FSC Media Briefer: Forest Watchdog Says This is a ‘Make or Break’ Moment for the Credibility of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)

A forest policy expert’s analysis on the high stakes votes at the FSC’s General Assembly meetings in Bali 

*Interviews available with RAN policy experts and frontline and Indigenous community representatives, who will be traveling in a delegation to attend the FSC meetings.

Interviews are available with:

Gemma Tillack, Rainforest Action Network +61 456 843 690 

Martha Doq, Director of Perkumpulan Nurani Perempuan, East Kalimantan (+62 811-5861-244)

Isnadi Esman, Community leader of Bagan Malibur, Riau (+62 812 7551 969)

Rudiansyah, Yayasan Masyarakat Kehutanan Lestari, Jambi (+62 813-6669-9091)

The General Assembly (GA) of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), taking place October 9th-14th in Bali, Indonesia, is the annual meeting of members of one of the world’s largest certification schemes for pulp and paper and timber products. On its website, the FSC describes itself as “the leader in sustainable forest management, operating the world’s most rigorous and trusted forest certification system.” But longtime forest advocates, including FSC co-founding organization Rainforest Action Network (RAN), are raising serious concerns that there are a number of motions being voted on that will determine the credibility and effectiveness of the FSC certification system into the future. 

“This is a make or break moment for the credibility of the FSC. The decisions made by its members at this General Assembly will determine if the FSC can be trusted as a certification system for global users of paper and timber products,” said Gemma Tillack, Forest Policy Director with Rainforest Action Network. 

The most significant decision being debated is about changing the rules to allow notorious forestry companies ––like Sinar Mas Group and Royal Golden Eagle Group that have converted vast areas of tropical rainforests over the past 30 years–– to obtain the most stringent and coveted certification status on offer. A change in the ‘cut-off date’ for forest conversion from 1994 to 2020 would offer a reward to these companies on the promise that they will remedy the social and environmental harm caused by decades of destruction. This change in the FSC certification standard will provide forestry companies with sordid legacies access to markets that have been exclusively accessible for companies that ended deforestation and the conversion of forests at the time of the creation of the FSC system.

“This meeting is also a ‘Make or Break’ Moment for countless Indigenous communities affected by timber companies in Indonesia,” said Lusang Arang, Indigenious leader from Dayak Bahau Long Isun – East Kalimantan. “For years, communities have filed complaints with the FSC over Indigenous and land rights violations committed by its members. Yet the FSC has not been able to deliver remedy for Indigenous and local communities at the urgency and pace at which our communities are being attacked. The Remedy Framework needs to be strengthened to serve impacted communities and needs to be improved with direct input from communities.” 

The Indonesian forestry giants that would benefit from the change in rules in the FSC system are the same companies that are currently certified by the FSC in its weakest certification systems or have been disassociated from the scheme due to violations of the FSC’s Policy of Association––a mechanism designed to protect the FSC from associating with companies that are involved in unacceptable activities such as the violation of human rights and significant conversion on lands they control that are not subject to FSC certification. A delegation of Indigenous and frontline community members are attending the event to urge the FSC to expedite unresolved complaints filed by communities towards remedy, strengthen the Remedy Framework, and bring attention to the social, economic and environmental impacts of forestry companies on local communities.

The representatives of 5 Indigenous communities are from Long Isun in East Kalimantan (a community affected by Roda Mas group subsidiaries PT. Kemakmuran Berkah Timber and PT. Roda Mas Timber), Asiki, Merauke in Papua (communities affected by former Korindo group subsidiary PT. Tunas Sawa Erma), Bagan Malibur in Riau (a community affected by APRIL-RAPP of the Royal Golden Eagle group) and Musi Rawas in South Sumatra (a community affected by Musi Hutan Persada of the Marubeni group). 

