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November 6, 2018

Challenges of the European tropical timber market discussed at conference

The EU’s Sustainable Tropical Timber Coalition held its annual conference in Paris on 26 September. The conference highlighted the ongoing work to promote tropical timber in Europe by STTC participants and raised questions about the role of targets for procurement of “certified sustainable” products that are central to STTC activities.

Generally, the mood of the STTC conference was positive, with participants displaying considerable enthusiasm for the messages promoted by STTC and the promotional activities of likes of ATIBT and LCB. This is itself was an achievement given that the conference was held against a background of continuing stasis in Europe’s tropical wood trade, and the well-publicised financial difficulties of Rougier and other European-owned certified operations in tropical African countries.

To some extent the positive mood could be attributed to the strong focus on FSC and PEFC certification which, in the context of the European private sector, is often perceived as an essential pre-requisite for successful longterm market development of tropical wood.

The STTC focus on increased procurement of FSC and PEFC certified timber has played an important role to encourage European distributors, contractors, retailers and NGOs to actively encourage greater use of tropical timber, something rarely contemplated only a decade ago.

From the perspective of results on the ground in tropical countries, questions need to be raised about the relevance and value of a metric of market “share” that focuses primarily on the proportion of FSC or PEFC certified relative to uncertified tropical products, without also considering the impact on total European imports of tropical timber products.

Is a procurement policy that leads to 100% certified share of tropical timber imports, but is accompanied by, say, a 70% decline in total European imports from the tropics really a “success”?

This is debateable, particularly when it is also considered that under the terms of the EUTR, there must be a negligible risk of any timber product imported into the EU, irrespective of origin or of certification status, being derived from an illegal source.

Another closely related issue is the extent to which there is equitable access to certification in tropical developing countries, or between large and small operators in timbersupplying countries.

Data on the implementation of certification globally (see next section) strongly implies that FSC and PEFC certification tends to favour operators in richer industrialised countries compared to those in developing countries, and that there is a strong bias in favour of larger operators in all regions.

The need for procurement policies that avoid rigid demands for specific forms of certification, that are built on partnerships and co-operation with tropical suppliers and that reward progress within realistic timescales, remains as strong as ever.

New thinking on certification

On a more positive note, there is evidence of rising awareness of these threats within the certification movement, and growing recognition that there is a need for new thinking to significantly reduce the costs of certification and enhance the level of access.

For example, landscape approaches to certification are gaining attention, partly in response to policy developments such as REDD+ and FLEGT-related due diligence and governance and partly because of growing corporate-sector interest in deforestation-free procurement.

There is also increasing recognition that approaches at the scale of individual enterprises or management units are often ineffective and inefficient. Landscape approaches seek measurable indicators that are applicable across landscapes and which give an indication of the general progress being made.

An indication that this thinking is becoming more mainstream came from the final presentation at the STTC Conference in Paris. Speaking on behalf of the Alliance for Preservation of Forests, Jean-Manuel Bluet, Head of Sustainable Development at Nestle, France, focused a large part of his presentation on the potential role of landscape-based certification in the tropics.


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