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Q&A with FSC’s Kim Carstensen

  • The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is widely considered the gold standard for certifying sustainable forest use, but has frequently been criticized for failing to uphold the standards that it touts.
  • Kim Carstensen, the FSC’s director-general, says some of the complaints have a basis, and that while the FSC will never be the perfect system in everyone’s view, it’s still “the best that can be done” and “provides the basis for a lot of opportunities to be created.”
  • In an interview with Mongabay, Carstensen discusses long-awaited updates to the FSC’s rules, how to deal with problematic member companies, and why certification should be more than just a logo.

Forests are an integral part of Earth’s ecosystems as they provide essential social, economic and environmental benefits, such as forest products, biodiversity, and carbon storage and sequestration.

However, large swaths of forests are being razed at alarming rates due to agricultural expansion, logging, burning, and livestock grazing.

To address the problem, forest certification emerged in the early 1990s, the idea being to establish a set of standards to guide logging companies in operating sustainably.

The household name in this space is the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), a voluntary, worldwide scheme formed in 1993 by a group of environmental activists, Indigenous groups, human rights organizations, and timber users and traders. Since its inception 29 years ago, the FSC has grown into the world’s leading sustainable forestry certifier, currently covering nearly 216 million hectares (534 million acres) of land in 89 countries — an area the size of Greenland.

However, environmental activists have questioned the effectiveness of the FSC in reducing deforestation and forest degradation while maintaining or enhancing the economic viability of forest managers.

A Mongabay review in 2017 of the existing scientific literature found that evidence is sparse on whether FSC certification leads to a reduction in tropical deforestation. And in a 2021 blogpost, U.K.-based NGO Earthsight highlighted problems at FSC-certified concessions ranging from forest destruction to human rights abuses.

These problems, NGOs say, stem from systematic flaws that allow companies with questionable records on human rights and deforestation benefit from certification.

Faced with these criticisms, the FSC plans to introduce changes to its policies this year, with some of them set to be adopted during its general assembly in Bali, Indonesia, this October.

“My expectation is that certification as we have known it will change, and will have to change, because of increased expectations,” says Kim Carstensen, head of the FSC. “And mostly in the area of certificate holders and consumers wanting to know what is the effect of the certifications. What positive benefits does it create for environment, for biodiversity, for social issues, etc.?”

Carstensen has a long track record in the environment and development sectors, having worked at WWF from 1989 to 2010, including as CEO of WWF Denmark from 1996 to 2008 and head of WWF International’s Global Climate Initiative from 2008-2010.

Upon leaving WWF, Carstensen managed FairGreenSolutions, an environmental strategy and sustainable development consultancy, and in October 2012, took on the position that he still holds today, as director-general of the FSC.

Mongabay’s Hans Nicholas Jong spoke with Carstensen during the latter’s visit to Jakarta in July 2022 to discuss changes to the FSC rules, why community involvement is important in keeping deforestation rates down, and why forestry workers are a key, overlooked, constituency in the fight to keep forests standing. The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Kim Carstensen, the Director General of Forest Stewardship Council during the XIV World Forestry Congress in 2015. Image courtesy of Giuseppe Carotenuto/FAO.

Mongabay: What new changes within the FSC can we expect in the coming months?

Kim Carstensen: New rules about forest conversion, around the policy for association [joining the FSC] where conversion is one of the unacceptable activities. And a new policy that we call the policy to address conversion.

This package of different documents has been out for consultation recently and now we are working toward a decision on the policy by the board in August and a ratification or confirmation of some specific parts of the decision that can only be made by the full membership of the general assembly.

That’s a very big issue, given the importance of the policy for association, given the importance of the issue of conversion for Indonesia.

Mongabay: What exactly will change in the FSC rules?

Kim Carstensen: There’s a specific part of the decision. We have a rule in the principles and criteria that we call the 1994 rule, which means that lands that have been converted since 1994 cannot be FSC-certified. Unless the ones who did the conversion are unrelated to the ones that own it now and want to be certified, then it can.

