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Why we need laws to save what's left of our forests

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 24 May 2012 17:30 GMT
Author: Tom Picken
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By Tom Picken

International efforts to protect forests and the people that live in them have failed so badly that just 20 per cent of forest remains untouched by commercial activity. It is really, really crucial that we find a global system that looks after what remains of the world’s lungs.

The question of how best to do this lies at the heart of a recent public debate between Global Witness and WWF over the credibility of the latter’s flagship timber sustainability scheme, the Global Forest and Trade Network (GFTN). 

Last July, a Global Witness investigation raised important concerns that the GFTN was not delivering on its promise to protect people and the environment, because of a combination of weak membership standards, lax monitoring of members and poor transparency. Some of the worst examples showed a UK timber merchant dealing in illegal timber, a Malaysia logging company clearing orang-utan habitat inside WWF’s own “Heart of Borneo” project, and a Swiss-German timber trader whose Congolese  subsidiary had links to human rights abuses -  all carried out while members of the WWF scheme. WWF initially denied these claims but has now largely accepted them. 

These were damning findings which got a lot of attention, and WWF hastened an independent review which has just been made public. It accepts Global Witness claims, acknowledges room for improvement on some of the worst excesses and promises to do a better job of monitoring companies on its books.

These are all positive and welcome steps, which will make a difference in the particular instances cited. But they don’t address – and WWF has consistently brushed over – the fundamental question we are posing, about whether the approach they are endorsing will actually do the job of saving forests.  

Our main criticism is not that WWF has got too close to companies and failed to hold them to account, although that is true. It is that even if these companies were playing by the scheme’s rules, the system it endorses is fundamentally wrong.

The logic WWF works on is that responsible logging will keep some form of forest standing. But a weighty body of evidence now shows this approach actually makes deforestation in these and surrounding areas more likely over time.

So the damage done by incentivising loggers to go deeper into primary forest is hard to overstate. That’s why we say operations have to be restricted to already logged forests at all costs, and done sustainably so that ecosystems get restored and local people benefit.

We think solutions need to be legally binding, and tackle the perverse incentives to continue logging in new forest frontiers. This is where Global Witness is operating – in tropical forested countries with fragile governments, widespread corruption and rampant illegal logging – working with local civil society to tighten the processes and laws governing forests and monitor the implementation of those laws.

Given the global nature of the industry, we need solutions at this level too, and we have seen some progress. New legislation in Europe banning the import of illegal timber is a welcome complement to tough US laws. But other major markets need to also follow suit including Japan, India and China. And as these laws get implemented, they too need strengthening to not just reject blatant illegal timber, but also make genuine sustainability a condition of entry. This would help purge timber from industrial operations in intact forests from our supply chains.

There are also easier wins in the offing. Take for example the recent legislation in the United States which prohibits any US tax dollars supporting industrial logging in primary tropical forests. Similar legislation in other major countries would send a strong signal to timber markets and other schemes that such operations are no longer acceptable.

The big engine driving deforestation is ultimately consumption. Demand for food, fuel and fibre needs to be contained and made more equitable. Policy makers must face up to this.

But our aim in investigating GFTN was to show that the model at the supply end is broken - the status quo is destroying our forests at breakneck speed, and weak voluntary schemes rubberstamp it. So we need to go back to basics and come up with credible alternatives, armed with legal sanctions, before it’s too late. WWF is one of the most iconic names in environmentalism - it must play a key part in driving forward any solution. We hope they and others will engage with us to seek real long term solutions.  

Tom Picken is the Campaign Leader, Forests at Global Witness

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