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Forest Stewardship Council certification

Rhys Millar, New Zealand Tree Grower November 2013.

FSC certification has been around for some time, but the involvement of owners of small forests in FSC certification has been on a bit of a back-burner. Ten years ago the process to develop a standard was begun then abandoned, but four years ago the NZFFA commissioned a study to try and start the process again. This article is an attempt to bring members up-to-date on where we are now.

Forest environmental certification is a market mechanism which allows consumers and wood product buyers to have sustainable forest management practices without using imposed boycotts which have the potential to punish sustainable forest management. The most recognised forest environmental certification scheme in New Zealand and the rest of the world is the Forest Stewardship Council known as FSC.

Other schemes, such as the Programme for Endorsement of Forest Certification, are also important certification schemes. These have not been so readily endorsed by the large environmental non-governmental organisations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. The industry and global consumer awareness of FSC, and the marketing power of the FSC brand, should ensure that it remains the main forest certification scheme in New Zealand for at least the foreseeable future.

For the New Zealand forest sector, environmental certification has become a strategic market access problem. For medium to large forest owners, FSC certification has become part of daily business practice, providing security of access to export forest product markets. This is shown by the New Zealand Forest Owners Association assessment that the management of over one million of the 1.8 million hectares of plantation forest in New Zealand is FSC certified.

The problem for small-scale owners

Due to the widespread and rapid uptake of the FSC certification scheme by the New Zealand plantation forestry industry, small-scale forest growers in some regions have felt pressure to follow suit. In some regions the wood processing sector finds there is high demand for FSC certified products. As a result it wants all forest growers to supply them with the FSC grown logs.

In 2009, the NZFFA commissioned a study to try and understand how the small-scale forest grower would be affected by certification and how growers could become certified. The study found that wood processors were increasing their demand for FSC certified logs. Handling non-certified logs was becoming problematic for some mills, due to the significant cost attached to managing two different versions of logs.

There are already cases of forest growers being unable to sell logs to local processing plants due to the lack of forest certification. Similarly, some processors will only buy non-FSC logs at a discounted price. There were examples in which forest owners in close proximity to sawmills, less than 20 kilometres away were forced to transport logs to alternative mills over 100 kilometres away due to lack of certification.

There are also many situations where the regional demand for FSC is minimal and of little importance to small-scale forest growers. Each grower needs to evaluate their own marketplace to determine the relevance of certification to their forest and logs.

More relevance

Certification will probably increase in relevance in the future as log buyers have a greater selection of forests to choose from. With most of the future expansion in log supply coming from small-scale forest growers, there is potential for a buyers’ market to develop. Log-buyer preference will be given to the scale of volume, quality of logs and the records of quality control.

Forest accessibility, efficiency of harvest and ability to supply the market specifications will be the main requirements for market access. FSC certification of timber is one of the main specifications which, in some markets, will need to be met by the forest grower. In a market place flush with logs, benefits will go to small-scale forest growers who can provide the wood processing sector with what they demand.

Such forest growers will retain market access and will not suffer from the potential discounting of non-FSC certified logs. Importantly, these small-scale growers will not suffer exclusion from processing plants which are close to their forest.

Gaining certification

Owners of medium to large forests have the resources and in-house expertise to manage the requirements of FSC certification, and have built this into their daily management systems. Small-scale forest growers in New Zealand have not had sufficient market incentive to obtain FSC certification of their forests. For the grower with a limited harvestable forest resource, the premiums or additional market access which have resulted from having FSC certification have generally not been sufficient to justify the cost and time attached to the certification procedure itself.

There are a number of barriers for small-scale forest growers that contribute to the lack of uptake of FSC certification. For example, there is not enough available information about what is required by forest owners, which makes FSC something of an enigma. The jargon-filled legalistic speak of the FSC principles and criteria, as well as of the interim New Zealand standard, have also been a barrier. However, for small-scale forest owners the main barrier to obtaining FSC certification is cost. This includes the direct cost of certification and the indirect costs attached to achieving compliance to the certification standards.

Group certification

The only option currently available for small-scale forest growers is through a group certification scheme. Because it is an adaptation of the same scheme used by large forest growers, it has not considered many of the problems relevant to the small-scale grower. Its significant cost forms another barrier.

The NZFFA has realised that members are increasingly likely to be disadvantaged in the future without access to an effective certification procedure. Without a suitable method for small forest growers to gain FSC certification there is a threat that certification could amount to a trade barrier.

