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Published: 2010

A minefield in the forests

Adam Barclay

Forest certification schemes promise to make forest management better for the environment, the communities that depend on the forests, and the forest managers themselves – but are they delivering?

Illegally logged wood near Ketapang, West Kalimantan, Indonesia.
Credit: Fauna & Flora International

Indirectly, the global financial crisis prompted two of Tasmania’s largest woodchip producers – Gunn’s and Norske Skog – to seek certification of their forest management from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an international network that aims to promote responsible management of the world’s forests.

The companies’ major customers, Japanese paper producers, had preferentially bought FSC-certified woodchips for several years. Before the crisis, however, the Japanese demand was so great that Tasmania’s non-FSC certified product retained its market, and the State exported all the woodchips it could produce. But when markets plunged in 2008, the Japanese clients were able to meet their requirements with certified woodchips from other sources, leaving Tasmania out in the cold. The effects rippled through the entire Tasmanian economy.

According to Ms Zoe Ryan, Forest Carbon Specialist with Fauna & Flora International, such access to markets – as opposed to any increase in the value of wood products – is generally what makes certification and its attendant costs worthwhile for wood production companies.

‘From a financial perspective it makes sense for businesses to seek forest certification in order to gain market access, but they may not receive much of a price premium,’ says Ms Ryan. ‘FSC has put pressure on wholesale buyers to only purchase FSC-certified wood products, so certified companies can therefore access markets that are closed to non-certified products.’

FSC-certified property, Lagoon of Islands, Tasmania.
Credit: Phil Millner.

Mr Michael Spencer, Chief Executive of FSC Australia, agrees that market access is the key benefit, arguing that focusing on price premiums is a mistake.

‘Whether that market access translates into a price differential will inevitably depend on the market forces of supply and demand,’ says Mr Spencer. ‘In some product categories, it can mean a substantial price difference; in others, it can mean virtually none.’

Forest certification schemes

Forest certification can take two basic forms: forest management and chain of custody. Companies that harvest timber from native or plantation forests can achieve certification if their forest management practices meet a range of standards set by one of a number of certification schemes. Chain of custody certification allows wood to be tracked from where it was grown through to its final destination as a consumer product, so users can be sure they’re purchasing material from certified forests.

The two largest certification schemes are the FSC and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC), both of which operate under a set of core principles and criteria (FSC’s principles are currently under review). The Australian Forestry Standard (AFS) conforms to PEFC benchmarks.

The AFS has certified more than 10 million hectares – around 90 per cent of the 11.3 million hectares of plantations and native forests from which timber is harvested – under the Australian Standard for Sustainable Forest Management. Globally, around 223 million hectares of forest have received PEFC certification, with FSC certificates accounting for around 135 million hectares.

Achieving certification

In 2004, Victoria-based HVP Plantations became the first Australian forestry company to be awarded FSC certification, and subsequently, the first to have dual certification together with the AFS. Mr Malcolm Tonkin, HVP’s General Manager for Stewardship and Risk, notes that the transition was not easy.

‘Getting certified takes a lot of work, and it means changing your culture and the way you do some of your operations,’ says Mr Tonkin. ‘We had some pretty tough times early where I think we didn’t understand our auditors terribly well and we perhaps didn’t understand the standard well enough. It wasn’t all a bed of roses, but then nor should it be. If they’d just come in and said “everything you’re doing’s fine”, then we’d be paying money and getting no value.’

Once certification is achieved, audits are carried out annually by an accredited certification body – The Rainforest Alliance’s SmartWood, in HVP’s case – with a complete reassessment every five years (HVP was re-certified in 2009).

‘Before 2004, we were reasonably close, but we had to do some additional work to meet the standard,’ says Mr Tonkin. ‘Since we’ve been certified, we have auditors observing gaps in our system that require further work. That’s part of a continual improvement and working through your processes to ensure that they’re advancing with the times.’

Forest certification critics and challenges

Certification schemes are not without their critics. Although FSC forbids the conversion of native forests to agricultural land or plantations (except in very limited circumstances), some environmental groups condemn the certification of any timber harvesting operations in forests deemed to be of high conservation value. This was one reason for the July 2010 resignation from FSC Sweden of the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, the country’s largest environmental organisation.

The Society stated: ‘Year after year, we have seen forest companies violate the environmental criteria of the FSC standard by, for instance, logging old-growth forests, felling trees with high biodiversity values, creating deep wheel tracks in the soil and running over watercourses. Despite this, there are no sanctions for the companies involved.’

