Conservation & Environmental Matters
------ Forwarded Message
From: Phillip Owen <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: Wed, 7 Dec 2005 18:18:08 +0200
Subject: FSC Credibility Crisis
>From ‘noseweek’ #74
Selling our Forests down the Elands River
With the year-end silly season just around the bend, NoseArk have turned
our collective thoughts towards trees. Christmas trees, as you might
A long-lost hippy connection of ours, last seen farming dirt under his
toenails in the Eastern Cape, once told us that the reason pine trees
came to be associated with Christmas was because, in northern Europe,
they shelter hallucinogenic mushrooms. Pre-Christian Europeans used to
gather around these trees and used the sacred fungi to float
fantastically through their low-flying pagan festivals (beats another
dull Boxing Day with dreadful aunt Annie and her smelly husband Harold,
if you ask us).
Because the trees were associated with the trippy toadstools, they
became sacred too.
After the heathens were converted, most of them stopped eating
mushrooms, but carried on associating pines with sacred stuff. That’s
why so many of us still like a dead alien tree with red-and-white
mushroom decorations in the corner of the living room to put our
We can get freshly-decapitated non native pine trees in South Africa
with relative ease because they grow rather well here, and the past
centaury or so has seen about 1.5 million hectares of South Africa
planted with pines and other alien species. Massive plantations are now
found in many provinces and their scale has allowed local tree growers
and processors like Sappi and Mondi to become huge trans-national
corporations, owning trees and pulp mills all over the globe.
Although miles and miles of pine monoculture can be visually appealing
to those of us with a more northern hemisphere way of looking at things,
they can also be seriously bad news environmentally. Exotic tree
plantations have earned the name ‘green death’ from eco-activists, who
point out that they displace native species, very few of which can live
The only reptile species thought to have become extinct in South Africa
in the past three centuries, a lizard called Eastwood’s Long-tailed
Seps, last seen in 1913, had its own habitat covered by pine
plantations. Plantations in the eastern parts of South Africa are
particularly notorious for consuming grassland, now considered our most
threatened biome due to 60% (ACTUALLY 80%) of its area being lost. All
five of our critically endangered bird species are grassland or wetland
species. Four of them, including the charismatic Blue Swallow, have lost
considerable living space to exotic afforestation in recent decades.
Industrial plantations also consume vast amounts of water, and have been
blamed for drying up wetlands and contributing significantly to many of
the once – perennial rivers in the Kruger National Park becoming
seasonal streams, dry for much of the year. In many places pines have
jumped plantation fences and have become increasingly invasive,
smothering the countryside in a dark green suffocating blanket.
And we haven’t even got to the pulp mills yet. Sappi got a rude PR shock
in 1989 when an effluent spill from the giant Ngodwana Mill killed
virtually all aquatic life in the Elands River for miles downstream.
They’ve since spent a lot of time trumpeting their green credentials,
and are especially proud of their role in the development of an
industry-standard oxygen pulp bleaching process, which eliminates the
use of toxic chlorine in that part of the paper making process.
What they don’t bleat about quite so loudly is that, until a few months
ago, they used an old-style chlorine bleaching unit on their Stanger
mill, just upstream from the Mvoti River estuary, famous migratory bird
stopover. The estuary was closed to fishing and swimming this year owing
to a Sappi survey which found levels of chlorinated organic pollutants
‘above acceptable levels’ in the estuary. Although they made much of
their subsequent decision to close the chlorine bleaching unit, they
haven’t made their actual tests results public, despite media requests.
Bearing in mind that chlorinated organic pollutants include some of the
most toxic chemicals around, its hardly surprising that they wouldn’t
want us to know exactly what they found.
It thus came as a pleasant surprise to NoseArk, while shopping for
paper, to see the logo of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) on a box
of Sappi’s Typek A4. The presence of the logo persuaded us to buy the
paper, even though it was more expensive than another brand – also made
by Sappi – that didn’t carry the FSC mark. On arriving back at the
office, we found a box of Mondi Rotatrim also sporting the FSC logo. The
FSC (based in Bonn, Germany) is a body that certifies products like
timber and paper, via local agents, as coming from well managed forests.
