Buying Wood: what is the best Certification?

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Temps de lecture : 4 minutes  

Supported by Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the WWF, the first Eco-Certification, called Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), was created in 1993. Through different non-governmental organisations (NGO), this council presents environmental and social issues in an unbiased way, working with economic participants such as foresters and wood traders (1). The strength of the FSC certification is to guarantee the rights of indigenous people, even where they are not recognised. The certification respects Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization (ILO) that recognises the rights, including the land-ownership rights, that the indigenous people have traditionally held. This convention was ratified by numerous Latin American countries (even if it is not always respected), and yet was rejected by the Central African countries where the indigenous people traditionally possess land, often before the creation of States and modern rights. As can be seen, there is a conflict between non-written custom rights and the current law.

Although this Eco-Certification initially referred to tropical forests, the majority of the FSC certified forests are currently located in Europe and North America. The supply of FSC tropical wood is still low, but the surfaces of certified forests regularly increase as well as the number of wood traders . In Brazil, for instance, between 2003 and 2004, the number of FSC certified commercial forests doubled thanks to the certification of several community forests that have the particularity of being managed directly by the local population that depend on them. In France, large companies such as Lapeyre or Castorama commercialise full ranges of FSC products. Although not without fault, this certification has the advantage of being open to the arguments of its social and ecological partners. Therefore, the certification of a large number of Eucalyptus single-crop farming (or other fast-growing trees) intended for the paper industry in South America and South Africa induced the expansion of this single-crop farming to the detriment of ecosystems better adapted to the needs of the local population. Under the pressure of Friends of the Earth and regional organisations, the FSC has accepted to review their plantation certification criteria…

The weaknesses of Legal Certificates

Corruption is a major factor in the principal tropical wood producing countries (2) which are listed amongst the 20 most corrupted countries in the world (3). Illegal wood trade is extremely widespread and can represent up to 90% of a country’s production, as it is the case in Indonesia. Therefore, wood industrialists have created certifications to guarantee to the consumers that the wood does not originate from an illegal cut. However these legal certificates do not correspond to any international standards that define minimum standards established between the various parties. In addition, and contrary to the FSC label, a legal certificate does not guarantee the rights of indigenous people where they are not recognised.

The danger of Complaisance Certifications

Numerous industrialists have created their own certification in an attempt to bypass the requirements of the FSC certification and to carry on selling their wood on the European market. Eco-Certifications that do not respect the essential criteria of the indigenous people and the protection of biodiversity have proliferated. For example, the Malaysian Timber Council Certification (MTCC) (3), which validates a company in direct conflict with the Penans, a Borneo forest people in Sarawak (Malaysia). Another example is CERFLOR (4), created on the impulse of large paper groups in Brazil and allows the usage of genetically modified trees […]

Europe: The Pan European Forest Certification (PEFC)

In 1998 the European forest owner federations created the Pan European Forest Certification (PEFC) in an effort to add value to their good forest management as the FSC certification was considered too restrictive and unsuitable for smaller forest owners. It is worth noting however that this Eco-Certification, created to overcome the lack of good forest governance in tropical countries, is only a complementary tool to forest laws when referring to French or European forests. The PEFC certificate is based on the principle of continued improvement and voluntary commitment: a private owner adheres to a regional charter of good management and pledges to put it into practice. This commitment does not comprise, contrary to the FSC charter, any initial audit or regular annual audit, and only random annual audits are carried out on a small sample of owners. However, the PEFC has the advantage of initiating a consultative process on sustainable management amongst the wood industry key players.

Whilst the interest of the FSC is to distinguish those who strive for environmental excellence from those who merely apply the law, the PEFC certification does not enable to distinguish those who manage their forest with due and reasonable care from those who try, in addition, to preserve the ponds, dead trees, and local tree species. The other disadvantage of the PEFC certification should not be overlooked: in 2003, the Pan European Forest Certification became the Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification schemes. Although the logo has not changed, the signification is clearly not the same. This certification, initially created for European forests, may, from now on, refer to tropical forests. MTCC, CERFLOR and PAFC Gabon (mentioned above) have joined the PEFC council, making them candidates for their own programs. It is disappointing that a certification designed to support the European wood industry has ended up being used as an “umbrella” certification to several others unconcerned with tropical forests and their people. This leaves the door wide open for exploited wood, obtained in highly critical ecological and social conditions, to penetrate the European markets.


1 – For example: Ikea, Kingfisher, B & Q, etc.

2 – Myanmar (Burma), Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Democratic Republic of Congo or Cameroon

3 – International Transparency Classification, 20044 – Or Malaysian Timber Certification Council.

To find out more, visit the Bruno Manser Foundation.

4 – CERFLOR or Certificacao Florestal


Nature et Progrès, issue 57, april 2006.

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