FSC International has also recognised this threat to small-scale growers and in recent years has developed the ‘small and low intensity managed forests’ initiative. This allows for the development of streamlined FSC certification procedures which will reduce the cost of obtaining certification for small-scale forest growers. Forest management standards can be developed which are simple and easy to interpret. Auditing requirements are also significantly reduced. The initiative aims to provide more cost-effective methods for small-scale forest growers to complete the requirements of FSC certification. FSC certification, by way of a small and low intensity managed forests group scheme, will be achievable for small-scale forest growers who are managing their plantations and farms in an integrated manner.

In some cases, there will be significant changes to forest management required as a part of being FSC certified. These are most notably the active management of indigenous biodiversity, the need to undertake rigorous social and environmental impact assessments and to consult with local stakeholders.

The NZFFA has tried to develop a functioning small and low intensity managed forests group system which will allow its members to gain FSC certification in a cost-effective manner. This programme has been led by Patrick Milne and myself. We have worked on a number of initiatives which are contributing to the development of an accessible system including a national standard and a web-based land record system.

National standard for certification

The FSC Principles and Criteria for Forest Stewardship (February 2000) provide an internationally recognised standard for responsible forest management. However, any international standard for forest management needs to be adapted at the regional or national level to reflect the legal, social and geographical conditions of forests in different parts of the world.

The FSC principles and criteria need indicators adapted to regional or national conditions to be implemented at the forest management unit level. The principles and criteria, together with a set of indicators accredited by the FSC, constitute an FSC Forest Stewardship Standard. The national standard establishes the requirements against which accredited certification bodies can evaluate forest management practices within the context of New Zealand plantations.

In November 2009 a group representing most plantation forest owners, major environmental organisations and the main social and Maori interests decided to form a standard development group and restart the standard development in accordance with FSC procedures. This had previously been abandoned in 2003 due to the inability to agree on a number of problems.

It was agreed by the standard development group that a set of indicators would be developed specific to small and low intensity managed forests. This has resulted in requirements for managers of these forests which are less onerous and more applicable to the scale of forest management in place. It was also agreed that small and low intensity managed forests would be defined as being up to 1,000 hectares in size.

Reserves and set-asides

One area of contention which has particular relevance to small forest growers is that of reserves or set-asides. During the 2009 NZFFA study it was recognised that some small-scale forest growers would often not be able to meet the demands of FSC Principle 6 and Principle 10 as the draft New Zealand plantation standard stood at that time. For the development of the national standard, the NZFFA therefore negotiated for greater flexibility in the reserve contributions.

The ability to include land use activities, such as shelterbelts and continuous cover forest management as reserves, was recognition of the standard development group’s role that small forests have in New Zealand’s sustainable land management. At the same time they ensured that the ecological integrity of the standard is retained.

The group also recognised that it is appropriate for farm foresters, a subset of small-scale forest growers, to use their whole properties to meet the reserve requirements of Principles 6 and 10 of the standard. That means, instead of simply assessing a farm’s woodlots in isolation from the remainder of the farm, a whole property approach is suitable when considering reserves management.

A final version of the draft standard was re-submitted to the FSC in February 2012. By June 2013 FSC International had approved the New Zealand national standard, and we expect it to become effective in September this year. This is a significant piece of progress for New Zealand.

Land record system

There are significant documentation requirements for forest owners who want to be involved in the FSC certification process. It is not possible to side-step these, but an organisation such as the NZFFA can develop a system which will take out much of the complexity, and minimise unnecessary duplication of effort and expense for the individual small forest grower. The translation of the technical FSC language into one which is more user-friendly and accessible will be an important part of such a system.

As a starting point, the NZFFA has identified the need to develop a land record system for members. This will enable growers to record details on stands
and their management. It will also form the basis for the development of low-cost, easily understandable and practical FSC software based on the small and low intensity managed forests’ indicators of the national standard. With funding from the Ministry for Primary Industries, the NZFFA has contracted Scion Software Engineering to develop of an easily accessible and usable web-based land record software.

Where to from here

A small and low intensity managed forests group certification scheme will be the most cost-effective and helpful method for small-scale forest growers wanting to be FSC certified. Group certificates would be held by an organisation, such as the NZFFA, which is accountable for the group’s compliance with the New Zealand standard. There is a need for direct accountability from the individual group members to the group certificate holder. This holder must monitor the forest management of every land owner to comply with the group’s systems, policies and ultimately the FSC principles and criteria.

The NZFFA, operating for the benefit of its members, it is in an excellent position to develop a small and low intensity managed forests group certification scheme. Certification could provide increased benefits to at least some of its members.

The group’s certificate would be managed by the NZFFA’s appointed group manager. Their responsibility would be to manage the consistency and integrity of the scheme and to ensure that individual forest managers are managing their forests to a high standard. The web-based system would allow group members and the group manager to be able to complete the requirements of FSC, and also to demonstrate that management.

Rhys Millar is Director of Ahika Consulting Ltd based in Dunedin.


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