A note on the FSC certification of forests in Laos

Posted: 31 October 2006 in FSC, Laos, Logging, World Bank, WWF

Ben Hodgdon send me this paper: “A note on the FSC certification of forests in Laos” and asked me to post it on this blog.*

Ben was WWF Lao’s Forestry Coordinator and was involved with the certification of these forests from 2003 to the awarding of the certificates in 2006. As he points out, “In contrast to most of the people writing about this issue, I have actually spent a lot of time on the ground working on forestry in Laos.”

*UPDATE, 17 January 2006: A couple of days ago Ben wrote to me with a slightly amended version of his paper. “I mistakenly wrote about villagers being given the ‘bulk of the profits’ from logging, when this is not what the model calls for. I have changed this in the attached,” Ben wrote.

  1. Keith Barney says:


    Chris: Great blog and important issues raised.

    My interpretation would largely be parallel to Ben’s, although working for the past two years, with a low profile, low budget, community-based resource management training project with the National University of Laos, also helps in providing a slightly different perspective than, for example, someone working for a much more highly capitalised organisation such as WWF.

    Particularly, I might take issue with the idea of something termed Lao “political culture” [i.e. Ben writes: “The idea that villagers – in some cases ethnic minorities – should have decision making power over a valuable resource like timber, and that they should be given the bulk of the profits, is simply anathema to the political culture that exists in Laos”]. I would also challenge a generally quite pessimistic viewpoint regarding the potential for Lao resource management institutions to lead forest management reforms.

    Briefly, I don’t think ‘political culture’ in Laos that simple or as monolithic as is suggested (and in more optimistic moments, I think Ben would concur). For example, although they may not have much power within the system, institutions such as NUoL and NAFRI are (if slowly) being enabled to contribute to national policy making, and where alternate visions for Lao forestry are emerging (however slowly). They need to be supported. There are other places emerging in various state agencies and departments, where Lao people who have a different perspective on development issues, and the importance of wise management of the country’s natural resource endowments, than the ‘first generation’ Communist leadership. These people are often students who have returned from educational opportunities overseas, and they will almost certainly spearhead further reforms in the future.

    It should be noted as well that government agencies in Laos are largely committed to the broad goals of poverty alleviation. While this can rightly lead to some serious questioning regarding the appropriateness of the strategies adopted for reaching these goals, I would argue that most GoL officials I have met (admittedly not too many) are working to improve the conditions of their country. Most state bureaucrats and officials maintain familial ties and linkages to the countryside or provincial centers, which makes Lao officials much less removed from everyday peasant livelihood concerns than in may other neighbouring countries.

    One might add that there are not very many places in the world, let alone Southeast Asia, where ‘the bulk of the profits’ from logging activities have gone to villagers. So in this respect Laos is not somehow unique in terms of their forest management institutions.

    And in the meantime, (for some very good and very historical reasons involving long histories of domination by outside powers and the aerial bombardment during the American War), the upper Pathet Lao leadership will continue to be wary, if not outright suspicious, of losing political control to external institutions, especially where this involves strategic resources. My interpretation is that the PL leadership will continue their reforms, at their pace, on their terms, and without kowtowing to the interests of Western institutions. This highlights the importance of interpreting developments in Laos through a historical (colonial and (neo) imperialist) perspective.

    There are of course many other people in Laos (including likely many officials) who, while not supporting business as usual, elite sponsored above quota logging, would simply question the potential profitability of an FSC certified forest management system given the high technical standards required, and who might point to how it seems that it is Western consultants who seem to be capturing most of the benefits from all of the work behind SFM and certification to date.

    Lastly, I think both the issues on the table deserve some discussion that have been highlighted in the Lang article, the TFT response and in Ben’s response: a) of the obvious problems within Laos forestry management and the current FSC certificate, as well as b) how we, as non-Lao outsiders, engage with and report on politically charged events and developments in Laos, through the media, on the internet, and in our writing.

    In an article written by Grant Evans in the Bangkok Post (July 8, 2003- “Laos is Getting a Bad Rap from the World’s Media”) the author takes issue with reporters who, in his view are guilty of ‘errors of reporting judgment’.

    “Laos is a secretive country…” Evans writes, “…that makes reporting on events inside the communist state very difficult.”

    While Evans was referring specifically to recent reportage of the situation of the Hmong in Laos, his argument could also be applied to key resource sector management debates such as the logging sector (an issue often involve ethnic minorities in the uplands as well). Let me be clear — I am not at all defending illegal logging in Laos, and I would not defend the maintenance of an FSC certificate which was in breach of the basic conditions of the FSC’s principles and criteria. These are issues need to be discussed and debated openly, and if necessary the FSC certificate should be revoked. Clearly, Chris Lang’s posting and discussion of the Jonsson document was an important and justified move, to get a clearer debate of the FSC issue in Laos moving. I also fully agree with Ben’s sentiments that “In releasing the SUFORD report, Mr. Lang has helped draw attention to a serious problem that was being overlooked. He should be applauded.” I agree, (and here I would disagree with the points made by Scott Poynton from TFT in his letter, which criticizes Lang’s reports on the basis of villager incomes and an unspecified ‘anti-FSC cadre’).

