Malaysia gets own Forest Stewardship grading standards now, but are they effective?

FSC International director Anthony Sebastian delivers a speech in Kuala Lumpur March 4, 2019. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri
FSC International director Anthony Sebastian delivers a speech in Kuala Lumpur March 4, 2019. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri

KUALA LUMPUR, March 5 — Malaysia became the first Southeast Asian country to have a Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification standards, a supposedly rigorous set of criteria for best practices governing forest management.

FSC Malaysia launched its National Forest Stewardship Standards (NFSS) at the five-star Hilton Kuala Lumpur hotel yesterday, touting it as a major milestone for environmental preservation that include fighting deforestation.

“It’s something we should be proud of,” Anthony Sebastien, FSC International Board Director, said at the NFSS launch.

But FSC’s certification standards have had its fair share of criticism from other environmental groups, including its former founding member, Greenpeace.

They claimed the FSC, a global “non-profit” group set up to protect forests from over-development, have failed to prevent deforestation in many of the countries that adopt its certification standards.

For Malaysia, the NFSS has over 800 sets of indicators and verifiers that FSC Malaysia said can be used to “ensure” the country’s forests can be responsibly and sustainably managed.

It said the standards were developed amid a backdrop of long-standing complicated domestic policies and practices governing forests, which took some seven years to prepare.

According to Sebastien, who was among the NFSS key developers, the long period needed to formulate the benchmarks reflected the meticulous process.

Much of it, he explained, was because they needed the consultation to include all stakeholders.

So the core thrusts of the NFSS are built on feedbacks gathered through three “chambers” that represent the community, policymakers and industry, usually loggers.

“It’s very inclusive,” he said.

“We have to reach a consensus to make a decision, that’s why it took so long.”

It is a process that FSC pride itself on. This way, said Dr Adrian Choo, chair of the FSC Malaysia board, the standards meet the highest public expectations with regards to sustainable forest management.

“The NFSS is what Malaysian wants,” he told reporters after the launch.

But outside Malaysia, critics of the FSC claimed its decision-making structure was far less democratic.

In its general assembly in 2017, Greenpeace noted that the economic chamber representing industry developed a voting block to kill motions that ran against its interests. Greenpeace claimed it was a “turning point” to how FSC operates.

Greenpeace was among FSC’s founding members. It left a few years ago because it felt the organisation it helped set up was failing to meet its purpose.

Other environmental groups have also raised question about FSC’s capacity to audit logging companies that it certifies.

Rainforest Foundation UK said FSC faces serious “systemic problems”, among them being its secretariat’s alleged unwillingness “to control the certifying bodies that are responsible for issuing certifications in FSC’s name.”

This has resulted in what critics claimed to be the “systematic downplaying of problems that are identified, and inadequate attention to fraud and misreporting of information.”

That leniency, it added, may result partly from being paid directly by the companies they are supposed to audit, they alleged.

For FSC Malaysia, Sebastien admitted that voluntary third-party certification may not be the end-all be-all, but it could still provide a helping hand in forest preservation.

“It might not be complete but it can be one of the tools,” he said.

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