TFT response to Laos article

Posted: 13 October 2006 in FSC, Laos, Logging, World Bank

Scott Poynton, Executive Director of Tropical Forest Trust responded yesterday to my article in last month’s WRM Bulletin about the certification of logging in Laos.

This is the third public response, after FSC’s response and SmartWood’s response. In his response Scott accuses WRM of publishing an article which “seriously risks the livelihoods of the very people they claim to support without any deeper effort to verify what is really happening on the ground.”

Scott perceptively points out that “This article’s target wasn’t Lao village forestry; it was the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).”

My article was based on a leaked SUFORD report – the World Bank, Finnish government Sustainable Forestry and Rural Development project which is supporting village forestry in Laos. The report is based on a consultant’s visit to Savannahkhet province. The report clearly exposes the weaknesses with SmartWood’s assessment. (Incidentally, I referred to the SUFORD report as a leaked report in my article not because it’s a “sexy sound bite” as Scott suggests, but because it was leaked. It arrived anonymously, attached to an email with the subject line “logging in Laos – leaked document”. The report is not available on any project-related websites or the World Bank’s website.)

In another comment, Scott suggests that I’m distorting the historical timeline to strengthen my argument. I’m not. Here is the relevant part of the timeline:

  • 24 January 2006 – SmartWood issued a certificate for 39,007 hectares in Savannahkhet province. They issued a long series of corrective action requests, one of which states: “By the end of Year 1, all logs must contain clear and lasting marks (e.g. paint or chops) to identify the village, strip, and log number.” The only possible reason for this request is that the logs were not being properly marked when the certificate was issued.
  • May 2006 – World Bank SUFORD report published, based on fieldwork from 14 May to 22 May.

The SUFORD report, which Scott describes as an “excellent and constructive assessment”, found the following:

1. Trees and logs in all inspected locations [forest, landing, mill] were not marked as per requirement. Tracing of trees/logs is therefore impossible.
1. In all PFA [production forest area] – and in logging operations related to infrastructure projects or the like – proper marking should be implemented.
2. Logs which are not marked as per requirements should (in line with the Forestry Law article 26) not be permitted to be moved.
End remark:
1. Only with consistent and accurate marking of trees and logs can legality of logs be verified and COC [chain of custody] proven.”

The SUFORD report states that logs coming from the logging operations should not be permitted to be moved – otherwise they would be in breach of the Forestry Law. SUFORD’s consultant later finds unmarked and incorrectly marked logs in sawmills. SmartWood wasn’t planning to check up on any of this until January 2007.

Scott says that I (and WRM) should be “calling on industry to act responsibly and support these projects by buying their timber”. But how can I possibly ask anyone to buy timber from an operation where no chain of custody is possible because the timber is not properly marked?

I agree with one part of Scott’s response: my article should not affect villagers’ livelihoods. But the reality is that villagers’ livelihoods are being affected – by the logging that is taking place in villagers’ forests. Villagers are not doing this logging themselves, as Scott knows. Logging crews are. Logging crews are not following management plans. They are logging more timber than they should. They are doing so to meet the demand from an increasing number of sawmills in the area. Villagers’ resin trees have been cut. Logging crews living conditions are grim. This is all according to the SUFORD report, but SmartWood failed to notice it.

I wrote the article because I believe that the findings of the World Bank report should be public. The report found that:

“In interviews with VFO (village forestry organisation] representatives – and partly also when discussing with FMU [forest management unit] staff – it was evident that the understanding of the PSFM [participatory sustainable forest management] concepts and basic principles was not clear.”

“All VFOs expressed that quality of training was insufficient.”

“The lack of understanding of the basic PSFM principles – and the weak adherence – became visible when the harvest blocks were inspected.”

At the end of his response to my article, Scott quotes a villager from Kengpe village, as saying that revenue from forest management has allowed villagers to improve village roads, the school, the temple, the irrigation system and houses. Kengpe village is in Khammouane province. Great. But neither Jonsson’s report nor my article are about village forestry operations in Khammouane province. Both are about village forestry operations in Savannahkhet.

SmartWood certified an operation knowing that it does not comply with either FSC principles and criteria or the Lao Forestry Law. To state what should be obvious: FSC is a standards-based certification system. It is not based on hoped for improvements. If the standards are not met, the operation should not be certified.

  1. Jouni Snellman says:

    Thank you for the fantastic blog. It was a little difficult to find though, is that on purpose?