In response, Mr Spencer argues that this amounts to criticism of how effectively FSC standards are being policed and enforced, rather than of the standards themselves.

‘While the improvements delivered by FSC are demonstrable, there will always be people who take that for granted and throw the baby out with the bathwater,’ he says. ‘We need to ask these people what they propose would do a better job. I have yet to hear a convincing argument on this, and that is the credibility problem they have with the position they take.’

According to Ms Ryan, this goes to the core of one of the major challenges for forest certification schemes: making the standards as stringent as possible to improve forest management practices, but without dissuading forest managers from seeking certification and committing to improvement of practices.

‘If they raise the bar too high,’ she says, ‘they risk preventing any forest management company from actually achieving that certification, or going out of business if they did; in which case, the scheme risks severely limiting its coverage. It’s a real balancing act. Buyers of wood products need to play their part in improving forest management by rewarding sustainable companies through their purchasing decisions.’

FSC governance

Mr Spencer argues that one of the key advantages of the FSC system is its governance regime and the requirement for a balance between social, economic and environmental interests. This is manifested in the Social, Environmental and Economic Chambers that make up FSC’s membership.

Ms Ryan agrees, pointing out that although the structure makes development of the standards slow, the process itself is very valuable. ‘I think one of FSC’s greatest strengths is the process of the economic chamber sitting down with the social chamber, sitting down with the environmental chamber and talking,’ she says.

A young HVP forest plantation.
Credit: HVP Plantations

Do FSC and AFS compete?

There is debate over whether FSC and AFS complement or compete with each other. Dr Hans Drielsma, General Manager of Forestry Tasmania and an AFS director, suggests that it’s a bit of both.

‘The two schemes really are seeking to achieve the same outcomes,’ says Dr Drielsma. ‘There’s a bit of competition because of the different ownerships and the different stakeholder support, but I think the complementarities are more important. Globally, less than 10 per cent of the world’s forests are certified, so there’s room for both.’

According to Dr Drielsma, the two schemes suit different circumstances. The focus should be on emphasising the complementarities in order to expand the take-up of certification globally. ‘The PEFC system gives more emphasis to national sovereignty, working with national forestry schemes and improving standards through that sort of process,’ he says. ‘The FSC process is more of an international template that works well in situations where there is no national capacity to deal with standards.’

More information

Forest Stewardship Council Australia:
Australian Forestry Standard:
Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification:
Fauna & Flora International:
HVP Plantations:
Forestry Tasmania:

Published: 25 October 2010

Atlas to put ‘citizen apps’ on the menu

How can we better integrate data from the many disparate citizen science1 groups around the country to improve the nation’s biodiversity monitoring and research efforts? Coordinators at the Atlas of Living Australia project have been spending time with members of community environmental groups to identify the most effective features for a citizen scientists’ online ‘toolkit’.

Schoolchildren learn how to use the Biodiversity Snapshots application for mobile devices.
Schoolchildren learn how to use the Biodiversity Snapshots application for mobile devices.
Credit: Museum of Victoria

The rapid development of web, map and mobile-based applications in recent years is making it easier for non-scientists to get access to scientific information and to record observations in the field – sometimes for later scientific use.

For example, Museum Victoria has just launched Biodiversity Snapshots, a new mobile application designed to help Year 3–10 school students and their teachers learn more about native wildlife.

The application includes a field guide with photos and sounds of each animal, and a way to record and upload observations on a mobile phone, netbook or tablet. When a student accesses Biodiversity Snapshots on a mobile device, the application presents information such as the animal’s name, shape, features, distribution, behaviour, habitat, sounds, status and ecology. It also lets students survey species found in school grounds, backyards, urban parks, bushland or coastal environments.

Biodiversity Snapshots is a collaboration between Museum Victoria, the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, the Atlas of Living Australia and Earthwatch.

Gaia Resources, the consultancy that designed Biodiversity Snapshots, is also developing tools for citizen science groups to collect, organise and edit their data online through the Atlas of Living Australia website (see ECOS 153, p 24). The design process was kicked off earlier this year, with a series of workshops in which members of citizen science groups identified desirable features for an online toolkit. Not surprisingly, ‘easy to use’, ‘portable/mobile’, ‘fast’ and ‘free’ were at the top of their wish lists.

Harnessing the power of people

The combination of citizen science and new technology has produced some interesting projects. Recently, Einstein@home, an online citizen science astronomy project, described what are believed to be the first pulsars discovered through public participation. More than 250?000 volunteers helped Einstein@home to discover more than 100 potential pulsars.

