Tuesday, November 7, 2017

51 Forest Certification-V. A policy for India

From the broader topic of a SFM (Sustainable Forest Management) framework, we now come to the forest certification scenario. From the foregoing discussion, two main routes to a certification framework seem to emerge. One alternative would be to set up a government-led and supported national body to set the standards (in a participatory and consultative mode, of course), lay down procedures, give recognition to certifying agencies (i.e., do the accreditation of certifiers), and administer the certification and labeling process in toto. The second alternative would be to depend on an international standards-setting and accreditation organization like the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) to take up the responsibility of operating its own system (suitably modified for local conditions), and leave it to individual actors to apply to them when required. A brief discussion of these alternatives follows.

[A pdf version can be downloaded at https://www.academia.edu/35114317/Forest_Certification_relevance_challenges_and_way_forward_in_India

Historically, the concept of Forest Certification (FC) has been inspired and driven mainly by environmental activists in the west, who wanted a credible and honest process to judge the sustainability (environmental, social and economic) of the timber and other forest products being sold in their markets, thereby offering better and more informed choices to their consumers. The basis of this would be that standards are set by the consumer forums and environmentalists, and latterly by social activists representing the interests of local communities and indigenous peoples. In the current environment of a general lack of faith in political leaders and government administrations, the less the process and its institutions are under the control or influence of national governments, the higher will be their credibility. This is why the FSC is considered a higher level of the FC systems, as the FSC itself is governed by the general body of the members, with equal weight of the three main groups or “chambers” of stakeholders: environmentalists, industry, and governments, and as the certifiers themselves are independent (private) concerns. The essence of the FSC system is its autonomy; hence any government-run process will automatically be suspect in its eyes. The FSC (or its main protagonist, the WWF) would have to be given the lead in the process of drawing up standards and processes, and setting up institutions; the Bhopal-India process would have to be done all over again, this time keyed to the requirements and expectations of international social-environmental NGOs and consumer organisations.

In contrast, the PEFC (Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification) reposes higher confidence in national governments and their ability to come up with such a scheme (with due consultation with all stakeholders). Because the PEFC does not itself set the standards, but looks at the country-level systems drawn up by the national organisations, it has been successful in bringing a much larger area under certification than the more exacting FSC. However, even the PEFC cannot blindly endorse country-level systems and standards, as its credibility will have to be maintained in the face of the higher bar set by the FSC. In fact, it is evident that some sort of convergence is taking place between the two international schemes: thus, FSC moved to include plantations in its P10, and FSC has also allowed for tailoring of the framework to national and regional (sub-national) local conditions. FSC also has different levels of certificate of the source (fully sustainable, mixed, etc.).

One of the main disincentives to the state in giving official endorsement to the FSC as the national enabler of FC would be the erosion of its own (i.e. the state forest department’s) autonomy, at all levels. The forest ministry in the national government would be now subject to policy direction from the FSC; at the field level, each FMU (Forest Management Unit) would have to satisfy the FSC inspectors, and also probably hand over much more power to the local communities than at present.

Of course, it would always be a more pleasant state of affairs to have a large proportion of certified forest than not; protagonists of certification present long lists of benefits that would accrue all around. But these would have to be weighed against the time, effort and financial costs that would be required. In the case of most government forests in the country, there would appear to be no great advantage in having a certificate of sustainability from an external agency. The forest divisions are no longer oriented toward timber production; conversion of the natural forest has been given up, partly by policy, partly due to various orders from the Courts. Indeed the major portion of timber is coming from trees outside the forest, and from imports. The old ‘silvicutural systems’ that are taught in the forest colleges are no longer in operation; mostly there are only salvage harvests of dead and fallen trees as far as timber is concerned. Sustainable forestry principles may in fact demand a return to regular harvests of matured stems according to those silvicultural systems, which may be a paradoxical result from the conservation activists’ point of view.

So it appears that an international certification scheme would be of little concern to the government forests. Perhaps it may be of interest to private producers or industries procuring wood from the farmers, like the pulp and paper mills, who may like to export their products with such a certificate, either of chain of custody, or sustainable forestry. In such a case, a government certificate would have little mileage in the international market, and they would be forced to resort to the international certification system, of which only the FSC-WWF network would appear to provide a feasible alternative. In this context, cost considerations would be relevant, and group certification may have to be resorted to. The FSC-WWF partnership would have to sponsor the building of a locally relevant and feasible platform for India.

