22 January, 2007

ARTICLE: Canberra cuts down timber standard

Michael Spencer
Chief executive of the Forest Stewardship Council Australia.
January 22 2007

The failure of the Federal Government to respond swiftly and effectively to Australia's $400 million involvement in the international trade in illegal wood is symptomatic of a deeper malaise in Canberra over policies towards the forest industry.

The minister, Eric Abetz, recently released a "do almost nothing" response to an earlier report that identified the extent of Australia's involvement in the illegal wood trade — a trade that robs poor nations of income, causes deforestation and contributes to global warming.

The Australian industry needs leadership from Canberra on this issue. Apart from the impact in host countries, US research shows that the trade in illegal wood is depressing world prices for wood products by between 7 and 16 per cent.

Unfortunately, the Government has chosen to ignore the firm action being taken by European governments in Britain, Denmark and Belgium.

In these countries, Forest Stewardship Council certification is an important part of action being taken by governments through public procurement programs that ask for verification of legality and sustainability of timber supplies.

Canberra's problem with FSC certification was illustrated when Senator Abetz opened a forest growers' conference recently by criticising British Government ministers for "promoting the virtues of FSC" and for "suggesting Australia should adopt this standard".

The strength of his antipathy was highlighted on radio the next day when he attempted to disparage the FSC as a "Mexico-based" group, even though it has been based in Bonn with the strong support of the German Government for several years.

These churlish attacks appear to be driven by a desire of the Tasmanian senator to defend forest practices in his home state rather than an understanding of what is happening globally, and in the broader Australian industry.

The minister and his "me too" Opposition shadow, Tasmanian senator Kerry O'Brien, seem determined to establish Tasmanian practice as the benchmark for Australia rather than supporting the efforts of companies on the mainland to meet the global FSC standard.

In Victoria, the largest players in the forest products market, including Australian Paper, ITC, Hancock Victorian Plantations and Timbercorp, have adopted FSC certification. The industry association has also indicated its interest in the potential of FSC certification.

Western Australia has three tree plantations certified to FSC standards. In Queensland, the industry association recently joined FSC Australia. Nationally, more than half the privately owned tree plantations are FSC-certified.

One week after the minister's attacks on the FSC, about 70 people assembled near Melbourne to start developing an Australian FSC forest management standard. They included 20 corporate representatives, eight industry-association representatives and eight government representatives as well as the national environmental groups and people with industrial and community interests in forests.

In the same week, seminars in Melbourne and Sydney aimed at linking FSC-certified companies with architects and builders attracted more than 50 participants each.

Canberra needs to get over its mind-set that anything environmental groups support must be attacked and vilified.

The FSC provides neutral ground for economic, social and environmental interests to agree on what responsible forest management means on the ground. The FSC certification system is a market-driven tool for responsible forest management.

Strong growth in the FSC system globally is being driven by consumer concern about the environment and forests, and recognition by leading companies that dealing with this concern is important for developing their business.

Vince Erasmus, chief executive of ITC, said after the minister's attack on the FSC: "The vast majority of our end customers for both woodchip and sawn timber products demand FSC-certified product."

Erasmus went on to urge the Government to support the initiative to develop a national FSC standard for Australia because "certification delivers significant commercial advantage to our industry".

Academic research shows that consumers believe independent certification is helpful in verifying the origin of forest products and put most trust in independent non-government organisations such as the FSC to certify the products.

That is why the FSC has more than 5000 companies participating in its chain-of-custody system around the world and the number of Australian companies participating in this system has tripled in the past year from 10 to 30.

In Britain the nine major retailers now account for more than £1 billion ($A2.5 billion) in annual turnover of FSC-certified products. Many of them not only carry the products but are members and participate in the FSC system.

In the past two years, the presence of certified products in Britain has spread from major retailers down to smaller retailers.

The FSC system has also been picked up in government procurement policies and is the first global system recognised as verification of legality and sustainability in British Government public procurement policies.

It has spread to local government. The Greater London Authority has a policy that says: "We will purchase sustainably produced timber and timber products (such as joinery, fittings, furniture and veneers), specifying that products carry the Forest Stewardship Council certificate."

It has spread to the banking sector, where HSBC has published guidelines that state: "It is HSBC's preference to deal with customers in (the forestry and forest products sector) that are either operating managed forests that are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, or equivalent FSC-recognised standard, or trade in products that are FSC-certified or equivalent."

In the Netherlands, 13 per cent of the wood trade is FSC-certified and one in four Dutch people look for FSC certification when buying forest products.

The picture in Switzerland is just as strong and FSC certification is spreading through Germany, Sweden and Italy and into the newly emerging countries of middle Europe while gradually picking up in Spain, Portugal and even France.

Across the Atlantic in North America, FSC certification is the issue for the paper industry, with companies such as Citigroup citing it in its policies. The green building industry is a major driver of demand for FSC-certified solid wood.

Of course Japan is another important market, where the FSC system is taking off, and that is having a big impact on buying decisions.

The same growth is taking place in Australia, where the biggest issues are the availability of FSC-certified papers and sawn wood.

Instead of trying to undermine the FSC system in Australia, Canberra politicians should be supporting efforts by the local industry to win a stronger share of global export markets through FSC certification.

A change in attitude towards the FSC would also give them more policy options to tackle Australia's participation in the global illegal wood trade and the opportunity to adopt the best-practice approach of the British Government.

Instead, both federal parties are obsessed with the local politics of Tasmania. Their obsession deprives the industry of genuine national political leadership.

Original article

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