On the verge of developing a regional referential for forest certification in the Congo Basin

The sub-regional Working group charged with conceiving a reference FSC certification standard for the Congo Basin held a workshop in Douala - Cameroon, from 1 - 3 September 2009. The workshop that was aimed at validating the said tool marks the dawn of a new phase in the establishment of a sub-regional standard, particularly with regard to the decision on the interpretation of FSC Principle 3 on the rights of indigenous peoples. Having been given a mandate to provide a definition for the notion of indigenous peoples in Africa that could be adopted as a reference, the representatives of indigenous peoples first pointed to the provisions of the 2005 report of the expert working group of the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights, which addressed the issue of indigenous populations/communities. Lastly, in an effort to distinguish between pygmies and other local populations and mindful that all other peoples who live in or depend on forests for their livelihoods are covered by other principles that address locals, riparian populations and employees in forest concessions notably (principle 2 on "Tenure and use rights and responsibilities" and principle 4 on "community relations and workers' rights"), it was agreed that henceforth principle 3 will only pertain to "the rights of indigenous peoples who are pygmies". GTZ Consultant, Jean-Marie Noiraud of the GTZ support project to the COMIFAC in expressing his delight with the progress made in defining indigenous peoples "suggested that a study be carried out to assess the general applicability of this concrete development on all the mechanisms of cooperation in the forestry sector in Central Africa, in an effort to disengage from and avoid further unproductive discussions on the concept of indigenous peoples, a situation that continues to be real and very disturbing".


Besides the issue of indigenous peoples, that provoked very passionate discussions, consensus was quickly reached on other issues including the necessity to include corruption-related themes in the forestry sector into principle 1 (compliance with laws). This accord reveals that the parties present - members of FSC, observers from the private sector, auditing firms, international and national NGOs and COMIFAC representatives - have, after several deliberative meetings adopted relatively similar positions. The commitment made by all the partners of the CBFP at the last Consultative Regional Council meeting in may 2009 to provide continuous support to the sub-regional working group on regional standards is thus at the verge of being realized, and this will give more credibility to the certificates issued in the region. On the other hand, the degree of attention paid to marginalized populations within the context of the new FSC requirements coincides with one of the conclusions reached at the CPFP workshop on the role of industrial production in the sustainable management of the forests of the Congo Basin; a workshop during which partners emphasized the necessity of increasing communication between indigenes and exploiters, for example by using employees of pygmy origin as intermediaries. Following the establishment of a new regional standard, the COMIFAC will finally have at its disposal an additional indicator to prove the implementation of Point 5 of its Convergence Plan pertaining to the sustainable exploitation of forest resources in the Congo Basin.


Why proceed with the development of a new sub-regional certification standard? During the CBFP workshop on the role of industrial production in the sustainable management of forests of the Congo Basin held in May of 2009, members of CBFP acknowledged the importance of instituting a tailored regional standard "in order to increase the credibility of certificates issued in the region. Considering the fact that the consumer-buyer on external markets is becoming more and more sensitive to issues of social and environmental responsibility, a labelized standard would allow these consumers to distinguish between good and bad timber irrespective of its national origins. For the moment being, this consumer tends to shy away from consuming tropical timber from regions that encounter governance problems in the forestry sector, especially if the signs meant to facilitate the identification of "good timber" are little helpful. We need to be aware that in view of the non-existing regional standard, certification organizations in central Africa started developing and applying their own interpretations of general standards (FSC, PEFC, Kerhout) to issue certificates. This method, which was by and large incoherent, did not fail to raise questions of credibility and validity of issued certificates, thereby undermining their capacity to assign added value to wood products destined for export. It was with all these in mind that the project for the establishment of a sub-regional FSC standard, tailored to suit realities in the sub-region had taken root since March 2008. Due to great similarities in sustainable forest management across the Congo Basin countries, the approach adopted by FSC was to institute an accredited regional standard to replace all the standards of the different certification organizations and to fine-tune this standard to suit specific national situations. A first version of the new common standard was thus drafted by FSC experts and submitted to all concerned parties for examination. With the above mentioned workshop, the process of examination has thus come to an end. Considering the progress made in forest certification since 2005 in COMIFAC countries, the evolution towards a regional standard that will allow companies to finally capitalize their investment  seems almost natural. According to the FSC report published in 2009, some 5 million hectares of forests are certified (878.896 ha in Cameroon, 1.873.505 ha in Gabon, and 1.907.843 ha in DR Congo); making up more than 10 percent of the 41.636.677 ha of production forests mapped out into concessions and thus making the Congo Basin the largest certified natural forest block in the world. However, the ambitious aim of the supranational association of producers-IFIA (Inter-African Industries Association) would be to have 10 million ha of tropical forests certified in the Congo Basin region by 2012.


In voicing her assessment of the validation workshop, technical adviser at the GTZ support bureau to the COMIFAC, Leticia Pina Cortez recognizes that in its present form the standard, applicable to both large and small forest concessions, remains relatively bulky and should be revised to produce a simpler version. However, in order to avoid falling for an over-simplified version that does not take the complexities involved into account, any necessary simplifications should only be made based on experience accumulated in the course of the trial years. In the same light, one might consider to go back to the initial proposition and establish two distinct standards; one for large concessions - that could be adopted pretty quickly, and the other for small concessions - that would necessitate a more detailed and lengthy preparation because it would take national specifications into consideration. While it remains of capital importance, the issue of verifiers was not discussed during the workshop. "Without consensus on verifiers, the standard would be of no use, Leticia reckons. We therefore wish that the same approach adopted by consensus at national level on the principles, criteria and indicators of sustainable management be applied". This equally implies that the standard should be complemented from now on with propositions of verifiers who could easily work in all countries. National discussions should subsequently be centered on the verification of the applicability of the standard, especially on the criteria for eligibility of verifiers. Leticia reiterated the fact that the progress made in the certification of forest concessions managed by the private sector does not by any means relieve individual governments of their responsibility to create a suitable institutional framework that will enhance the fight against corruption and the illegal exploitation of forests. "The companies that require certification do not own the forests in which they operate; states therefore bear the burden of supervising some key issues" .


What future perspectives? It was agreed that the FSC should polish up the standard so that it could be tested and thereafter submitted for examination to the parties concerned by October - end of November 2009. Finally, in January or February 2010 the standard shall be submitted to the international committee of FSC for adoption. The objective would be to begin applying the new FSC sub-regional standard for central Africa as early as April 2010.


For more information please do consult:


• The conclusions of the CBFP workshop on the role of Industrial timber exploitation in the sustainable management of Congo Basin forests (19-20 May 2009) and the conclusions of the 7th CBFP-CCR session.


"Full success for the workshop on high conservation value forests", ATIBT presents all the first meeting of consultation of the GSRT-related-documents (February 26-29, in Douala), concerning especially the validation of the principle 9 FSC.


Legal opinion of the African commission of Human Rights and People on the Declaration of the United Nations on native people rights (2007)

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