Forest Stewardship Council fails rainforest protection in Victoria

Anthony Amis

Chain Reaction #119, Nov 2013, www.foe.org.au/chain-reaction/editions/119

In September, Friends of the Earth Australia (FoE) produced a case study on the complications associated with Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification of rainforest communities in Victoria's Strzelecki Ranges. With FSC now making headway across Australia, with a range of forest agencies and companies alike showing increased interest in the scheme – the recently signed Tasmanian Forest Agreement for example is relying on FSC certification − it is worth investigating what impacts FSC has had on ecosystems that have been certified.

The Hancock Victorian Plantations certification of 2004 was the first time FSC had certified a forestry operation in Australia. Since that time (and for several years before), FoE and local group Friends of Gippsland Bush have been documenting the entire process. It is worth noting that Hancock is also certified under the rival Australian Forestry Standard, a standard which is fully endorsed by industry but not environmental groups. Both FSC and the Australian Forestry Standard have retained the Hancock certificates despite a litany of problems which both systems have not been able to resolve. One the major issues has been that of rainforest management and definition.

FSC is proud to trumpet that it operates under 'Principles and Criteria' which ensure that forests are managed in a environmentally responsible manner. However, in the Australian scenario, FSC is operating under "weaker" interim standards which are set by the certifying companies. Stronger national standards are enacted when stakeholders agree on what those standards should be and then work toward their implementation. The Australian national standards have stalled since 2002, when environmental organisations failed to agree on certification of native forest logging. Since that time, numerous FSC certificates have been granted to mostly plantation companies under interim standards. In 2002 FoE was arguing for stronger national standards, but those arguments were quashed by weight of numbers led by the Wilderness Society and the Tasmanian Greens. A full decade has now been lost.

NGOs are now working again on delivering national standards, which are expected to come to fruition by late 2015 – or perhaps even later. Once the national standards are set, all interim standards will then also come under the national standards. It also means that if the Tasmanian Forestry Agreement is enacated, which it must by October 2014, then that agreement will be assessed under the weaker interim standards.

Strzeleckis

The FSC process that has unfolded in the Strzeleckis should be seen as a failure of process regarding FSC interim standards. In 2000, FoE and Friends of Gippsland Bush agreed on allowing FSC to certify Hancock's operations, largely because it was perceived that FSC would mean that there would ultimately be some sort of improvement in forest management. It was also agreed at that time that it would be beneficial in bringing in an outside influence, because the Strzelecki Ranges were about to be woodchipped into oblivion and any options of clawing back forests from the woodchippers was better than nothing. FSC at that time also had a much better reputation than what it has now and it was perceived that perhaps FSC certification could slow down or stop the imminent destruction.

After a range of issues were discussed and supposedly implemented, Hancock gained FSC certification in February 2004, with Smartwood (a subsidiary of New York's Rainforest Alliance) being the certifier. The major issues of concern were/are: management of high conservation valued forests, koalas and pesticide application.

Before the 2004 certification, Friends of Gippsland Bush, industry and local Gippsland Councils were already involved in a process which nominated key areas to be protected in the bioregion. A major study of the region was conducted by Biosis Research which recommended a 8,500 hectare reserve which would link up all the existing reserves in the Strzeleckis and protection of key rainforest catchments. The Reserve known as the Cores and Links Reserve recommend large rainforest buffers – up to 250 metres on prime stands of rainforest and smaller buffers on the rest. Large buffers are required as a means of safeguarding rainforest from the impacts of fire and disease. Under the Victorian Code of Forest Practices, the legal document governing forest management in Victoria, it stated simply that rainforest on private land (which is how the Hancock forests had been redefined in 1993) should be protected without stipulating a mandatory rainforest buffer on private land rainforest.

Initial FSC auditors supported the arguments for larger rainforest buffers, however as these auditors were replaced, more industry sympathetic auditors took their place and gradually the implementation process undertaken in the FSC process via a system which involves the issuing of a number of Corrective Action Requests (CARs) was started with each years audit failing to come to grips with the audits that had occurred previously. As a result, more CAR's were issued which again diluted the issue without properly solving the problem. It also meant that instead of Hancock losing their FSC certificate by breaching CARs, they would be "rewarded" by retaining their certificate. What sort of message does this send out to companies doing the wrong thing?

The FSC process also forced Hancock to produce a Rainforest Best Management Plan, which was peer reviewed by scientific experts. Once the review was completed, both scientists agreed that Hancock's management plans were inadequate. Yet since that review Hancock has not rectified its plan to implement the recommendations made by the experts, essentially meaning that the current rainforest management implemented by the company and supported by FSC in annual audits has no scientific merit. This situation has remained since 2006.

In 2006 the Cores and Links Reserve was announced by the Victorian State Government. Whilst not fully implenting all of the Biosis study, the announcement did ensure large buffers on a number of key rainforest catchments including the nationally significant College Creek. As such the agreement was supported by all involved. However this agreement was overturned in 2008 and a new agreement signed between the State Government and Hancock, without the support of other groups. This agreement allowed for clearfelling in areas set aside in the 2006 agreement. College Creek, for example, exempted from logging in 2006, now would see approximately 40% of its catchment clearfelled. Smartwood essentially said nothing about the new agreement despite it being concocted by industry and government against the wishes of the local community. So much for FSC's social license!

Smartwood and FSC remained almost mute about issues surrounding the Cores and Links, claiming that the Cores and Links agreement went beyond Smartwood issues listed in the interim standard. If an issue is not included in the standard, then auditors cannot measure against those issues for compliance. Other issues that auditors cannot measure against include sustainability issues and contractual arrangements which are the reason why the forests are falling in the first place. If logging contracts are set too high and the company has to log at increased levels to meet contractual obligations, then this is not included under FSC standards. The other key weakeness of the entire system is that the auditors are paid for by the company that is undertaking the logging. What auditing company would pull a certificate if it means loss of business for them?

The case study − 'Forest Stewardship Council, Hancock Victorian Plantations and Rainforest Management under Smartwood Interim Standards' − is posted at www.tinyurl.com/fsc-cr

Anthony Amis is a member of Friends of the Earth, Melbourne.