Thursday, 16 September 2010 08:45

Certification an Urban Myth or a Rural Reality: Street Talk

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What promised to be a confrontational debate about forest certification between two global leaders of different schemes failed to materialise during an otherwise lively session at the forest industry development conference.

Described as something of a coup, the conference brought together William V. Street jnr, the global president of the PEFC and Corey Brinkeman, US president of FSC.

But it seems a long-held desire by many delegates for a single global certification scheme ain't going to happen any time soon. The key issue expanded by both leaders about certification was: how does industry best address intervention by those who are neither stakeholders nor shareholders in the process?

"We are one of the few industries that have to deal with the concepts of the social licence to operate," Mr Street said. We have the fortune, or misfortune, to be engaged in a rural-based extractive economic activity at a particular point of time when the majority of the world resides in urban population. And the political process and democratic society are dominated by those populations.

"As a result, we have an urban myth that is routinely accepted as truth while rural reality is dismissed as primitive, backward and self-serving. And industry has not responded to that very well. It has tended to accept this as the reality, lament on the adverse consequences it has on us and, for the most part, not engage in it."

Mr Street believes that domestically, the Australian industry is better situated that many would think. "You have a complex array of tenure arrangements, most of which appear to be viewed as legitimate by the national political process and across political parties – even the greens," he said.

He said disagreements surfaced over how the wealth was derived and who should share it and how much of it should be distributed. "But these disagreements seem manageable within the context of normal political discourse, which means you have the conflict resolution processes and they are moving forward. They may be moving forward at glacial speed but they are moving forward and this is something you should not take for granted."

Mr Street said there were many places around the world that were less fortunate. "Those who know your national system know it for a number of reasons – you have a proper separation between standards setting, accreditation of auditors and the certification system. Australia also places a prominent role on the use of professional foresters and although I agree that science alone rarely wins, it's difficult to win without any science, so having foresters in your certification scheme provides additional legitimacy."

Mr Street referred to Australia's second round of standards revision as a process that demonstrated a commitment to continuous improvement. "Slowly, but surely, there is growing recognition within the certification system that the triple bottom line of social justice, economic viability and ecological soundness needs to be continuously integrated into your standard-setting process. We need to put far more resources into educating consumers and customers about who we are and what we have to offer."

Mr Street said the Australian standard was recognised and respected. "The problem is your brand is not widely known, and it needs to be," he said. "That is a problem that PEFC shares with you. And it is a problem for all of the 30 or so systems in the PEFC family. Our focus in the past has not been on branding, it has been on promoting sustainable forest management. Nationally, your system continues to mature and the industry too is growing in terms of chain of custody – and it has the ability to deliver a large volume of certified material to the international marketplace. I believe that in the not-too distant future we will see certification as mainstream, certainly here and in the European Union."

Mr Street added: "How we deal with our growth, in terms of new cultures, new national governing bodies, the rapid increase in global chain of custodies, the issues of climate change, indigenous peoples, and tropical forests will determine in large part how we will be judged 10 years from today.

"Lately, it seems as if too many of our conversations focus on what divides us, rather than what unites us. What divides us is real. As in any confederation, the pushes and pulls among NGOs and between NGOs and the PEFC secretariat are constant. Ignoring them, denying them, or attempting to hide them will only cause our problems to grow. We must confront our differences and learn from them, because as different and as divisive as some of the newer challenges that we face may be they still pale in comparison to what unites us."

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