Corruption threatens forests as certification remains luxury for rich countries

Corruption of government officials by multinational companies, pressure to repay debt and misdirection of EU funds are contributing to the destruction of tropical forests, a report leaked to The Guardian claims. Meanwhile, statistics released by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) show that only a quarter of the area of forests certified as sustainably managed lie outside Europe.

The report, which was first completed in 1997, shows that government officials in Africa, Central America and the Far East have taken decisions on logging rights in exchange for bribes.

The report claims that the need to repay World Bank and International Monetary Fund loans puts pressure on countries to sell their forests and that EU funds paid to developing countries to protect forests are often wasted.

The Guardian also claims the report was suppressed by the European Commission and by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). Two initial versions of the report were suppressed by the EC when it became nervous about the legal implications of naming multinationals involved in bribery. The WWF then vetoed the press launch of a third version last year because it was feared that some far eastern governments could decide to close down WWF offices in retaliation.

“This is one of the most sensitive reports we’ve worked on,” a WWF spokesperson told edie. “It examines the actions of powerful multinational companies, so it must be accurate and not end up in litigation. Secondly, the WWF has offices in sensitive situations around the world which all had to check the report and make sure it is accurate at the local level. This has been a long process.

“Yes, there was a lot of detail that was taken out for legal reasons. It’s a shame in a way: it would have been nice to publish the original version, but we can’t afford to be sued by multinational companies. The end result is the report has now been printed and will go public within the next four weeks.”

The report says that until bribery charges have been addressed and forestry controls enforced, EU aid should be suspended and a moratorium placed on logging in 11 countries, including Cameroon, Congo, Belize and Papua New Guinea.

But corruption isn’t the only cause of the destruction, The Guardian says. The main donors to the countries – including the World Bank, the EU and the US – are blamed by the report for failing to enforce their own forest conservation rules. The report also implicates monetary reform imposed on the countries by the World Bank and IMF in the destruction of the forests.

One answer may be certification of forests, which the WWF describes as “the greatest environmental success story of our history.” For instance, the FSC’s last quarterly report showed that it has issued 227 forest management certificates in 33 countries, bringing the total area covered to 17.5 million ha. In addition, Brazil, Latvia and Sweden have just announced major forestry certification commitments. Brazil is aiming for 25% of its forests to be certified by the FSC. Latvia is aiming for 50% of its state forests, while Sweden has said it will soon specify its certification plans.

However, the majority of forest area certified by the FSC is concentrated in the developed world. Nearly 75%, or 12.8 million ha, of FSC certified forest area is in Europe.

While the WWF agrees that the greatest progress towards certification is being made in developed countries, it argues that economic incentives for certification could effect the greatest changes. “Developed countries also buy timber from all around the world,” the WWF spokesperson told edie. “There are huge companies, for instance Home Depot in the US and B&Q in the UK, saying we only want FSC timber. That is sending a strong message that the developing world must change its practice.

“Lots of European and US forests were already relatively well managed, so it was easy to change to FSC. But it’s much harder in the developing world and it will take years to change that. But after only six years, there is now 20m ha of certified forest.

The future lies in certification. If you want to stay in business, you have to get certified. Either you get it done, or you go out of business.”

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