    But a small part of me also can’t help come back to Evans, when he writes, “There is much which needs reform in Laos, not least its judicial system [and in this case we can safely include its forest management system]…. But when the “free press” outside is so cavalier in the way it reports Laos, then it sets a poor example for Laos, and sets back the cause of an open society here.”

    And the issue that I would draw attention to relates less to a sort of ‘cavalier’ reporting of these issues- Lang’s report was a very legitimate response to the issues identified in Jonsson’s report. The problem that I see, if indeed it is one, is that Lang’s WRM reports… well… we all knows they are strongly opinionated pieces by an international activist based in Germany (though he gets on the ground whenever possible). But as such, while Lang’s monthly missives are very effective and important at drawing attention to all things forestry in developing countries, they also (even necessarily, given the format and style) tend to miss much of the context, history and nuances of the places and people he refers to. For example, of how this current FSC debate fits not only into the contexts of FOMACOP and SUFORD, but a longer history of Lao forest management, which is a key sector, in a poor but progressing nation-state (and the PL as a changing political regime), attempting to rebuild a country devastated by years of warfare and negotiate through continuing forces of external domination in what is truly a “tough neighbourhood”.

    I think that anyone who has spent time in Laos might agree that this style of direct, highly critical reportage that confronts those in power, is not the usual style, not least due to the existing state of press freedoms(but also, perhaps, a broader cultural context of avoiding confrontation where possible). Lang’s reports make people nervous because they challenge vested interests. Surely this is what is required in most instances where forests are being lost and destroyed via ineffective management by state governments or companies, illegal logging and monoculture plantations development. But I also wonder if there might be a time and place for direct external criticism, and also a time and place for subtler or even politically savvy approaches. This might make for fewer blogger headlines but could still contribute towards the desired results. I might argue that this especially holds when, as in this specific case, we are discussing issues pertinent to what was until very recently (and still is) a highly controlled communist state, in which the future of something which resembles sustainable forest management, and the underlying social justice, nature conservation, and rural development goals of the FSC in Laos, may hang in the balance.

    There is an argument, given the specific political and historical conditions existing in communist Laos, and the potential for the leadership to simply shut down reforms and abandon the entire SFM/ certification process (as evidenced by recent events concerning WWF’s work in Sekong), that a different, more nuanced, and perhaps more politically grounded and engaged approach by outside groups such as WRM would be more effective in this instance. That said, I also applaud Chris’s sincere and skilled efforts to draw exposure and attention to these serious issues in Lao community-based forest certification and management.

    Keith Barney
    York University
    Toronto, Canada

  2. […] Recent debates over forest certification in Laos are raising interesting issues about the aim of forestry in general.  In September Chris Lang made the provocative challenge that timber certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) in Laos – the only FSC certified project in Indochina – was actually illegal under Lao law.  Responses from the certifiers focus on procedural aspects, such as the timing of the report relative to certification and subsequent audits.  In contrast, responses from a former coordinator for WWF’s forestry program and others working on forestry in Laos are striking in that they focus on the ‘political culture’ in Laos.  They argue that it is the Lao political culture – however this is conceived – and its interactions with international institutions that will determine the efficacy of reforms in forestry.  Interestingly, the World Bank’s ‘East Asia Region Forestry Strategy’, released for comment in October, also makes a number of comments on the ‘political economy’ of forestry.  One conclusion of the report is that, “The failures of forestry are rooted in perverse policies and bad governance and the lack of disciplined and science-based management”.  Perhaps this is all part of a broader trend where ‘forestry’ brings to mind politics much more readily than science?  This raises the questions of whether it is appropriate to aim for ‘science-based management’ and how this aim would take into account varied ‘political cultures’? […]

  3. Mike says:

    This is a difficult issue, and I’m pleased to know that all involved are trying to make things better.

    Certification will not survive if it is not credible. I hope Smartwood soon publishes its findings so that all can see whether the movement is “self-correcting”, even in the face of an unpleasant truth.

    Finally, hello to Ben from a former teacher. I’m pleased to learn that you are back in Laos doing everything you can to make a difference.

  4. […] Incidentally, I note that you had previously posted the Rainforest Alliance/SmartWood response to my article and the Tropical Forest Trust response on the SmartWood website (these both now seem to have been removed from the SmartWood website). As you are aware, there have been several other statements about this certification – yet SmartWood posted only those responses that it agrees with. In the interests of an open discussion on the subject, in addition to my article(s), you could perhaps post the report that Tomas Jonsson wrote in May 2006 and Ben Hodgdon’s report on the World Bank-Finland SUFORD project. In case you have difficulty finding these reports, Jonsson’s is available here and Hodgdon’s here. […]

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