We are changing that, proposing to change that into a new set of rules that will enable certification of such land that has been converted between 1994 and 2020, if we’re supposing there is a remedy for the environmental harm and the social harm done in the conversion process.

So if the land was converted before 1994, there are no rules related to remedy. But if it was converted between 1994 and 2020, then there would be a requirement for remedy, and then the land can be certified if remedy is provided, no matter if you’re directly responsible for the conversion or not.

Mongabay: What’s been the response from civil society on the proposed change so far?

Kim Carstensen: We’ve had several consultations with our membership and opinions are very divided in many ways, and there were many questions because a lot depends on how much remedy, what kinds of remedy, when can you be certified as compared to how much remedy you have provided. A full remedy and a full restoration of forest area takes decades. And when in that process would you then be able to be certified for the area is a big question. And of course there’s also the amount of remedy, etc. So there’s been a lot of discussion. I would say overall, my sense is that we’re moving toward agreement that this is the right direction, but the details still need to be understood and accepted.

Mongabay: So the details haven’t been ironed out?

Kim Carstensen: Well there are proposals for the details, but there are also options. In the last consultation, which ended about a month ago, there was feedback coming in on some of these options that we have provided. The board has not yet analyzed that, so we don’t know what the answers are going to be.

Mongabay: What’s the current state of certification and where do you think it will go in the next decade?

Kim Carstensen: We have one very big factor of uncertainty, and that is what happens with Russia, and the war in Ukraine. We have terminated all certificates in Belarus, which led to a loss of 11 million hectares [27 million acres] certified. So that brought us from 230 million hectares [certified globally] to 220 million hectares [570 million acres to 540 million acres]. We have about 16 million hectares [40 million acres] certified in Russia, which are currently suspended.

All the chain of custody related to it has been suspended. There can be no trade in FSC-certified material in and out of Russia. However, we have allowed the forest management certification to stay, but without any permission to trade.

So you can still have control of your forest, and you can have the checks from our auditors, but you’re not allowed to trade FSC-certified material.

That situation will not be permanent. We don’t think so. So we may lose more area in Russia.

Apart from that, in the rest of the world, my expectation is that certification as we have known it will change, and will have to change, because of increased expectations. And mostly in the area of certificate holders and consumers wanting to know what is the effect of the certification. What positive benefits does it create for the environment, for biodiversity, for social issues, etc.? And historical ability to provide that kind of information has been rather limited, and that is something that needs to change and will change.

So in that sense, certification would be a different thing. It would not just be having a logo on your product. It will much more be knowing what effect that certification has provided.

Mongabay: Do you think the need for greater transparency has been made aware of?

Kim Carstensen: I wouldn’t actually start with the word transparency. I would start with the word data, with the words “knowing what the effect is.” It’s not about wanting to tell, or not being able to tell what the effect is. It is that we don’t know, because we don’t have the data. So getting that data is a key to this. It’s of course also linked to transparency, in the sense that we would then share that information. But it doesn’t start with transparency.

Mongabay: Why do you think data collection hasn’t been achieved?

Kim Carstensen: Mainly because the FSC was set up as a paper-based system in the 1990s, when having digital access to information was not a norm. And it’s been difficult to get away from the system once it’s set up, because it means new requirements and new ways of doing things, and that leads to some level of resistance among certificate holders, among the auditors, etc. We’re overcoming that now, and as of next year we will have digital audit reports, so that we can actually get the information directly from the audits. And we will also begin the process to revise our standards so that the standards don’t look for what you have done, so much as they look for what has been the outcome of what you have done.

The standards have been very much focused on things that are easily measurable — which is have you checked this, have you checked that, have you done this — whereas what is the outcome of that in the area is more difficult to obtain, it takes longer. And that’s why the standards have shied away from that, and that’s something that will be changed in the next coming years.

