Guidelines to ensure forests are well-managed

Posted on November 1, 2011. Filed under: Forestry/Wetlands |

-The Star-

A new set of standards on forest certification is in the works.

WAY back in 1999, Malaysia was just beginning her journey towards a national forest certification scheme.

It was for this purpose that the Malaysian Timber Certification Council (MTCC) was established the previous year.

At the time, the target was to get the national standards on sustainable forestry endorsed by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which was perceived to be the most credible scheme in Europe. Unfortunately, the goal never materialised.

Timber theft: This filepic shows illegal sawn timber onboard a vessel in Kuching, Sarawak. Despite global calls for better management of forests, few logging operations have been certified as sustainably managed.

MTCC and FSC had some irreconcilable differences. One revolved around FSC’s stance in recognising the land rights of indigenous communities. The MTCC’s take however, is that seeking the recognition of community land rights was beyond its scope as that would require changes to the state constitution. It said that principle should be interpreted within the local context and comply with existing applicable laws. When a piece of land is gazetted as permanent forest estate, natives lose their rights to make claims to the land, therefore recognising these rights was thought to simply go beyond the scope of MTCC’s function.

As the paths diverged, the Malaysian government decided to go ahead to develop its own certification scheme without FSC accreditation. Despite the split, there was still an understanding among some non-governmental organisations (NGO) which were involved in the talks that they would continue working towards a set of FSC-endorsed national standards.

Under the guidance of former chief executive officer Tan Chin Tong, Perak Integrated Timber Complex gained FSC Forest Management Certification in 2002.

“We still believed in the FSC principles. We weren’t exactly going to abandon the FSC and that’s where we are now,” says Kanitha Krishnasamy, who works with the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC. The NGOs jointly established Forest Sustainability Malaysia to further pursue the cause and in July, the group got the go-ahead from FSC International to develop a set of national standards on sustainable forestry for Malaysia.

To guide Kanitha and five other Forest Sustainability Malaysia members on the preparation of the standards, a three-day training workshop was held early last month by Gordian Fanso, FSC international policy manager for national standards.

Fanso oversees each and every standard that will be used to audit forest management, and travels the world to do it. “It’s common for people to end up walking out of the standards development group because they just can’t reach some kind of consensus.”

The breakers, or hot topics, he say, usually relate to things like high conservation value areas, plantations, conversion percentages and the rights of local and indigenous communities.

Native rights

Indigenous rights is something Thomas Jalong, a Kenyah from the upper Baram region in Sarawak, has been passionate about all his life. It makes sense that he is in charge of the social aspect in the FSC standards drafting committee. He is president of Indigenous Peoples Network of Malaysia, an umbrella network for community-based organisations advocating the interests and concerns of orang asli, and says a core issue is the fact that when a piece of land is gazetted as “permanent forest estate”, the orang asli must relinquish their rights.

Thomas Jalong, president of the Indigenous Peoples Network of Malaysia, says meaningful engagement with local communities is crucial to a sustainable forest management plan.

“When you relinquish your rights there is no longer any basis for you to be consulted or involved. If you can no longer exercise control over how resources are extracted or exploited, this systematically marginalises people from the process.”

From his experience talking to various indigenous communities subsisting in the forest, he discerns a pattern. Sometimes there is no consultation. When there is, often loggers will tell the headman that they have a licence, intend to operate in the area, and want his consent. Just because consultations happen does not necessarily mean they are done in a manner that is amicable and free from pressure or coercion.

“They say they will help the community, maybe build an access road, and if they go through areas where the community have crops they will compensate and tell them, this is the rate. In cases where the community does not consent, they are just told, ‘You have no rights to stop us because we have already been given the licence.’ They might even threaten to call the police or say, ‘The government will come.’”

For a timber operation to be sustainable, it will require working with local communities to come out with a sustainable forest management plan.