It is a laudable initiative to keep products from illegal clearcutting
out of the market, and make sure that the forests are managed to
minimize their environmental and social costs. The idea is that
eco-friendly types (like you, dear reader) should only buy wood and
paper with the FSC logo on it, to force producers to clean up their
NoseArk finds it hard to consider industrial monocultures of alien trees
to be ‘forests’, but a quick web trip to www.fsc.org reveals that they
do in fact certify plantation products as well as those that come from
(real) forests. The organization has a set of 10 ‘principles and
criteria of forest stewardship’ that form the basis of their management
standards. Principles 1 – 9 deal with things like the environmental and
social impacts of forests – product extraction. Principle 10 allows
plantations to be FSC certified, and lays out in general terms how they
need to be planted and managed to qualify.
The nine criteria under Principle 10 go into more detail on how this
should be done, and, ecologically speaking, there are a lot of good
words in there, including stuff on the conservation of biodiversity and
maintenance of ecological functionality. Criteria 10.6 , for example,
says the choice of tree used in a plantation “shall not result in long
term soil degradation or adverse impacts on water quality (or)
Having read the criteria, NoseArk wondered how on earth any local pine
plantation got OK’d by the FSC. The devil is, as usual, in the fine
print, and how it is read.
It turns out that the FSC is so forest-centric, that despite its fine
words about conserving biodiversity, they will only disallow FSC
certification to plantations whose construction has resulted in the
destruction of natural forests since 1994.
(Plantations that destroyed natural forests before that date can be
certified.) However, plantations that destroy other habitat types, like
grassland, savannah, etc. are OK as far as the FSC is concerned.
Also, it is up to the local certifying agent to interpret the FSC’s
principles and criteria for local conditions. SGS Qualifor, the leading
certification agent in South Africa, provides a 71 – page outline – on
the internet – of their Forest Management Standard, against which
applicants for FSC certification are assessed. SGS Qualifor provides for
each criterion a list of ‘indicators’ or norms to achieve, and
‘verifiers’, which are examples of the specific things that inspectors
need to look for or confirm in order to ensure compliance with FSC
Under the above mentioned FSC criterion 10.6 which forbids long term
impacts on water quantity, we found no indicators or verifiers against
which one would be able to determine reductions on runoff or stream
flow. Elsewhere in the qualifor Standard there is brief mention of the
fact that plantations should have a permit from the department of Water
Affairs and Forestry – an implicit admission that plantations generally
do reduce stream flow.
The FSC logo and associated labelling on the box of Sappi Typek we
bought was also confusing. On the outside of the box, next to the logo,
are the words ‘Mixed Sources’. We presume it meant that the paper was
made from a number of different sources, but non the less legit ones.
Once we opened the box, however, a label on each ream of paper, told us
that only a ‘minimum of 30%’ came from FSC certified sources. Where did
the rest come from?
According to a FSC local certification agent, it could have come from
anywhere – pristine forest in Latvia or the Amazon, for example. Even if
all a companies plantations are FSC certified, their pulp mills often
get pulp from outside sources. The logo on the box is no indication of
who grew the trees. This means that, today, you can buy a box of paper
with a FSC “green” label that is probably made of 30% water-sucking,
grassland – destroying, rare species – threatening local plantation
stock and 70% Lord-knows-where-from wood.
Some local eco-activists formally asked the FSC to stop certifying
plantations – distinct from natural forests – until a review of
principle 10, already under way, is complete.
The FSC have told them (very politely) that it will carry on certifying
plantations. Why? Money. Or, as the FSC euphemistically puts it, because
it feels that a moratorium on plantation certification won’t be
supported by the majority of its membership. Many of the members,
surprise surprise, are from the timber industry.
The timber industry needs to be involved in the FSC for it to succeed.
What it doesn’t need is for the timber industry to run it. It is one of
the few organizations that can turn the market away from dodgy forest
products, but its reputation is going down the Elands river , along with
the slow-flowing effluent from the Ngodwana mill.
Happy Christmas and a Merry New Year to you all!
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