Opinion & Analysis

Social impacts of the Forest Stewardship Council certification in the Congo Basin
Paolo Cerutti (CIFOR) (Senior Scientist)

Originally published in September 2014 on FSC General Assembly website
Since the first half of the 1990s, forest certification has been promoted as a means to tackle global deforestation and forest degradation.

zoom (© FSC A.C.) © FSC A.C.

Among the existing initiatives, the voluntary, market-based, third-party certification system offered by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is the most prominent in terms of global share for the certification of responsible forest management in the tropics.

The FSC standard has a strong social component that seeks to improve relationships between logging companies and local populations, and contribute significantly to local development. However, social impacts are under-researched and the existing literature shows conflicting results. In particular, in the Congo Basin – the focus of this occasional paper – there is a limited number of assessments of the social impacts of forest certification and its expected impact on the local population and their customary rights.

This occasional paper assesses whether the implementation of FSC certification in forest management units (FMUs) in three Congo Basin countries has had positive additional impacts on: the working and living conditions of logging companies’ employees and their families; the effectiveness and legitimacy of the institutions set up to regulate relationships between logging companies and neighboring communities; and the local populations’ rights to, and customary uses of, forests. Impacts were assessed by surveying the mechanisms adopted by logging companies in nine certified and nine noncertified FMUs (three in each category in Cameroon, Gabon, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo).

Both quantitative and qualitative results suggest that significant differences exist between the certified and noncertified FMUs that were the focus of this study. There also exist differences within groups, in some variables more than in others, often with large differences between the best and worst performers.

Key findings include the following:

1. The presence of a certified FMU is consistently associated with better working and living conditions, as measured by the 17 variables assessed. Major differences exist in the presence and effective implementation of clear written procedures that regulate working conditions in sawmills and during forestry operations as well as in living conditions in the bases vie, where the company provides accommodations and services for workers and their families.

2. Active local institutions, in which discussions between the local population and the company on a number of issues can occur on a regular basis, are arguably the most distinctive feature of certified FMUs. All measured variables show higher positive values than in noncertified FMUs.

3. There is a consistent association between FSC certification and the existence of benefit-sharing mechanisms in addition to, and with a more equitable redistribution than, those mandated by existing legal frameworks. Given the long-term negative performance of public benefit-sharing schemes, private schemes are very much welcomed by the local population because they often contribute directly to local economies.

4. The presence of an FMU, certified or not, is not associated with significant change in local agriculture, hunting and non-timber forest product (NTFP) collection. Some of these practices are, however, illegal. In particular, inside an FMU, practicing shifting cultivation (except in fields that already existed at the time the FMU was established) and hunting and NTFP collection with nontraditional means and for commercial purposes are banned by all three study countries. While the level of reported activities is similar in certified and noncertified FMUs, people living around certified FMUs see themselves as constrained by new regulations more than people living around noncertified FMUs. This is because companies with certified FMUs introduce procedures and rules to enforce the law and hire personnel to apply them. In contrast, given the general weakness of state law enforcement, companies with noncertified FMUs are under much less pressure to enforce the law, especially on matters that are not directly related to timber harvesting. They can, thus, adopt a position of greater tolerance for local customs, even illegal ones. Paradoxically, on this issue, there is a greater chance of social peace being maintained in noncertified FMUs.

We suggest that positive social outcomes materialized in certified FMUs, more than in noncertified ones, because companies were required by certification to set and respect a calendar of implementation vis-à-vis multiple criteria, which were then regularly checked in annual evaluations. Such regular assessments are still lacking in the national legal frameworks and the forestry departments mandated to enforce them.

Positive social outcomes also materialized because certification pushes companies to maintain a permanent channel of communication with the local population, in order to avoid unexpected disruptions or social conflicts that might not only interfere with normal operations, but also increase a company’s reputational risk. Of course, the existence of institutions in itself does not make all conflicts disappear, but the permanent dialogue established between logging companies, the local populations, and, often, external parties (e.g. state officials and local and international non-governmental organizations) marks a clear break with the way logging activities were conducted in the past.

Measured positive changes do not yet mean positive long-term impacts on the livelihoods of all people living in and around certified FMUs.

Yet the social variables measured by this study seem to indicate that progress toward sustainable forest management has been driven more by certification than by current laws. Sometimes improvements meant correcting negative governance externalities, such as nonexistent or weak law enforcement. Sometimes they meant that companies with certified FMUs adopted measures well beyond what is requested by the law. At still other times, improvements meant that companies with certified FMUs had to take on the role of an absent state to avoid situations that could harm their certified status – something that we argue may have positive social impacts but risks reinforcing an old role – that of a state within the state – that logging companies should be abandoning, not embracing.

Measured differences draw a clear comparison of the social performance of companies and FMUs with and without certification. This is the most relevant contribution of this study to current discussions of the impacts of certification on the world’s forests and people living in, and from, those forests. The complex historical and political–economic reality in which certification has developed in the Congo Basin might well make issues of attribution and causality difficult to clarify. Yet results help establish that a clear difference currently exists between certified and noncertified timber: the former is sourced in FMUs where, not only legally mandated social standards are implemented, but also voluntary standards that are superior and more effective.

There should, of course, be no complacency from the FSC or logging companies with certified FMUs in comparing themselves with currently less well-managed or less well-resourced FMUs – the entire logic of FSC certification is to assess the more responsible forest managers against ever-evolving standards, irrespective of the quality of national legislation. But one should also not forget that companies with certified FMUs in the study countries are competing with neighbors who produce the same species and sell on similar markets, albeit with much lower investments, especially in improving their social performance. In this very competitive and uneven playing field, and with the scarce price premiums that seem to have been obtained so far, the evidence presented indicates that certification in the Congo Basin has been able to push companies toward remarkable social progress.

For further information on the topics discussed in this article, please contact Paolo Cerutti at p.cerutti@cgiar.org

This work forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry and is supported by the World Wide Fund for Nature.