Why FSC Should Not Allow Future Conversion in its System

Balancing conversion and restoration is a difficult task, especially as the conversion of natural forest is a largely irreversible act. FSC members need to consider the future implications to forests and our system’s credibility before changing our long-standing policy on conversion.

Aditya Bayunanda,
Director of Policy Sustainability and Transformation, WWF Indonesia

FSC was established in 1994 due to the high-level of deforestation occurring around the world, especially in tropical forests. Boycotting tropical timber was not reducing deforestation, and the boycotts were considered unfair by countries in the global South who viewed the use of their natural resources as a pathway to development.

FSC was formed as a strategic meeting point for the interests of economic development, and environmental and social protection, to promote timber production without deforestation. To ensure that FSC certification did not incentivize conversion of natural forest to plantation forest, a safeguard was introduced to exclude plantations converted after 1994 from achieving FSC certification.

Deforestation and Climate Change
Twenty-three years later and deforestation has not stopped. It is estimated that between 1990 and 2015, 12 million hectares of forest was converted every year, contributing to 1.5 billion tonnes of CO2 released into the atmosphere on a yearly basis[1].

However, as the link between deforestation and the effects of climate change have become evident, efforts to tackle deforestation have increased. In 2014, the New York Declaration on Forests was endorsed by governments, Indigenous Peoples, civil society organizations and companies, who pledged to halve deforestation by 2020 and halt it by 2030. Also in 2014, the Consumer Group Forum, made up of over 400 leading companies, including Unilever, Carrefour, Kraft, and Xerox, made a zero-deforestation declaration.

FSC-certified products are considered equal with zero-deforestation products for many certificate holders – there is no other certification scheme that can provide a similar guarantee. By permitting future conversion FSC could lose this recognition, and its hard-won credibility.

FSC and Conversion
FSC believed that conversion was not acceptable in 1994. Why should that change now when there is much less natural forest, and the high conservation values of the remaining forests are so much more?

If we, as FSC members, are now considering the possibility that FSC-certified companies can convert natural forest, we need to review several points.

The FSC policy, FSC-POL-20-003 The Excision of Areas from the Scope of Certification states that conversion is allowed within a forest management unit to a maximum of 5 per cent of the total area. This threshold would have to be increased to provide the possibility of future conversion. Or, the requirement under criterion 6.9 that if converting the certificate holder must ‘produce clear, substantial, additional, and secure long-term conservation benefits’ be reconsidered to allow for more substantial conservation gains.

This raises new questions. How much new conversion will FSC allow to take place?  How could FSC assure that future conversions would lead to long-term, substantial conservation gains? What conservation gain is considered by FSC members to be sufficient compensation for deforestation?

FSC and ‘Offsetting’
The most dominant argument is that the proposed change to criterion 6.9 to allow future conversion should mirror a proposed change to criterion 6.10 – to achieve FSC certification a forest management unit must compensate for past deforestation (since 1994) through restoration or conservation equal to the size of the plantation established.

The proposed change to criterion 6.10 would apply to past conversions from 1994 until the present only, and FSC certification could only be achieved if compensation were successful. FSC would be promoting widespread restoration and conservation, which would contribute to its credibility.

However, the proposed change to criterion 6.9 to allow future (new) conversion by an FSC certificate holder with the promise of future restoration and conservation sounds suspiciously like proposing ‘offsetting’. ‘Offsetting’ has been unanimously rejected by civil society organizations, and has been described as just “moving the problem and buying the way out of changing destructive or damaging practices[2]”.

Another option is that FSC could adopt a high carbon stock (HCS) approach to conversion that uses a methodology agreed upon by civil society and the private sector. HCS can be used to determine areas that may be converted or developed without being considered deforestation.   In the HCS system, areas with scrub vegetation have low carbon stock and, thus, could be developed without causing deforestation.

An Irreversible Act
Conversion of natural forest is a largely irreversible act. Forest restoration is a difficult, costly, and time-consuming endeavour. In our own lifetimes, we can never recreate the conditions and diversity of the natural forest that have been achieved over the course of centuries. This understanding is the basis for the current FSC view on conversion, and it must be kept in mind now. A precautionary approach must be adopted by all responsible forest managers to avoid deforestation.

Any discussion of allowing future conversion in the FSC system should first consider what positive conservation gains can be achieved. Until that is clarified, any discussion on an increased conversion threshold is a slippery and dangerous path for FSC members to take.


[1] http://www.climateandweather.net/global-warming/deforestation.html

[2] http://www.theconsumergoodsforum.com/sustainability-strategic-focus/sustainability-resolutions/deforestation-resolution

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.