Thursday, November 2, 2017

47 Forest Certification-I. Introduction and relevance in India

In the global quest for ways to protect the world’s forests and to slow down, if not reverse, the pace of deforestation, much faith has been reposed in what is known as Forest Certification (FC) and the Criteria and Indicators (C&I) of Sustainable Forest Management (SFM). The C&I are supposed to give an objective measure of how close the forest management is to a sustainable regime. The FC framework is supposed to provide an impartial process for inspecting each forest management unit (FMU) to assess its performance periodically and bestow an internationally recognized certificate of good practices.

By extension, the FC framework also provides for certifying and labeling the products that come out of such units. In principle, consumers can encourage the manufacturers to use more and more of these certified raw materials. By actively rejecting or shunning material coming out of unsustainable logging or poaching, consumers could theoretically put pressure on the primary producers themselves to clean up their act and adopt sustainable (‘green’) practices. Thus the undesirable practices that are resulting in deforestation the world over will be eliminated, especially in the forest-rich countries that are the world’s biggest exporters of timber, and by implication also the biggest contributors to deforestation.

Being voluntary and market-based, it is assumed that such mechanisms will be more economically ‘efficient’ than regulatory measures imposed from above. There is thus a long chain of logic in this model. It depends on institutions and processes to reverse the destruction of forests. Both producer and consumer countries are expected to fall in with this logic and subscribe to the principles of FC and the accompanying C&I, and moreover to work through internationally recognized organizations that offer such a service.

To the traditional forester, all this would appear too elaborate and indirect. The obvious preferred alternative would seem to be a stronger legal framework and more determined action on the ground, rather than innovative institutional reform. The pattern initiated by the colonial British administration in the 19th century (itself based on the European model) laid primary emphasis on notifying forest reserves, survey and demarcation on the ground (by stone pillars, cairns, etc.) and on the official maps, and physical patrolling to apprehend poachers/smugglers and prevent encroachment. Only after the estate itself was secured, could attention be paid to the optimal utilization of the crop.

However, the best colonial minds did recognize the need to satisfy the subsistence needs of the local communities (fuelwood, fodder, leaf manure, small timber, various ‘minor’ forest products for domestic use and barter, and so on), and many leading foresters did call for developing ‘fuel and fodder reserves’, for example. The classical approach has been to identify the predominant role and potential of different parts of the forest estate: basically in three categories, namely (ecological) protection, production (of marketable wood), and support to subsistence needs (of rural communities).

In the current National Forest Policy (of 1988), priority has been given to the ecological-environmental and livelihood support functions, with production of (industrial) wood for the market being of lowest priority. This is in contrast to the 1952 Forest Policy, which gave highest priority to the needs of the national economy. Schooled in this ‘command-and-obey’ style, Indian foresters developed a ‘compromise’ approach to local participation, commonly termed Joint (or Participatory) Forest Management (JFM). The communities are encouraged to set up institutions for collective action to protect and nurture the (usually degraded) forest assigned to them, but they have to operate under the forest law, and the assigned forest official usually maintains control on the bank account and on the field operations.

This is criticized by social environmentalists, who hold that the local community has to be given full control and autonomy, in order to be able to internalize both private and public costs and benefits, and take optimal decisions with the confidence that they will be able to reap the benefits of any sacrifices made in the short term. In the absence of such security of tenure and reduction of uncertainty, the view holds, the community will opt for short-term benefits, contributing to the over-exploitation and rapid degradation of the natural resource, leading to the ‘tragedy of the commons’.

Foresters, and many informed scholars, however point out that communities are generally more successful in sustained management of such open-access resources, where they work in collaboration with the larger institutions in society, such as the law-and-order mechanism, the judiciary, the political set-up, and the local administration. The last would include the forest department and its ‘eyes and feet’ on the ground. In this context, Forest Certification (FC) by itself is not generally looked at very enthusiastically, and usually not seen as a panacea. This may explain the relatively slow adoption of the FC system in the Indian forest sector, despite the strong endorsement from the international community. Additionally, it poses a dilemma to the government (the forest ministry), as there is already a very elaborate and strong legal and administrative framework governing the management and utilization of forest resources in the country. The FC framework could be seen as impinging on this basic structure, and transferring powers and functions of supervision and control that rightly belong in the national constitutional institutions, to private entities with ambiguous authorization under the constitution.

