Eco-certification could help save the world’s tropical forests

The Amazon rainforest, a vast region of incredible biodiversity, is threatened by a rising rate of deforestation. (Credit: CIAT/Flickr)

Tropical forests are one of the world’s most diverse and important ecosystems on the planet, but also one of the most endangered. Every year, some 35 million acres of rainforests are destroyed for timber by logging companies and cleared by people for farming, taking a devastating toll on the environment and climate.

In an attempt to save the world’s tropical forests, an international group was built to certify foresting operations as environmentally and socially responsible. This group, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), relies on eco-conscious consumers to opt for ethically sourced wood.

Although the FSC has certified significantly fewer tropical forest operations compared to the boreal forests of the northern hemisphere, the FSC has now made certification in the tropics a top priority.

“[The tropics] is the region that we want to see experiencing the benefits of FSC, because that’s essentially why we were created,” said Brad Kahn, communications director at Forest Stewardship Council U.S., in an interview with Humanosphere. “These areas are critically important to FSC’s success and, frankly, to our success as a human species.”

Considering the direct link between tropical forest destruction and the global climate, extending its impact to human welfare is hardly an exaggeration. Today more than ever before, there is huge incentive for forest operations in the tropics to pursue FSC certification, which has been linked to lower rates of forest loss and air pollution, progressive social practices and financial benefits for landowners, among others.

Certification also has great potential for the improvement of governance in tropical forests of the Amazon Basin, Central Africa and Southeast Asia, where illegal logging accounts for 50 percent to 90 percent of all forestry activities.

The reason it has been more challenging to get forests certified in the tropics is that there are generally fewer large-parcel landowners than small-parcel landowners. Or, to use Kahn’s words, it’s easier to certify one 100-acre forest than to certify 100 1,000-acre forests.

This is due, in large part, to administrative barriers. When there are individual landowners living in remote, less-developed regions, it becomes harder for organizations like the FSC to engage with them and make the case for certification. Smallholders are also less likely to be managed by trained professionals, and there’s frequently some disconnect between the needs of the landowner and the local government’s policies.

Another challenge is that the cost of entering into an FSC program can be too high for individual landowners to initially afford. To minimize this hurdle, the FSC operates a system of group certification for small landowners to lower the upfront cost of certification and employ a group manager, to bring technical expertise.

Apart from the active efforts by business and consumers, engaging tropical forest operations in FSC programs can and should also be supported by governments, according to FSC Director General Kim Carstensen. By creating incentives for forest operations to pursue certification, efforts like that of the FSC could become even more efficient in making tropical forest activities more sustainable and socially responsible.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau or email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org.