A practical way to approach responsible forest management

Kim Carstensen

Frustration over intractable conservation negotiations brought together a committed group of environmentalists, foresters, forest owners, trade unionists, social activists and indigenous peoples to find workable solutions for forest governance.

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is one of the illegitimate children of the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. It is illegitimate because, unlike most of the other children of Rio, such as the Climate Change Convention, the Biodiversity Convention or Agenda 21, FSC was not born as a result of success by governments in reaching agreement. There were no bold initiatives in Rio to move towards sustainable development in the forest sector. On the contrary, FSC arose out of bitter infighting and fruitless discussions among governments on forest protection and sustainable forest management.

FSC was formed out of a strong sense of frustration with the inability of governments to agree and to act together on forest issues. A committed group of actors in the forest sector – environmentalists, foresters, forest owners, trade unionists, social activists, indigenous peoples, and more – agreed that the world’s forests were too important to leave to indefinite intergovernmental processes. So, instead of depending on government commitment, they established FSC as a market-oriented instrument to overcome a global crisis in forest governance.

Since then much has happened in the world, but the global crisis in forest governance has not been resolved. It is true that forest management has been significantly improved in many countries and regions, but we still see far too many cases of forest illegality, of serious and unresolved land disputes, and of blatantly unsustainable practices in forests around the world. And at the global level, we still fail to see intergovernmental processes and institutions that truly work to ensure sustainable forest management.

In the meantime – and contrary to what many people have thought over the years – the FSC model of governance, involving stakeholders with social, environmental or economic interests, has proved to be working for all forest types around the world. FSC has provided a room where very different interests in forests are forced to get together to define and to agree on what sustainable forest management means for them. What’s the level of social benefits that needs to come out of the forests? What are the most important natural or ecosystem values? And how can we make sure that what we agree also makes economic sense?

Our model is, of course, very difficult at times. It happens that consensus cannot be reached, and securing agreement across very different interest groups can often take a long, long time. There are many difficult issues requiring prolonged discussion and negotiations, and so we may not be the fastest operation in the world.

However, it often turns out that compromise is there to be found, and that anticipated disagreements are smaller than expected. And it is true that when our discussions lead to agreement, this agreement is stronger and much more robust than unilateral decisions coming from one or other interest.

Our experiences are being used by other voluntary certification schemes, notably in the fisheries sector, where schemes like the Marine Stewardship Council and the new Aquaculture Stewardship Council have learned from the successes – and also the failures – of FSC. We are also working together and sharing experiences with a larger group of voluntary certification schemes, including the Fairtrade movement and in the ‘ISEAL Alliance’, the global association for social and environmental standards.

The demand for FSC products has been a key driver for FSC certification all over the world. We have seen a very significant growth in demand over the past few years, and today there are 24,500 companies that are ‘chain of custody’ certified in the FSC supply chain. Demand comes from consumers, whether they are corporate buyers or private individuals. It is clear that campaigns for forest protection and sustainable management remain important drivers of consumer awareness.

One of the main challenges for FSC is to grow out of being an instrument that is strongest among consumers – whether they are companies, institutions or individuals – in the traditional developed economies in Europe and North America. FSC must become truly global by becoming a well-known, attractive and preferred scheme for consumers in the major emerging economies.

Why do we believe that we can do this? One reason is our success over the years; another is the fact that we are not just a traditional environmental label, but a coalition of stakeholders working together – globally and locally – to try to find agreed solutions that work for the environment, social actors and the economy. We provide a prospect of managing forests in ways that spur social and economic development, while at the same time protecting the environment as a common resource for future generations.

FSC was created to be a strong tool for promoting environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial, and economically viable management of the world’s forests, and that is what we are setting out to be, in a future of immense global change.

About the author:

Kim Carstensen is Executive Director at the Forest Stewardship Council


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