Mongabay: What is the ultimate goal of all these planned changes?

Kim Carstensen: The ultimate goal in our global strategy is that we want to be part of an overall movement to change the way that forests are managed, from one that overall is destructive, creates forest degradation [and] forest conversion, to one where it’s visible what the value and the benefit of a standing forest is, so that it becomes attractive to actually maintain it, or even improve its quality.

Mongabay: Is this a way to address the criticisms that have been leveled against the FSC?

Kim Carstensen: Big global issues like climate change, like biodiversity conservation, increasingly point to forests as part of the problem if they’re not managed well, and as part of the solution if they’re managed well.

So that is a starting point: we want to become part of being that solution to the forest crisis that we’re seeing around us, and the importance of forests to society at large.

If we want to be part of that solution, we need to document and demonstrate the value that we provide, and that value is very much about environmental quality and about social livelihoods.

So that’s where it starts. But of course the criticisms from NGOs and others have been that we don’t provide those values. So in effect, this will be answering the same issues, and will in fact also be an answer to criticisms that have been raised against the FSC.

Mongabay: Do you think those criticisms are justified?

Kim Carstensen: Criticism is always welcome. Criticism is always important. And we learn from it every time. I would say yes, in many cases, the complaints and the criticisms have a basis. It’s something that didn’t go as it should.

In other cases, not. But in many cases, yes, there is something that we can learn from the criticism.

The FSC is not, and will never become, a perfect system in everybody’s view. We cannot be that because we are a system of compromise, in the sense that inside us we have the interests of environmental organizations, of social organizations, and/or economic interests, and they don’t always agree.

So there will always be a level of compromise in what the FSC is. But it’s exactly that that creates strength, that makes it robust against a power shift, against a focus shift from one or the other group. So it’s more robust, but nobody will probably ever think it’s perfect.

But nonetheless we think it’s the best that can be done, and we think it provides the basis for a lot of opportunities to be created.

Mongabay: What do you think about criticisms that private companies have a bigger say in FSC decision-making than Indigenous communities?

Kim Carstensen: We have very carefully designed a system where each of the interest groups has exactly the same influence. So in voting at the general assembly, in the composition of our board, each of these interest groups has a third of the vote.

We have about 1,100 members; about 500 of these are economic, some 300 are social, some 300 are environmental. But each of these groups have the same vote.

At the same time, of course, it’s clear that economic groups normally or very often have more resources than Indigenous groups, and therefore are better able to defend or promote their own interests.

What we’ve done to see if we can sort of level that playing field is we created the FSC Indigenous Foundation, which is an independent and Indigenous-led and Indigenous-governed organization based in Panama, whose purpose is to strengthen the voice of Indigenous peoples and communities inside the FSC. They are the secretariat of a permanent Indigenous peoples’ committee who advise the board on issues of relevance to Indigenous peoples.

So in that way, and similarly with workers’ group through engagement with trade unions, we are trying to sort of level the playing field and give the other interests a stronger voice than they are able to have without any support.

Mongabay: Do you think the FSC Indigenous Foundation has achieved its goal of leveling the playing field?

Kim Carstensen: Not yet. They have been in existence for three years. We’ve had COVID for two and a half or even three of those years. So what they’re doing now is they are creating relations with Indigenous peoples’ organizations from around the world with a view to engaging with them and to strengthen their ability to work in the societies that they work in.

So we’re creating, for instance, collaboration with Indigenous peoples’ organizations in Central America, Latin America, Africa, and then we will come to Asia and the Pacific also.

Mongabay: There’s also criticism that the mechanism in the FSC is more passive, where NGOs have to file complaints first before the FSC takes any action. What do you say to that?

Kim Carstensen: Our system was built originally as a system that actually enabled NGOs and other civil society representatives to raise complaints and to be listened to. And that was a big step. That was not possible before. Before that, you could always raise a complaint and make a demonstration, but how would you get listened to?