Another international astronomy project, Galaxy Zoo, invited volunteers to judge from images whether galaxies were elliptical or spiral; and, if spiral, whether they were rotating in a clockwise or anti-clockwise direction.

By mid-2007, 80?000 volunteers had already classified more than 10 million images of galaxies. The final Galaxy Zoo datasets contain more than 34.6 million clicks by 82?931 volunteers: a demonstration of the power that citizen science can harness. According to a member of the Galaxy Zoo team, it would have taken researchers years to process the photographs without the volunteers.

Two other unusual initiatives are National Geographic’s archaeology project ‘Field Expedition: Mongolia’, and the San Francisco Neighborhood Parks Council’s ‘ParkScan’ website.

Volunteers in Field Expedition: Mongolia tag potential archaeological dig sites on GeoEye satellite images to assist explorers on the ground in Mongolia (see

The ParkScan website allows San Franciscans to monitor the condition of city parks and submit park observations directly to City staff (see

The first beta public release of the Atlas of Living Australia website – which has been referred to as a biodiversity ‘yellow pages’– has been scheduled for late October 2010. The website will give researchers and the wider community access to Australian plant, animal and microorganism species’ names, photos, lists and distribution maps, mapping and identification tools, occurrence records, online literature, natural history collections and herbaria, and ecological, observational, and molecular data.

With data from museums, universities, CSIRO, herbaria and other biological collections linked together within a single web environment, users will be able to explore and analyse the information in new ways to develop a more detailed picture of Australia’s biodiversity.

Can you name this gecko, or this tree? The Atlas of Living Australia will provide open access to data such as species names, distribution maps, and mapping and identification tools for reliable identification.
Can you name this gecko, or this tree? The Atlas of Living Australia will provide open access to data such as species names, distribution maps, and mapping and identification tools for reliable identification.
Credit: David McClenaghan

‘The Atlas aims to enable any user to quickly locate and access information across the Internet on all aspects of Australian biodiversity,’ says the Director of the Atlas of Living Australia, Mr Donald Hobern.

For example, users will be able to use the Atlas’ mapping and spatial analysis tools to create a species list for a given area, or map the known occurrence for a species.

The Atlas – which is coordinated by CSIRO – will also give users open access to 50 years of archival material from the Australian Journal of Zoology (a contribution from CSIRO Publishing, which publishes ECOS).

From twitchers to storm chasers

People often ask whether citizen scientists contribute to ‘real’ science. With the right support and coordination, the answer is ‘yes’.

In 2009, for example, the North American Audubon Society analysed 40 years of data from its annual bird count, revealing dramatic shifts northward for winter bird populations as a result of warmer winters. This year's count will help scientists understand the impact of the Gulf oil spill on vulnerable species.

In this country, Birds Australia coordinated a continent-wide survey of birds from 1998–2002, in which thousands of members of the public participated – equipped with binoculars, field guides, GPS units and notebooks. These efforts culminated in the 2003 New Atlas of Australian Birds, presenting 4000 distribution maps for more than 650 bird species, including seasonal changes and breeding range.

Currently, more than 7000 volunteers continue to build Birds Australia’s database of seven million records of birds – the largest biological database in Australia, and one of the largest in the world. Apart from being used by qualified scientists in research projects, the data contributes to Australia’s ‘State of the Environment’ reporting.

Birdwatchers are among the oldest communities of ‘citizen scientists’.
Birdwatchers are among the oldest communities of ‘citizen scientists’.
Credit: Rosemary McArthur.

Perhaps the best-known citizen science program in Australia has been the national network of more than 6000 volunteer ‘weather watchers’ coordinated by the Bureau of Meteorology. The volunteers record rainfall, spot storms, and observe river heights and conditions at sea for the Bureau’s weather databases.

Today, members of the public can join any number of citizen science groups, such as ClimateWatch, Frogwatch, Toadbusters, Waterwatch, Operation Spider, Seagrass Watch, Coastcare, Greening Australia, Carnaby's Black-Cockatoo Recovery Project, Conservation Volunteers, Shorebirds 2020 and the Threatened Bird Network.

Of course, an effective citizen science project requires effective volunteer training, technical support, data collection, coordination and encouragement. While data quality can be an issue, innovative tools for ensuring high-quality data are starting to come online. Data collected by volunteers may also need peer review or expert validation.

More information

Atlas of Living Australia,

1 Citizen science is the current term for what used to be called ‘amateur science’ or ‘natural history’.

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