Therefore, there would not seem to be a great necessity for a government-sponsored certification system in India at present, as long as private actors could access the FSC-WWF framework. However, this does not mean that the government should abandon the ongoing exercises at setting up a framework of standards and processes for the state forests. One of the considerations here is that India would not like to get left behind completely in the global effort to make forestry “sustainable” in terms of the international NGO definitions. Indeed, because of the century-long experience of “scientific”, “sustained yield”, forestry, with its successes and failures, along with the legislative innovations and judicial activism of more recent decades, India could well make very valuable contributions to the global discussion on these matters. India’s participation in international environmental (and even climate) forums, as a progressive member of the world community, would have more credibility if it had a vigorous SFM programme, especially as the consumers in India have so far not exhibited any great concern about the SFM aspects of the timber they are consuming, either domestic or imported.

To take forward the SFM discussions in the government sector, the forest ministry could obviously get a head start from the strong framework already available: the forest department institutions (especially the Working Plan Code and the planning and monitoring process in the states), the policy and law framework (especially the JFM and FRA frameworks), and so on. A quick pilot survey of the applicability of the Bhopal-India Criteria and Indicators (C&I) in a number of states threw up the conclusion that some 60% of the data called for in the Bhopal-India C&I are already available with the divisions, which would give them a good basis for further improvement. Because of financial and procedural bottlenecks, it is probable that much of the remaining data, which would require intensive research and specialist knowledge and skills, could be attempted on an experimental basis only, in a few locations of high significance from the biodiversity or local socio-cultural point of view. Methods to resolve human-animal conflict, for example, could be one such high priority area.

At this point in time, it would be judicious not to impose any national standards requirement of inspection and certification of the FSC type for India’s state forests. It has to be appreciated that the moment any such standard is notified by government, then it becomes obligatory for the state forests to satisfy these conditions. The entire process of inspection and assessment would pass on to external agencies. Forest divisions would be at the mercy of these inspectors, and may have to incur a heavy burden of finances, time and administrative effort to cater to them, on top of all their other duties. If the standards are too ambitious and aspirational, it may be physically impossible to meet them in all aspects (especially the social ones). This would provide sufficient grounds for a Court to find the forest department incompetent, and the forests could then be passed on to other agencies or even privatised under this garb.

There are also issues of a “conflict of interests”, or rather a  “nexus of interests”, where officials and environmentalists/NGOs who design the system, will also be the prime candidates for taking up accreditation or serving on the various committees and councils. A frequent ploy is for bureaucrats (including both forest service and administrative service officers) to create positions of influence and authority for their own post-retirement comfort. The gamut of activities associated with such national and international institutions provide very powerful incentives to both retired persons and to younger NGO activists in the form of meetings, travel opportunities, professional contacts, and a general sense of intense involvement. Such situations would give a happy hunting ground for unscrupulous operators to exert influence and extract their pound of flesh from the target organizations (forest departments, FMUs etc.). Any SFM or FC framework in the government sector will have to be carefully designed to avoid such an eventuality. As Upton and Bass (1995, p.xvii) remark, the forest sector needs to be clear about the utility, practicability and possible distracting effects of the forest certification undertaking.

If the government takes no action, however, that itself may well become a target for criticism by NGOs and international bodies, who may ascribe to the government a lack of responsiveness and modern outlook. The government, therefore, should continue the discussion and consultation on forest management, highlighting the experiments in people’s participation and empowerment in different spheres like biodiversity conservation, agroforestry, landscape restoration, JFM, FRA implementation, and so on. The new Working Plan Code also provides a good platform to intensify data collection and monitoring, coupled with production of gazetteers and progress reports, case studies, and so on. A systematic review and assessment of ongoing public forestry efforts can be taken up under the umbrella of strengthening of SFM viewed in the broad sense. Efforts should be continued to improve the extraction and processing of non-timber products, especially medicinal plants that are in danger of over-exploitation under market forces. This is also an opportunity to involve a wide spectrum of stakeholders and public policy advocates, including NGO activists, academics, donor agencies, and so on. These efforts need to be documented and incorporated in the working plan reports, so that they could feed into any certification of sustainability that may be sought due to consumer demand sometime in the future.

If it is desired to emulate the certification system of the FSC or other networks, an internal system of assessment and grading could be developed. This could have the provision to accord certificates of performance at successive graded levels, so that forest divisions could gradually come up to the desired optimal levels depending on the local conditions and constraints. The formal certification system could also start with labeling of forest products, rather than forest management units; the basic label could certify the legality of the source (Chain-of-custody certification), and successive higher levels could then include other aspects of SFM, like environmental, social, or economic.

