literature with the major US retailing company Home Depot.

The 'verification' of timber from SJM is not the same as the Forest Stewardship Council's certification scheme (even though Smartwood is an FSC accredited assessor). FSC certification indicates that a timber company has complied with high standards of forest management measured against clearly defined social and environmental criteria. In reality, FSC certified products from tropical forests such as those in Indonesia are not available in the quantity the market now requires. To get round this problem, some elements in the global timber trade are applying a weaker certification system to timber producers and lobbying major purchasers of wood products in North America and Europe to accept lower standards than FSC.


Cost-effectiveness for companies or communities' rights?

The main purpose of the GFTN/TFF scheme is to make timber easy to track from a company to timber exporters and manufacturers, without going through the cost and effort of complying with FSC standards. A spokesman for WWF International justified it as a step in the right direction "to help assure buyers that they are not getting black-market wood (e.g. wood harvested in a park or of unknown source)".

It is far from clear how log tracking from stumps within the concession to SJM's mill prevents the company from using timber from other, possibly illegal, sources. TFF admits that the SJM concession only provides 60-80% of the plymill's supply. And GFTN's requirement that "all forest products are legally sourced from areas under secure tenure" only means the logging company has valid permits from the Indonesian authorities. This definition does not carry much weight when a joint report published by WALHI, AMAN and the Rainforest Foundation earlier this year showed that as many as 90% of Indonesia's logging concessions are technically illegal, because the required legal gazettement processes were never completed (see DTE 56 and The Application of FSC Principles 2 & 3 in Indonesia, Obstacles and Possibilities, 2003, p140-141).

Even if SJM are getting the remaining 20%-40% from unknown and possibly illegal sources, this may not affect the company's image. Under the rules of WWF's 'Producers' Groups', timber companies are allowed to be members, even if they are logging illegally. The rules stipulate merely that companies have to commit to phasing our illegal activities within 5 years.

GFTN stresses that the SJM case is only a pilot project and is still in its early days, but this association raises many issues. Chain of custody audits which are not issued under FSC standards only mislead the public. They provide few guarantees for consumers or for local communities who - according to one report - are in dispute with SJM.

Darius Sarshar, Global Producer Group Coordinator for WWF/GFTN, responded that "these serious allegations will be investigated if/when we carry out a baseline appraisal of their concession". Art Klassen, Regional Director of TFF, also evaded community issues, saying "the social dimension of land tenure, rights, etc. is both a legal and a political minefield, one which we are not equipped to negotiate". This leaves open the question of what 'good practice' is. Companies that are trying to improve their performance deserve some kind of acknowledgement. But too much pragmatism devalues WWF's credentials and the meaning of forest certification.

(Sources: Information on GFTN is available at TFF's website is A Report of the June RIIA meeting is on The Rainforest Action Network press release 18/Aug/03 is on

A full briefing on the GFTN can be obtained from Rainforest Foundation UK, by emailing