In the most recent evolution of VicForests public bid for forest certification, the government forest agency has lodged a formal complaint against three directors of FSC for breaching standards and articles of constitution. This follows weeks of publicity surrounding VicForests – none of it good press. The latest move casts a spotlight upon the strange saga of forest certification in Australia since 2006 - a bizarre progression that has no parallel experience overseas.
In 2006 the idea of a voluntary and market-based forest certification scheme appealed to many of us in a timber and forest industry dogged by slow, bureaucratic legislative change and, at election time, on-the-run policy swerves. FSC promised a form of self-regulation to internationally agreed principles with criteria for management and harvest developed for Australia. It offered the people who own the forests consultation, a real say, and a bypass to political expediency and cronyism. It promised an independent and apolitical umpire, fair engagement, and consultation with competing interests - and at the end - sustainable native forestry.
Ours was an unaligned group of timber millers, retailers and foresters with no definable name or political identity. We knew each other well enough to recognise a fellow-traveller. We stood between an alliance of big business and industrial forestry – which we saw as ignorant of the need to sustain the forest resource and not to deplete it – and on the other side, radical environmentalism. The radical ingredient was the end to all native forest logging. Their definitions included State Forests set aside in the early part of the 20 century for timber production. Not all environmentalists were against native timber logging. Many allowed that sustainable harvest levels were achievable goals in Australia, that consensus on watercourse, soil, mature forest, and faunal protections were possible and that the goodwill on either side – industry and community – existed to achieve this consensus. The promise was that forest certification was the vehicle to achieve this.
Before attending the official launch of FSC Australia in 2006 in the Green Building, Leicester St, Carlton, I was expectant and positive. Early speakers at the launch were inspiring - sounding as optimistic and as hopeful as I was. But shouty people took over and let slip their intentions. A voice from RMIT Centre for Design claimed that the end of native forest harvesting starts today. Naively, I thought they were embarrassing the certification people gathered for their launch. Later, the penny dropped. They were the certification people.
Internationally, FSC retains a credible identity as a forest certification body for native forests. In Australia, it is not credible in its primary role. By any measure, in the 14 years since launching, many small private native forests should have achieved certification – but a mere handful with a small sawlog output have. No state forest or state forestry body has achieved full certification. To keep busy, FSC has been tasked to certify pulp log plantations, paper manufacturers and printers. In the timber arena they have been role-playing to an apparently insistent public demand for FSC-certified native hardwood – which in the retail world, barely exists. The market, whipped up to an early expectancy, is now confused and hesitant after years of misdirection and inability to supply.
Soon after the FSC launch, another global forest certifier, PEFC, commenced certification in Australia with full engagement with state forestry. This prompted claims by environmental groups that the PEFC/AFS forestry standard was:
- obliged to industry and thus not genuinely third party
- that the standard was not as strong or as diligent as FSC.
In any considered response a grim and ironic clarity emerges.
The tables are turned on FSC here. VicForests official complaint to FSC International is directed against FSC Australia squarely on this issue. That there is no genuine independent engagement by the certification body with the applicant. Directions on applicant success are mandated by radical members who will never allow native forest logging. FSC are therefore not a genuine third party, nor independent, nor apolitical.
The unfathomable issue. The language of the standards is dense and beyond the ken of all but workers in the discipline. Believing FSC to be the better standard is a leap of faith that environmentalists or big box retailers make. Internationally it is accepted that both standards reach an admissible benchmark and the differences are not critical.
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