Besides, if any particular state forest administration (Uttarakhand state, for instance) genuinely feel that they are well prepared to face the challenges of the certification process, then they should volunteer for an internationally credible system. This would probably entail a ‘scoping’ visit from an accredited agency of the FSC. The problem here is that there is no one accepted description of SFM or its performance requirements. A retired forester from the batches of the 1960s and ‘70s, for instance, may insist on taking out the calculated sustained yield (increment) from the forest; this may be a counter-productive result from the point of view of the conservationist. A wildlife protagonist may demand suspension of all removals, including dead and fallen trees, as they provide valuable niches for hole-nesting animals, fungi, etc. A social activist may press for transferring control entirely to the local communities, leaving the forest departments with no legal powers. All types of experts may have a basic hostility to the forest department, and the process may rapidly go out of its control. The forest department, therefore, has to think deeply whether it is worth risking this situation.

While we may give due credit to the Bhopal-India (B-I) process for its pioneering work, we should not be under any illusions about the gulf between the B-I framework and what will be demanded of the system by FSC (or even PEFC). Some FMUs may perceive a need to have certification for a certain product or group of products, e.g. medicinal herbs in the Himalayan forest. It is not clear whether the FMU will be able to contain the certification process to the desired products. We cannot predict in advance what extent of changes an individual expert or consultant will demand as a result of the scoping visits. This sort of trial run by any individual FMU should be closely followed by the whole forest service and the central ministry, and lessons drawn as far as certification of government forests is concerned.

Such comprehensive efforts would build up a distinctly national, India-centered, approach to SFM, while not succumbing to the danger of transferring control entirely to external actors. India can develop its own home-grown SFM framework, oriented toward practical action on the ground, rather than introducing onerous inspection procedures and demanding reporting frameworks under the instigation and control of external operators, that give the advantage to international consultant interests at the cost of national sovereignty.


Dilip Kumar, P.J. 2014. Managing India’s Forests. Village Communities, Panchayati Raj Institutions and the State. Monograph No. 32, Institute for Social & Economic Change, Nagarbhavi, Bangalore. Posted at https://www.academia.edu/9235210/Managing_India_s_Forests_Village_Communities_Panchayati_Raj_Institutions_and_the_State).

FRI. 2012. National  Working Plan Code. Draft prepared by Forest Research Institute Dehradun (Indian Council of Forestry Research & Education). Ministry of Environment & Forests, Government of India.

Gale, Fred and Marcus Howard. 2011. Global Commodity Governance. State Responses to Sustainable Forest and Fisheries Certification. Palgrave Macmillan UK.

Government of India. 2014. National Working Plan Code 2014. Ministry of Environment & Forests. Downloadable copy available at http://www.mahaforest.nic.in/act_rule_file/140898038616%20A%2001%20W%20P%20Code%202014.pdf

Higman, Sophie, James Mayers, Stephen Bass, Neil Judd and Ruth Nussbaum. 2006. The Sustainable Forestry Handbook. Second Edition, First South Asian Edition. The Earthscan Forestry Library. Earthscan Publications Ltd., London.

Humphreys, David. 2006. Logjam. Deforestation and the Crisis of Global Governance. Earthscan Publications Ltd., London.

Kotwal, P.C., M.D.Omprakash & Dharmendra Dugaya. 2008. Manual: Criteria and Indicators for Sustainable Forest Management in India: An Operational Framework. Operational Strategy for Sustainable Forestry Development with Community Participation in India: IIFM-ITTO Research Project. Indian Institute of Forest Management, Bhopal (India).

Lele, Sharachchandra and Ajit Menon. 2014. Democratizing Forest Governance in India. Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

MTCC. 2009. The First Ten Years 1999-2009. Written by Chew Lye Teng, Harninder Singh, Yong Ten Koong. Malaysian Timber Certifcation Council. Kuala Lumpur.

Upton, Christopher and Stephen Bass. 1995. The Forest Certification Handbook. Earthscan Publications Ltd., London.

Yadav, Manmohan, P.C.Kotwal & B.L.Menaria. 2007. Forest Certification. A Tool for Sustainable Forest Management. Centre for Sustainable Forest Management & Forest Certification: IIFM-ITTO Project. Indian Institute of Forest Management, Bhopal (India).


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