In a country like India, therefore, the whole FC debate and strategy would have to take into account the existing legal and administrative structure, rather than treating it as tabula rasa and introducing a completely new set-up. This is the challenge that needs to be addressed by the government (the forest ministry), as it strives to reconcile the pressures of the international FC lobby, with the realities of the existing situation, and the ideas of the fairly strongly entrenched forest service.

One of the issues with FC as developed by the international bodies, is the sheer amount of information and tedious detail that is expected of the FMU (Forest Management Unit). Practical forest administrators and managers however require specific questions that can be answered in a concise manner with existing management information. The recently developed concepts of Sustainable Forest Management (SFM) extend far beyond the growth and yield of the forest, into the sphere of socio-economic and cultural issues. Most of these frameworks carry long lists of Criteria and Indicators (C&I) that number in the dozens, each demanding enough data collection and analysis to keep many Ph.D. scholars busy for years.

In the context of the on-going exercise to develop a national framework for certification in India, we will need to examine how this new framework (the C&I, the inspecting procedures, the institutions that will need to be created) will relate to the international FC schemes already in operation. As we well know, there is already a wide range of laws and monitoring mechanisms for forestry in the country: we are not starting with a bare ground. However, it is evident that even the most stringent of the laws and monitoring agencies do not envisage as wide-ranging a coverage as these international FC schemes. Complying with these new reporting requirements may well impose a crushing administrative burden on forest management entities in the country.

Forest Certification being potentially such a costly undertaking in terms of manpower (and money, too), not every forestry administrative unit should need to go into it, unless there were a very good justification. One would have to demonstrate that there are no simpler and more closely targeted alternative means of achieving the important objectives (biodiversity conservation, or safeguarding livelihoods of the forest-dependent, for instance).  Therefore, what is called for is a sober look at who the FMU’s clients are, and what purpose will be served by the certification exercise. One has to be aware that once such a comprehensive scheme (which to all intents is beyond average human capacities to satisfy) is written into any government directions or statute, then much of the forest department's activities will become highly questionable and vulnerable to legal challenge. Such frameworks may be seen as representing the ultimate envelope of (perhaps) well-intentioned aspirations, but not a reasonable framework for action in practical circumstances.

To sweeten this somewhat harsh judgement, a few suggestions are offered, after looking at the experience of other countries placed in similar circumstances. For instance, instead of one level of standards, we may think of a series of graded levels, starting from a fairly simple certificate of legality, then proceeding by stages to more exacting requirements. We could think of different levels of sustainability, translated into basic, intermediate, and advanced levels of certification, or say silver, gold, platinum, diamond, certificates. This will provide users some options, and also provide a less onerous learning curve.

For the initial phase, we could restrict the scheme to only PRODUCT certification, rather than trying to cover such a wide gamut of environmental and social sector criteria in the management of the forest. Hence the scheme may be called the Forest PRODUCT Certification Scheme, which will give consumers a basic assurance of legality and quality under the existing laws of the land.

It would be desirable to have more discussion with the main stakeholder, i.e. the forest officers in the field, who may well be the scheme’s main target. Too elaborate and onerous a certification framework may not really add to their effectiveness, and there may be many ways in which it will make their functioning more difficult. As an alternative, we could suggest tailoring schemes to more specific client groups. For example, one may start with a certification scheme narrowly tailored to farm forestry clients, or another tailored to corporate clients like paper mills that have forest (tree) plantations.

In the context of India, the central Ministry of Environment & Forests had undertaken a long and extensive series of consultations and deliberations, involving forest officers as well as outside experts and academic institutions. Before proceeding, a review of this process (including the deliberations of the Expert Committees, and the pilot projects undertaken in a few divisions in central India by the IIFM, Bhopal) may be carried out, and feedback obtained from the field personnel and stakeholders associated with those pilots.

Against this summary introduction, the ensuing sections will proceed to discuss the idea of Forest Certification in greater detail, including the efforts made so far in India to set up suitable institutions and mechanisms for Forest Certification (FC). Some information on other countries’ experience will be presented, followed with a discussion and recommendations.

[This article is being posted after a pretty long period trying to get an understanding of this nebulous (foggy) topic. The long gap in postings was because I got busy with various courses (I finished an MA in Sociology). Thanks for viewing!]

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