Paper promises questioned

Posted: 17 August 2006 in FSC Plantations Review, South Africa, Swaziland

The Forestry Stewardship Council symbol should indicate ethical paper production practices, but is this merely another way of ‘greenwashing’ environmentally and economically unfriendly realities?

By Tony Carnie – The Mercury

MOST officeworkers are unlikely to pay much attention to the warm and fuzzy “FSC” tree symbol when they rip open the next ream of A4 paper to load the photostat machine.

But for the benefit of the ethical consumer, the tree symbol of the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) represents an international “promise” that these paper and wood products are produced with due respect for the environment and for the human rights of workers and surrounding communities.

Only companies that can prove they act “responsibly” are entitled to use this trademark tree logo in return for access to the lucrative market of increasingly environmentally aware consumers.

But is this logo really worth a row of beans?

Is it just another example of “greenwashing”, in which dirty goods are packaged and dressed up with false and misleading promises?

Does it matter that poor communities in KwaZulu-Natal or South America are exposed to high levels of poisonous air and water pollution from the pulp and paper mills that make this paper?

Does it matter that large chunks of land throughout the world are now being used to grow industrial timber products, rather than food for hungry bellies?

Or, for that matter, that ever-larger swaths of the natural world are being destroyed every year to create the green, industrial deserts that feed the world paper monster.
These are some of the ticklish questions which the FSC has been forced to confront once again after renewed criticism that the international certification scheme has lost its credibility.

The FSC was born more than a decade ago after groups in the timber industry, and environmental and human rights movements got together to devise “an honest and credible system” for identifying companies that maintain some kind of balance between profit-taking, human rights and their destruction of natural forests.

In the northern hemisphere, this certification scheme was motivated largely by the desire to protect rainforests and other natural forests from being obliterated.

But in many parts of the south, the concern was not so much for protecting natural forests, but rather that too many trees were being planted in vast, industrial plantations, which destroyed or displaced grasslands, crop lands and other natural ecosystems.

Haggling

But after much haggling, in 1996 the FSC finally agreed to certify responsibly managed tree plantations on the basis that they would ultimately reduce the pressure on natural forests.

Since then, the FSC has certified more than six million hectares of plantations and another 17 million hectares of mixed, or natural, forest.

Yet criticism about the credibility of certified plantations has not gone away, and in September 2004 the FSC agreed that the time had come to review the criteria for certifying plantation timber.

This lengthy review process is drawing to a close and the first official recommendations are due to be published next month.

Ricardo Carrere, of the Uruguay-based World Rainforest Movement, is worried that the review may be simply a case of “changing something sothat nothing changes”.

“If the process does not lead to much stricter requirements for plantation certification, then it will have been useless,” he wrote in the movement’s latest monthly bulletin.

Closer to home, the review could also have major implications for South African pulp and paper giants, like Sappi and Mondi, which brand products with the FSC label.

But neither company can claim to be acting responsibly or in full compliance with FSC principles, according to recent research by two Durban-based authors – Wally Menne, of the Timberwatch environmental coalition, and John Blessing Karumbidza, of the University of KwaZulu-Natal department of economic history and development studies.

Menne visited Swaziland two years ago to investigate the social and environmental impacts of industrial timber plantations, including the Mondi Peak and Sappi Usutu plantations, which both supply pulp to their South African parent companies.

Menne noted that almost 10% of the land surface of Swaziland was carpeted by tree plantations – effectively depriving poor, rural communities from access to some of the country’s best farming lands.

He argued that timber companies had appropriated a disproportionate share of the country’s soil, water and land surface, especially in a nation that relied heavily on food aid from other countries.

Menne suggested that if this timber land was available for crop-growing and other land uses, fewer Swazis would go hungry or be reliant on foreign food aid.

He said claims by timber companies that they provided valuable economic benefits to the Swazis needed to be more closely scrutinised.

“A careful evaluation of the costs and benefits of the timber industry as a whole may well demonstrate that it represents a net investment deficit on account of damage and hidden consequences,” he said.

Karumbidza, who focused his research along the KZN North Coast, has also attempted to expose the damage and hidden costs of timber plantations among poor communities.

He concluded that rather than uplifting the lives of rural communities, the growth of many FSC-certified plantations in KZN had helped to drive more and more self-sufficient farming communities off their land into the squalor of semi-urban townships.

In sharp contrast to its slick public relations and image management campaigns, Karumbidza said the timber industry had deepened poverty on several parts of the North Coast.

Although the industry claimed to be providing new jobs in growing or processing timber, the trend over the past few years had been large reductions in direct employment, a general lowering of wages and a shift towards contract-based employment.

Apart from reducing the land available for food production, the expansion of the timber industry in this area had also deprived many communities of scarce water.

As more food-producing farms were turned over to timber or sugar, rural communities were being forced to buy more processed foods and to sell their labour in order to buy food they used to grow. Mrs Ziqubu, a resident of the Sabokwe community near Kwa-Mbonambi, told Karumbidza that gum plantations had sucked up water which used to feed perennial streams.

“The problem of water is as crucial as the access to land itself,” she said.

“You may get land, but without water there is very little one can do with the land. So, we are here in the middle of a desert created by the plantation industry.”

Karumbidza said the dispossession of rural communities began in the 1950s when the state forestry company, Safcol, began to forcibly remove people in order to establish plantations in the St Lucia, Mtubatuba and KwaMbonambi area.

A further wave of timber expansions began in the 1980s, when Sappi and Mondi bought several agricultural farms in the region. While consolidating small, formerly white-owned farms into single, large plantation units, they laid off black farm workers and left several communities homeless by destroying the old farm villages.

Some people had moved to squatter settlements, like Slovoville. Others had tried to negotiate for land rights in already overcrowded tribal areas. Others had moved into the Dukuduku indigenous forest to establish subsistence farms.

Several Sabokwe residents told Karumbidza they felt increasingly hemmed in by the surrounding timber plantations. They complained that there was nowhere to grow food or to graze their cattle.

The small patches of land which were left could no longer be subdivided to provide their children with farmland or housing plots.

“The plantations should be removed. They are good for nothing,” a local youth leader at Sabokwe told Karumbidza.

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