So I think that was a very big innovation, and I don’t think we should disregard that as a major step forward.

But as the years have passed and as the FSC system has grown into areas and types of certificates of different natures, it is true and I can understand why NGOs would get fed up with knowing that something was wrong. It is of course a complicated process to raise a complaint, having to go through all of that in order to get anywhere.

So for that reason, we are in fact changing the system. Not around the policy for association, at least not so much, but in other ways where companies are breaking our rules, either in terms of forced labor, or in terms of not meeting our requirements in terms of forest management, then we are much more proactively investigating issues ourselves.

If you look at our website, you will find quite a number of announcements of proactive investigations into alleged cheating in our system. The latest is one on bamboo in China. But we have several of these ongoing and they are always announced on our website.

Out of that, a number of certificates have been terminated, and if you look at our website, we developed a new category called “terminated and blocked.” Because there was also the criticism that, oh yeah, you got terminated, but then you just reinvent yourself under a new name, you go to another certification body, and you get certified again.

So we now have a new category called terminated and blocked. I’m not saying that you can’t cheat the system. Maybe you can. But for sure it’s much more complicated to do that now than it was before. And we have about 100 companies in that category of terminated and blocked.

It’s not the same as the policy for association because the policy for association goes much wider. It’s not just the certified companies who may have broken our rules and we kick them out. It’s about the whole group involved in those things.

In that area, we have more proactive investigations, so that when from a press report, or from an NGO report or somewhere, we see information about a company that’s allegedly not following our rules, we investigate this ourselves without having to receive a complaint. At the moment, I think we’re investigating eight or something. But that is more than we get complaints for, so at least the balance has already shifted. And this will eventually lead to conclusions in terms of a disassociation.

Mongabay: Can you elaborate more on terminated and blocked?

Kim Carstensen: Terminated just means that you don’t have your certificate anymore. That can happen for any reason. It can happen because you don’t think it’s worth it anymore, you drop out. It can happen because you didn’t pass an audit, and therefore you can’t find a way to do it. So there are different ways, and it’s not necessarily criminal or fraudulent in any way. We have terminated thousands of certificates.

Terminated and blocked means that we have terminated them for reason of not meeting our rules, and then we have blocked them from reentering the system until they can prove that they changed something, or until the problem doesn’t exist anymore.

So termination happens all the time, and it happens for all sorts of completely honest and good reasons. I don’t want my certificates anymore because I don’t have the market I hoped for, or your rules are too complicated, I don’t want to follow your rules anymore, or I can’t reach agreement on the FPIC [free, prior and informed consent] with the Indigenous community next to my land, so I give up. Many, many reasons and that happens all the time. Normally it’s the certification body or the auditors who handle that. But since we are now more proactive ourselves with some of these certificates, we are now proactively investigating some issues if we see them, if we hear about them.

Mongabay: There are two approaches to handle violations: complete disassociation or continued engagement. What do you think of these two approaches?

Kim Carstensen: I can see the argument on both sides. And from the perspective of our board, it’s been very important to be able to work for improvement as quickly as possible, and not to have to go through all the formal process of disassociation and then setting the conditions for ending the disassociation, and then entering the process of the disassociating again.

For the companies that are disassociated, linked to reasons of conversion, we have said to all of them: we cannot start a new process now, because before we start a new process, we need to get the framework around that approach. This is what I talked about before, this policy toward conversion, remedy framework, and also the policy for association. That should be clear because that would provide the rules for what that process then looks like. What are the expectations in terms of remedy, etc., we need to get that in order before we can start a new process with the companies.

Mongabay: Do you have any estimates on when this framework will be completed?

Kim Carstensen: The expectation is that that will happen this year. So ideally the board will approve the remedy framework and the policy toward conversion in August. And then we have this decision of the general assembly that needs to ratify a specific bit of it related to the 1994 rule.

