Understanding the True Value of Forests 

Delivering the promise for rural people, workers and First Nations
Dr. Sadanandan Nambiar (AO)

By Brad Kahn, FSC USA 

The High-Level Forums were off to a provocative start as the presenters considered “The True Value of Forests” from various perspectives.

Dr. Sadanandan Nambiar (AO), formerly Chief Research Scientist and Science Director of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), began by suggesting there is no such thing as the true value of forests. Instead, value is connected to human perspectives, cultures and traditions. Each of us sees our own value in a forest.

Continuing, Dr. Nambiar noted that many of the world’s poorest people live in and around forests, relying on them for their livelihoods. And many of these people are not seeing tangible benefits from efforts to conserve and protect the forests they depend on. Suggesting we need “pro-poor forestry” that delivers benefits to people living in rural poverty, Dr. Nambiar went on to say there is very little evidence that payments for ecosystem services, such as through REDD+, were lifting people out of poverty.

If you want to change rural poverty, he suggested, the single most important lever is to empower women, specifically with an income and an education. For this, Dr. Nambiar sees great potential in the forestry sector.

As for FSC specifically, he conveyed questions from rural people he works with, asking, “Do small growers receive sustained rewards from FSC? Why is the chain of custody so complex? And who really stands to benefit?” Lifting rural people out of poverty should be our paramount goal, Dr. Nambiar said in closing. To accomplish this, we must discard old ideas and make human dignity central to the true value of forests.

Per-Olof Sjöö, President of the Global Union Federation Building and Wood Workers International, presented next. Celebrating FSC for convening so many diverse people and perspectives to address challenging issues, Sjöö started by suggesting that the true value of forests is a question of equity that cannot be answered by a single stakeholder. Instead, it is a shared responsibility.

Sjöö offered that workers’ rights are universal values and core values of FSC. If FSC has the courage to enforce these rights, he continued, then we will earn the “gold standard,” which will also make it easier for governments to follow.

Acknowledging our location on the traditional territory of the Coast Salish people, Peter Lantin, President of the Haida Nation, told a “grassroots story from a humble place” about Haida Gwai, his peoples’ homeland in Northwest British Columbia.

The forests of Haida Gwai are central to the culture and the economy of the Haida Nation. After years of exploitative logging, in 1985 the Haida Nation began to stand up for their lands, protesting against a forestry company trying to harvest the area. In a touching story, President Lantin talked about the elders – including his grandmother – asking the warriors to stand down so they could lead the protest instead. “The elders had waited their entire lives for that moment,” he noted, risking arrest to protect their culture and the true value of their forest.

The protests led to change on Haida Gwai, and after much work by many people, today the Haida Nation owns Taan Forest, an FSC-certified forest management company. First harvesting in 2010, Taan is guided by Haida values and is central to their economic development. FSC aligns well with the concept of Haida stewardship and values, and the third-party validation provides accountability to the Haida people.

President Lantin closed with a request for marketing help from FSC, since to date Taan has not been able to sell any wood as FSC. Asked why so few forests in British Columbia are FSC certified, President Lantin suggested that Indigenous Peoples should own more forest companies in the area. “If we get more Indigenous Peoples managing lands, we will get better management,” he said.

As a whole, the session raised important questions for members to consider with respect to the impacts of FSC – and global conservation efforts more generally – on rural poverty, smallholders, workers’ rights, and Indigenous Peoples as we work to have the true value of forests recognized and fully incorporated into society worldwide.