    Best regards,

    Jouni Snellman

  2. Scott Poynton says:


    My view is that if you’re going to criticize something it is beholden on you to get dates and facts right and to present a full account of things rather than just the parts that suit your argument. If you do that, and your case stacks up, full credit to you and I’ll be the first to acknowledge your achievement. But if you don’t then it is beholden on those that know the full story to present it so that readers see an alternative view and can make their own judgements from a more informed position.

    You mention that the relevant part of the timeline is 24 January 2006 – certificate issued; and May 2006 – SUFORD report. I disagree. You call these dates relevant because if these dates are all that your readers hear, then yes, they do make it appear that your report is well researched. So these dates are only relevant in so far as they’re relevant to making your story look like an accurate account.

    The truth needs a little deeper search through the project’s history. The relevant part of the timeline extends back beyond these dates. But you know all this because you do know how the FSC system works, don’t you? If I’m wrong and you didn’t know this, then it was beholden on you to do your research and find out. If in fact you don’t know how the FSC system works, how can it be that you attack it?

    The Pre-Conditions to the award of the FSC certificate were actually closed out in June 2005. An FSC certificate can only be awarded once a contract has been signed between the people being certified and the certification body, in this case, Smartwood. The contract between the Lao Government and Smartwood, in the case of the Savannahkhet certificate, was only signed on 24th January 2006. The negotiations to sign the contract took longer than expected. This was due to the need to accurately translate the contract document; the need for both parties to understand each other; and because of personnel changes in Savannahkhet (the Khammoune certificate was issues in early December 2005).

    So there was ample time between June 2005 and May 2006 for systems to break down. The fact that SUFORD undertook their investigation so quickly after the certificate was issued shows how the whole FSC process was working effectively to ensure on-going monitoring (Principle 8) that maintains the standard achieved at the time that the pre-conditions were closed. Having received the report, did SUFORD do nothing? That would have been a story. Or did they work to improve the systems and get them back to the FSC standard they had previously attained? We don’t know because you didn’t check and you didn’t check because if they had, you couldn’t have attacked Smartwood or the FSC.

    The Smartwood assessment Report highlights the need to strengthen the COC system by ensuring clear and lasting marks. You suggest that “the only possible reason for this is that the logs were not being properly marked when the certificate was issued”. Saying so doesn’t make it true. Couldn’t it equally be that there WAS a functioning system but that the marks needed to be clearer and more lasting? Likewise with your conclusion about the logging crews; the SUFORD report came almost 12 months after the pre-conditions were closed. How do you know what the conditions were like in June 2005? That’s not in the SUFORD report.

    And what of today? Is there a functioning system today? I’m told there is because I’ve asked and within 2 weeks Smartwood will either confirm it or prove that there isn’t – the FSC system is working to give us the independent 3rd party verification we require. That it stopped working for some time – we don’t know how long – doesn’t mean it couldn’t have been working when Smartwood closed the pre-conditions in June 2005. There is thus no basis for your argument that they certified an operation that had not yet reached the required standard.

    I agree that it’s disappointing that it stopped at all. But this is the real world and if people – especially poor villagers – see no benefit from operating a system, they’ll stop doing so. But that’s why the FSC system requires on-going monitoring.

    I know that WRM have an issue with Smartwood over the FSC certification of Eucalyptus plantations in South America. But that’s another story in another part of the world with different people and different contexts. If you’re going to write about Laos, then please investigate, find out facts and report them openly so readers can make informed judgements. It seems that your desire to throw bricks at the FSC and Smartwood has seen you undertake the sort of biased reporting you rightly accuse others of. That’s what’s disappointing.

    I’m glad you wrote your article as making such documents public is a good service. I hadn’t seen the report before you published it, so thank you for that. But I know that Smartwood hadn’t seen it either and any system, the FSC or otherwise, requires information to function. I’m not critical of SUFORD for not publishing their internal report but I would be critical of them had they not responded and sought to fix the identified problem. It seems they have done this but Smartwood will verify whether this is the case so let’s see.

    My real issue with your article is that you’ve attacked villagers in Laos who are seeking to sustainably manage their forests. These people need help and support, not to get caught up in a global debate that has nothing to do with them.

    And finally, just so that your readers understand, Khammoune Province is adjacent to Savannahkhet Province in Laos and the two FSC certified projects there operated together under the FOMACOP project. So yes, Mr Kaen Sarnprathoum is from Khammoune Province but the same benefits have reached Savannahkhet and I know this because TFT people have been there and seen it. Most importantly, the Smartwood Assessment Report tells me it’s so.

  3. Jim Pheasant says:

    Yeah,you tellem Scottrick

  4. […] Scott Poynton points out, it’s not as simple as this short timeframe implies. “The truth needs a little deeper […]

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