The PFA [policy for association] cases could move ahead without that ratification, but it would be better to have the whole thing.

Mongabay: What have been the inputs from civil society?

Kim Carstensen: One very big message that we have received consistently from civil society over the past years, and with the specific focus also on Indonesia, is that we need very clear rules. If we don’t have a clear rule-based framework around this, we will not be able to manage the negotiations and the processes.

This is also because the companies involved are very big with a lot of power, so there is a bit of concern over how the FSC can manage these big companies without very clear rules.

In terms of what has been proposed as the rules, there are still outstanding concerns related to what exactly is the definition of who is responsible.

So there’s a big wish to move from our current rule, which is that if you own 50-plus percent of the company, then you’re responsible for it, to something which is more open to actually influence patterns. And that is being discussed and has certainly also been proposed as part of the framework that will move in that direction.

Overall, my sense is that civil society wants to see change and that civil society wants to see the FSC be a tool for improvement in these big corporations but that they are concerned whether we have strict enough rules and capabilities to actually enforce what we would like to see happen.

Mongabay: So the definition of beneficial owners still needs to be agreed upon?

Kim Carstensen: Yup. We have proposals to move in that direction, and we are pretty confident that we will. But the details still need to be fleshed out and they need to be approved by the board.

Mongabay: Is it because the current definition of beneficial owners is insufficient to identify who truly benefits?

Kim Carstensen: That’s certainly the impression and we hear that very much from civil society that this 50% rule is too easy to circumvent. If you want to circumvent it by setting up your ownership structure under different way, you can still have control over entities through family holdings of different sorts. It can be done in a number of different ways. It’s too easy to circumvent and we need something that is more refined and more able to understand differences between different ways of setting up your corporate structure.

Mongabay: Why do you think getting the definition of beneficial owners right is important?

Kim Carstensen: I think it’s important for several reasons. One is that it would increase the accuracy of the system in terms of understanding who is actually responsible. It will increase the ability to gain some level of trust in civil society. And it will open up flexibility to be able to better understand what is going on and who is influencing any bad behavior that may happen.

Mongabay: How do you think recent changes in forestry regulations in Indonesia impact certification in the country?

Kim Carstensen: I don’t know the details of these new laws in Indonesia so I can’t give you a certain answer. I would say that overall we are very interested in being able to work in landscapes with different types of land use, because we see that it’s very important for smallholders and communities, not only in Indonesia but also all over, especially in the tropics.

What we see is land use that may have forestry as a component, but will very often have other land uses — agriculture, plantation, crops, could be tourism, could be handicrafts — and therefore, our coming to propose certification is not very relevant in itself because it’s only 10% of the economy of the community or smallholders. And if they were to do something, they would need something that fits their reality more than this one specific thing [certification].

So we’re very interested in landscape approaches, in finding ways to work with communities better.

We are currently rolling out a new forestry stewardship standard for smallholders, which is for four countries in Asia. We’re rolling that out now in Indonesia.

And I believe that will make it easier for smallholders to actually engage in the FSC system, because it lightens the burden of getting into the system.

So that’s something that we hope would be helpful, but I don’t think it answers the question on how do we relate to other commodities in the landscape, and that is an ongoing discussion.

Mongabay: Have you seen an increase in FSC certification among smallholders?

Kim Carstensen: Yes. We are seeing increases but looking at it globally in two small numbers. Our global strategy talks about a doubling of the area of forests certified by family forest owners or communities. At the moment it’s about 11-12 million hectares [27 million to 30 million acres] that are certified by this group around the world, and we want that to increase to 25-30 million hectares [62 million to 74 million acres] by 2026.

In order to achieve that, we are taking initiatives like this regional standard for countries in Asia. We have also developed a new standard for groups, so that you can get together in groups and be certified. It doesn’t have to be one smallholding.