Locations of burial sites, medicinal plants, rattan, salt licks and fruits important to the diet of locals and wildlife – “All these are within the knowledge of the community,” says Jalong. “So if you want to sustainably operate in this area, you must engage them.”

Certification can help Malaysian timber fetch higher prices in the market.

Many of these resources make up high conservation value areas, which are sites important for protected or rare species, or ecosystems services such as water sources. One of the FSC principles of sustainable forestry centres around identifying and maintaining such areas. In this sense, neglecting the special knowledge of indigenous communities is counterproductive to achieving the goals of sustainable forest management.

Improving forestry

Even in cases where a country lacks the legislative obligation to engage indigenous communities, to be FSC-certified, Fanso says companies are required to go beyond what is found in governmental frameworks. An appropriate management plan must also be in place to reduce pressures on, and promote restoration of, natural forests.

Environmental consultant Anthony Sebastian, who chairs the national standards drafting committee, explains the basics: “A ‘forest management unit’ should be divided up into coupes. A certain number of trees that have reached a minimum diameter requirement will then be harvested from each coupe on a rotational basis, giving the forest time to regenerate.”

This is the ideal situation, but it does not always work that way. “Why? Because there is so little forest left, there tends to be a lot of mismanagement going on.”

Mismanagement often extends to non-timber resources. Loggers often end up hunting wildlife. Kanitha says according to FSC principles, the onus is on the forest manager to ensure this does not happen within the timber concession.

“There is national legislation saying certain species are protected. However, no one is assessing whether that is being done, so certification just provides another layer to bolster that.”

An example how guidelines for this might be drawn up in the FSC national standards would be indicators stating that illegal hunting is prevented, entry into the concession by outsiders is appropriately managed, and excessive pollution of rivers due to logging does not occur.

Marketing edge

Tan Chin Tong, who is looking at the economic aspect in the standards drafting committee, attests to the fact that sustainable accreditation for logging companies makes economic sense. He should know – he is the former chief executive officer of the Perak Integrated Timber Complex (Perak ITC) which in 2002, was the second company in Malaysia to gain an FSC Forest Management certificate.

“You have to look at the value chain in totality, a higher management or administrative cost can well be compensated by savings in marketing.”

It goes without saying that selling certified wood gave Perak ITC an advantage over their competitors when it came to market access. The advantage was selling a premium brand in times of market shortage for products made from tropical hardwoods.

Tan says the best thing, however, was having a clear conscience and knowing that their logging practices were not destroying the forest. Tan left Perak ITC in 2005. The company’s FSC certificate was then suspended for a few years, reinstated in 2008, and is now once again under suspension pending requests for corrective action.

Tan says key issues hampering forest certification in Peninsular Malaysia include harvesting methods and institutional arrangements. By the latter, he is referring to forest concessions being leased to logging contractors for short periods of time. The lack of long-term commitment is what often leads to mismanagement of timber concessions.

Tan says there is demand for FSC-certified wood. “There are 161 with FSC Chain of Custody certificates, but there isn’t enough FSC-certified timber for them to process or trade.”

He says timber concessionaires need to actively engage in the process. “Let their concerns be heard and deliberated. The hotter the deliberation, the better the standards.”

Sebastian estimates that the process of preparing the sustainable forestry standards, consultation within the industry and field testing will take about a year. The target is to have the standards ready by the middle or end of next year.

Aside from participation by concessionaires and other stakeholders, he points out that financial institutions also have an important role to play. HSBC Bank Malaysia has contributed RM150,000 to fund development of the standards.

Sebastian asserts that it is the responsible lending policies of finance institutions, however, that will make a real difference in the long term. It all comes back to how much we value our forests and what is in them. A wildlife ecologist by training, Sebastian says he long ago realised that we cannot save our species without saving our forests. It is not so much the trees that he is worried about. After all, forests grow back, as demonstrated in their iconic reclamation of the Mayan Pyramids and temples of Angkor Wat.

“Time heals all, and our forests have time. Unfortunately I don’t think our tigers do.”

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