Although around 12 per cent of the world's forests are protected, and around 15 per cent of those in the tropics, in many poorer countries national parks offer little effective protection. In Indonesia and most of tropical Africa, for example, corruption, poor governance and law enforcement, and inadequate resources mean that protected forest falls prey to illegal loggers and hunters; in Indonesia, some is even being converted to plantations. The problem is that in most developing countries, conservation is a low priority.
Rather than risk further destruction and degradation while waiting for governments to sort themselves out, groups such as WWF and the Nature Conservancy have begun to team up with logging companies and promote the 'use-it-or-lose-it' principle: that it's better to have a responsibly managed timber concession than to leave an area of forest susceptible to unscrupulous illegal loggers or, worse still, conversion to another form of land use. "If governments see that legal and sustainably managed timber concessions are economically viable," says Moray McLeish of the Nature Conservancy, "then they may be less inclined to put them up for conversion."
Just as the Soil Association sets standards for organic food, there are now a number of forest management certification bodies. The principles of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) are regarded as the most rigorous and are supported by Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, among others. "The aim of FSC certification is environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial and economically viable forest management," says the FSC's Matthew Wenban-Smith. "We don't use the word sustainable, because no-one knows enough about tropical forest ecology to make that claim yet. But given the current state of knowledge, this is the best bet."
At present, the FSC endorses 671 sites over 470,000 square kilometres in 60 countries. However, only 20 per cent of this--an area three quarters the size of England--is in the tropics, where good practice is needed most. This fact has led many to conclude that current methods of certification aren't suited to the tropics. "It's simpler to manage forests in the north than the south," says Kaimowitz, "for various reasons--ecology, cost, infrastructure and level of governance. The few operations that have been certified in the tropics were already running well. There's no sign that certification is turning around bad forestry. Operators would need to make radical changes, and often it won't be profitable."
Even in certified concessions there are reservations about the degree to which the standards are applied, says Counsell. "We sent a team into an FSC concession in Indonesia about a month after it was certified and found an illegal logging operation that was producing almost as much timber as the legal operation."
The problem, he says, is that certifiers are under pressure to do an efficient job of auditing and assessing applications, but because of the cost involved they're often not thorough enough. Indeed, there is even an argument that harvesting timber from Latin America and Africa in a manner that is both responsible and profitable is impossible at present because of the high operating costs and low density of the valuable species there. "The principle of certification isn't necessarily a problem," says Counsell. "If consumers were prepared to pay 50 per cent more for certified tropical hardwood, then logging companies could afford to get certified properly. …