Changing the 1994 Conversion Rule

The FSC Global Strategic Plan 2015–2020 is about sustainable forest use (Forests For All Forever) and not conservation at all cost. The core issue is that land remains under forests and is not converted to non-forest uses – thus maintaining a forestry business case, including social and ecological services. Proposals for conversion should be evaluated with key partners, like governments and communities, to ensure retention of natural forests in the landscape, while facilitating economic, social, and environmental benefits from conversion. This implies relaxing the (arbitrary) norms of the ‘1994’ and ‘5 per cent’ thresholds, thus creating a ‘conservation net benefit’ policy instead of the current ‘very limited conversion’ policy.

Stuart Valintine
Independent member, Economic South

Current FSC Conversion Standards

FSC’s current standards on forest conversion have had little to no impact on preventing conversion. Rather, they have prevented FSC from having any form of control over conversion events. In Africa, for example, the total forest loss between 2001 and 2015 was 48,874,174 hectares, against a gain of 4,592,565 hectares over the last 12 years. In 2015, total forest loss in Africa was 592,938 hectares.[1] While this loss is not wholly attributable to the FSC policy on conversion, as an organization we could be doing a lot more to stop forest loss.

FSC’s current policy on conversion is discriminatory against countries from the global South, and in favour of those countries that had already converted their forests and developed prior to 1994. Countries from the global South will still develop, and will still look for ways to improve their communities’ livelihoods. However, given the current FSC position on forest conversion, these areas will be developed to meet different, more accessible international standards, or the areas will be developed for different economic uses that do not account for sustainability of economic development.

Sustainable Livelihoods

Many of these countries are attempting to create sustainable livelihoods for their people. However, this is only possible if they are allowed to use their natural assets, such as land and ecological resources.  Most of these countries believe it is their sovereign right to determine how their resources are used. When external forces attempt to dictate to these governments how assets should be used, they simply use the resources for alternative development projects. FSC’s historical attempts to restrict forest conversion, and the failure of these attempts, indicates the need for a change of approach.

Local communities in many countries in the global South have received substantial benefits from the FSC certification of their forests, including employment, education, skills development, and improved knowledge and health awareness in remote areas. Furthermore, there is a knock-on effect when communities develop supply chains that provide services to the forests and the employees of the forest units.

As per capita incomes and incomes from forests units increase, governments also receive additional income and are able to provide better health, education, and infrastructure in these areas. If FSC is to meet its strategic goal of ensuring that the benefits from forest use reach communities in different landscapes, FSC members need to reconsider the current restrictive approach to the conversion of natural forest-related ecosystems.

Conversion and Restoration

FSC certification has had a positive impact on preventing the conversion of forest remnants, and the restoration of degraded forests where plantations and/or commercial forests have funded the conservation of natural forest areas. This is evident across numerous FSC-certified forests in Africa and South America (e.g. the Mata Atlântica forest region), and demonstrates that it is better to have a sustainable forest management project that enables the conservation of critical higher values than to lose the entire area to unsustainable development.

Market Demand and Competition

To meet global demands for timber products, plus meet the demand for the social improvement and economic development of the world’s poorest communities, while still enabling conservation of ecological assets, FSC needs to change how it facilitates and encourages sustainable forest management. To ensure this, FSC must reassess its approach to conversion, based on sustainable business models that enable social improvement while conserving environmental assets.

FSC must also remove barriers to certification. FSC certifies only 46 per cent of the 429 million hectares of global forest area that is under certification. This indicates that other certification schemes have 54 per cent of the forest certification market due to barriers created by FSC, in one form or another, and limits on conversion can be considered as one of these barriers.

A Flexible Approach

Many of the world’s production natural forests have been degraded over time, and may no longer be economically productive units. To ensure that the social and environmental benefits of these forests are maintained, FSC needs to be more flexible in regards to the current 1994 and 5 per cent conversion thresholds.

If FSC members were to reconsider our approach to ensure that any conversion event resulted in a net positive benefit (gain) across social and environmental aspects, then FSC could ensure that conversion only occurs when the business case results in positive economic, social, and environmental gains. The alternative – where forested land is converted with no consideration of communities or environmental assets – should be a strong enough consideration for FSC to change its current position on conversion.

[1] Source: Global Forest Watch database, 8 June 2017

The views expressed in the opinion pieces released both prior to and at the FSC General Assembly are the personal opinion of the author, and do not represent the views of FSC. Different members were approached to provide two sides of each argument, but some members exercised their right to decline.