Forest, Malayasia

A major certification scheme claiming to help consumers purchase sustainable timber has been found wanting:  Greenpeace along with several other organisations, has launched a report on how forest certification organisation PEFC (Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification), and both its endorsed certification schemes and labelled products, cannot be trusted to represent sustainable forest management.

The independent Board of Appeal of the Dutch Environmental Foundation ruled on October 19th that the Malaysian Timber Certification Scheme (MTCS), a PEFC-endorsed scheme, fails on key sustainability criteria. This latest ruling upholds the judgment made by the Dutch Timber Procurement Assessment Committee (TPAC): that the MTCS label does not protect forests or the rights of indigenous people who depend on them for their livelihood. 

It has taken a long time to reach this final judgement. In early 2009, TPAC, commissioned by the Dutch government to review timber certification schemes against their procurement criteria, started to assess MTCS.

Since the Dutch government has publically committed to only buy wood products that are 100% sustainable, and the Netherlands is the EU’s largest market for Malaysian timber and related products, the result of this assessment would have a significant impact on timber procurement – and on the forests that the timber is sourced from.

In March 2010, MTCS was initially approved by TPAC, even though it recognised that under MTCS certification, natural forests were at risk of being converted into tree monoculture plantations. Five Dutch NGOs including Greenpeace filed a grievance against the decision because a significant number of critically important principles for sustainable forestry are not guaranteed under MTCS, including the avoidance of forest conversion and respecting the rights of indigenous peoples who depend on natural forests. As a result TPAC overturned its earlier decision in October 2010 and did not recognise MTCS as sustainable.

Unwilling to accept this decision, the board of MTCS, MTCC, filed an appeal against the decision of TPAC. On August 5, 2011, the case was heard by the Board of Appeal (SMK).

Astonishingly, the Dutch State Secretary for Infrastructure and the Environment, Joop Atsma, under the pressure of the Malaysian government, made three attempts over the past two years to accept the Malaysian Timber Scheme trying to circumvent the official appeals procedure. To prevent him from doing this, Greenpeace, along with a Dutch coalition of non-governmental organisations, started an injunction proceeding at the district court in The Hague – and the judge ruled that Atsma must wait for the verdict of the appeal process before he could take a decision on MTCS.

We’re satisfied that the failings of MTCS have been recognised by the Board of Appeal. If sustainability standard is to be truly credible, and not just a greenwash PR exercise, it must make a tangible difference on the ground. It must protect the forests, and the indigenous communities and biodiversity that they support; otherwise, these labels do more harm than good by misleading consumers with false promises of sustainability. If a label is found to be failing on key sustainability criteria, this must be resolved before the label is accepted, not the other way around, as happened with MTCS.

But MTCS is only one scheme under the PEFC umbrella that is in practice a lot less sustainable than it claims to be on paper. It is therefore extremely important that other labels undergo rigorous assessment, to verify whether they are protecting forests and communities on the ground.

Only then we will be able to say that the timber and paper we buy comes from sustainably managed forests, and only then will be sure that our consumption of these products will not be at the expense of the planet’s last, beautiful forests.

Nora van de Hoeven, Greenpeace Forest campaigner 

Greenpeace report: On the Ground: The controversies of PEFC and SFI