Before the GA, the FSC approved a new Policy for Association which will be applied from January 2023. This new policy is welcomed by RAN as a positive step in addressing concerns over ‘ownership loopholes’ that have plagued the FSC system. These loopholes are prevalent in cases involving South East Asian conglomerates that hide their connections to ongoing deforestation and conversion through concealed control of shadow companies. Shadow companies are controlled by a group owned by an individual or family, that opts for structures that conceal the actual owners of assets through networks of offshore companies, secret jurisdictions and nominee shareholders and/or directors instead of formal parent-subsidiary relationships. The forward-looking Policy for Association recognizes the need for the FSC to assess the harm caused by associated companies across the entire operations of their corporate groups––including shadow companies. What’s needed now is a robust and auditable Remedy Framework that will be used when implementing the new Policy for Association and a strong procedure to determine the extent of a corporate group’s operations. RAN is seeking support from FSC members for a motion that calls for these further enhancements and improvements. 

The case studies below are real examples of the impact of the FSC on Indigenous Peoples and traditional communities in Indonesia. 

  • Long Isun in East Kalimantan (community affected by PT. Kemakmuran Berkah Timber and Roda Mas Timber of Roda Mas group): The Indigenous Dayak Bahau of Long Isun have been in conflict with Roda Mas subsidiaries since 2011 over lands and forests that the company started clearing without the community’s free, prior and informed consent. In 2014, the conflict escalated leading to the criminalization of a community member who was jailed for three months without charge. The Long Isun community filed a complaint with the FSC in January 2020 and are still waiting for remedy. 
  • Asiki, Merauke in Papua (communities affected by PT. Tunas Sawa Erma, formerly of Korindo group): Former Korindo subsidiary PT. Tunas Sawa Erma used deceit and coercion to force the communities of Asiki to give up their customary forests. The company gave false promises of welfare and money while the community was not fully informed that they signed papers to give away the rights to their customary forests forever. The company cleared their customary forests without FPIC and when the communities fought back, the company began a series of attacks and intimidation against their community leaders. While the FSC has disassociated Korindo Group, the communities are still without remedy. 
  • Bagan Malibur in Riau (community affected by APRIL-RAPP of the Royal Golden Eagle group): The village of Bagan Malibur has been in conflict with the Royal Golden Eagle subsidiary for years. Over 40 percent of their village has been swallowed into the company’s pulp plantation concession without their consent. The company has cleared the peat-rich soils on the island and the community’s food crops that depend on it, significantly impacting their livelihood. The community has protested RAPP for over a decade to resolve the land conflict. RGE was disassociated from the FSC due to its violation of the FSC’s Policy for Association.
  • Musi Rawas in South Sumatra (community affected by PT. Musi Hutan Persada of the Marubeni group): In 2015, PT. Musi Hutan Persada (MHP) came with heavily armed forces and destroyed the community’s residence and farmland. Local NGOs and the Indonesian government have asked for resolution but the company refused. Instead in 2016, it continued to forcefully evict and destroy the properties of 200 community members in Cawang Gumilir, Musi Rawas. Local NGOs in South Sumatra and JATAN, a Japan based organization also have raised this concern to ASI in March 2019, but the case remains unresolved. 

Why is RAN a member of the FSC?

RAN is a founding member of the FSC. RAN has maintained its membership for nearly 30 years as it has been important to ensure there was a global voluntary certification system that prohibited the conversion or rainforests and violation of the rights of Indigenous peoples and traditional communities. Global voluntary certification systems have played an important role in setting the standard for responsible management of forests over the past few decades, especially in tropical rainforest regions. In the past few years, RAN and other international CSOs have raised serious concerns about the credibility and effectiveness of the FSC system, especially how the FSC standards and systems are being implemented in Indonesia. 

Breaking it down: RAN is concerned about the consequences of the decisions that will be taken by FSC members on the world’s rainforests and Indigenous and traditional peoples that have been affected by the conversion of their natural forests and customary lands to pulp plantations, especially in Indonesia. 

For nearly 30 years the FSC has been the only certification system that did not give a ‘green tick’ of approval to products harvested from plantations or timber concessions that were developed through the conversion of rainforests or natural forest ecosystems after a set cut-off date––1994. 1994 was when the FSC was established––through its former legal entity FSC Asociación Civil (AC)––and when it first sold FSC certified products to the global market. The FSC’s commitment to maintain its 1994 cut-off date has been a defining feature which has separated it from other weaker certification systems that are not trusted by civil society, such as the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) and or national schemes such as Indonesia’s SVLK Timber Legality Verification. This is one of the reasons why it is such a significant decision to change the 1994 cut-off date for forest conversion to 2020.