And one thing that may become very important is that we have introduced what we call a continuous improvement procedure, which means that you don’t have to meet all our requirements in year one. If you have met some of them, and you have a plan to meet the rest over the next five years, then you can be certified already from the beginning. Because we do know that smallholders and communities find it difficult to do everything in one go because they need to do things related to pesticides, management of conservation areas, wildlife protection, Indigenous groups in their vicinity, all at once, and that may be complicated.

Mongabay: From communities that have been certified, is there any evidence that shows an increase in their livelihoods and better protection of their forests?

Kim Carstensen: This is one of the sets of data that we would like to have much more of. We do see this happening in different settings, but I can’t say there is a fixed global picture that we know of.

But we do have evidence of improvement from different places around the world.

We also have a study by CIFOR [Center for International Forestry Research] done in the Congo Basin that shows that FSC certification provided all sorts of benefit in all of its dimension. From education perspective, from women rights perspective, from child care perspective, etc.

This was not specifically for smallholders, because many of the areas that are certified in the Congo Basin are larger concessions, but it was about what they provided for the communities who live in and around concessions.

Mongabay: How about the FSC’s impact on reducing deforestation?

Kim Carstensen: If you look at our website, we have something there we call the impact dashboard, which is an overview of independent research that has been done in different countries.

The overall picture is that expecting the FSC would have an overall big impact on deforestation is not an expectation that we have been able to meet, because too little of the overall forest in deforestation-prone areas have been certified.

If you look at the Congo Basin, 2% of the forest is certified. If you look at Indonesia, maybe the same. But inside those 2%, we can say that deforestation has decreased.

One example of that is in the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Petén, Guatemala. There are eight communities who have been FSC-certified for 20 years.

What they have been able to demonstrate is that they have kept deforestation rate at way lower levels, less than 0.5% per year, than any other land uses around. So big concessions and big commercial forests, protected areas, non-designated lands, all have high deforestation rates, but the community-certified areas have not. [This shows] that the involvement of communities in the protection of land that they depend on and benefit from is a very important factor in stopping illegal or otherwise improper forest use.

So if you have people depending on the land living there, they would be much more prone to actually protect it against encroachment and intrusion from others.

Whereas if it’s a protected area that is not de-facto protected with active protection happening, then it’s very likely that it will be encroached on.

Mongabay: Do you think this strengthens the case for better protection and recognition of Indigenous land rights?

Kim Carstensen: Yes. We are very much of the conviction that in order to achieve what the biodiversity convention and other conservation organizations are aiming for in terms of increased areas of protected land, we need to involve Indigenous peoples and other communities directly in the management of these lands.

If these are just top-down government or private initiatives to protect more land, it will not work.

Mongabay: Do you think there’s a need to increase certification in deforestation-prone areas to reduce deforestation?

Kim Carstensen: I would say that we need to increase the scale of good and responsible forest management. Certification is a tool to achieve that. Other tools may also be government engagement, intergovernmental support, and stuff like that. But certification is certainly one part.

And without an increase in scale — we call it forest stewardship, which includes both the conservation side and the deforestation side — without an increase in that, it will not work.

We think more forest protection is needed, more community land use is needed, more responsible forest management is needed to ensure that a forest is no longer a resource that anybody can access and use to their own devices.

It needs to be regulated with involvement from local communities.

Mongabay: Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Kim Carstensen: We talk a lot about communities. We don’t talk so much about workers. I think workers are very important constituencies inside the FSC. In our social chamber, they’re probably about half of the groups that are involved, and very important.

One thing we’ve done in the past couple of years is to include rules that you must meet the principles of the ILO [International Labour Organization] core conventions. We call that the FSC workers’ rights rules. And that is being rolled out in these chain-of-custody-certified companies all around the world.

That gives trade unions a whole new set of tools to be able to engage with the employers. So that I think is a very important development in the FSC and also in Indonesia.

 

Banner image: Kim Carstensen, the Director General of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Image courtesy of FSC.

 

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