RAN is calling on FSC members to vote in support of three motions related to the conversion and remedy package: 

Motion 45 calls for further enhancements and improvements to be made to the ‘conversion and remedy package’ before its implementation. RAN is supporting this motion because significant changes are needed to the Remedy Frameworks that would be applied to companies like Asia Pulp and Paper and APRIL that are seeking to end their dissociation from the FSC system. FSC members will not be able to review both remedy frameworks before the vote on motion 37 and 40a so this motion provides some safeguards that the feedback of Indigenous Peoples and NGOs on weakness in the remedy framework––explicitly on FPIC processes for Indigenous and traditional peoples––will be addressed before the remedy frameworks are implemented.  

Motion 40 a and b call for the FSC normative standard to be changed to explicitly require organizations certified by the FSC to uphold the rights of traditional peoples. RAN is supporting this motion as it will make changes to the FSC normative standard so they explicitly require organizations certified by the FSC to uphold the rights of traditional peoples to protect and utilize their traditional knowledge and to adhere to the rights to Free, Prior and Informed Consent for traditional peoples before the utilization of their lands takes place. This will be in addition to current requirements to respect Indigenous Peoples rights, and their rights to FPIC. Traditional peoples are social groups or peoples who do not self-identify as indigenous and who affirm rights to their lands, forests, and other resources based on long-established custom or traditional occupation and use. 

RAN is calling on members to vote to oppose Motion 37. 

A decision to change the 1994 conversion rule will reduce FSC’s credibility, which is already low amongst stakeholders that are monitoring its implementation in forest frontiers such as Indonesia. The production of timber, wood, and paper products on lands that were converted up to December 2020 should not be rewarded by enabling the companies responsible for this destruction to obtain the FSC’s gold standard of certification (Full FM certification). These converted areas––and to a large degree these controversial companies––can already obtain FSC certification under the FSC’s weaker standards such as Controlled Wood and Chain of Custody Standards.

A decision to change the 1994 cut-off date also sets bad precedent for the FSC system as it sends the message to forestry and logging companies that they can continue converting rainforests because in the end the FSC will just change its standards to allow them to enter the FSC system and be certified under their gold standard (Full FM certification).

If Motion 37 passes, the FSC will begin certifying areas that were converted between December 1994 – December 2020 through its full Forest Management Certification system. The normative standard for Full Forest Management Certification would be changed to allow plantations or logging concessions that were developed on lands where the forests were cleared after 1994 and up to December 2020 to be certified. The remedy process for these converted lands will require some remedy to be delivered before the certificates can be issued––this is called the initial implementation threshold. The social and environmental indicators for this threshold will be set through a process to develop a Remedy Plan that may include affected stakeholders and rights holders. RAN is calling for more robust Remedy Frameworks to be developed than the version being presented to members at the General Assembly (see Motion 45 below).  

If Motion 37 passes, the FSC will put into effect a new definition of conversion and will prohibit forest conversion after December 2020, with a number of exemptions. The details of these exemptions––such as the exemptions for small producers or the exemption that allows up to 5% of certified management units to be converted where social and environmental benefits can be shown–– are not clearly articulated in the conversion and remedy package. The FSC has not yet defined how this new cut-off date will apply to its weaker standards––the FSC Controlled Wood and FSC Chain of Custody standards. It is these weak standards that are most often obtained by forestry and plantation companies in Indonesia as they do not require responsible production practices like the FSC Full FM system. 

The FSC is proposing to its members that the cut-off date rule should be changed to enable the FSC to play a role in securing restoration of a proportion of the forests converted and to remedy social harm caused by the conversion of lands located on the lands of Indigenous Peoples.

RAN also supports motions that call on the FSC to maintain its ban on the commercial use of genetic engineering in non-certified areas and maintain due democratic process when engaging in discussions on GE trees. There is a strong call from civil society for the FSC to wind back decisions made by its former board to open the door to GE-trees through its ‘genetic engineering learning process’.