Tackling deforestation – could a new ethical products scheme help?

Is there room in the market for another certification scheme?

Research is being carried out by the University of Nottingham into whether a new ethical product scheme can help with slowing deforestation.

The timber industry has, via the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification scheme, moved a long way towards ensuring that wood sold in DIY stores and elsewhere is being sourced from sustainable forests. Such schemes have a direct impact on forest management practices and can help slow deforestation rates. However, very few tropical forests are included in this scheme and many continue to be felled completely, heavily logged or hunted out.

If successfully implemented, the UN REDD+ scheme may also be able to reduce the loss and degradation of tropical forests by providing financial incentives to governments and local communities to protect biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Communities receive Fairtrade equivalent prices for their commodities only if they have signed conservation agreements committing the whole community to no logging, hunting or change in the forest/farm boundaries

Alternatively, the prices obtained for agricultural products by communities living in or next to tropical forests can be linked to biodiversity performance criteria in those forests (eg minimal hunting or logging). However only two food- or drink-based certification schemes relevant to tropical forests have wide recognition with the general public in the UK (Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance) and only a few more elsewhere (eg Bird-Friendly Coffee in North America).

Performance criteria

Both the Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance schemes have much potential for poverty reduction. However, neither scheme requires or delivers meaningful conservation beyond the area covered by the certified crops because both focus on the producers (and what happens on individual farms or plantations) rather than the whole communities in which they live.

Indeed, one village in Cusuco National Park, Honduras (the site of a long-term University of Nottingham research project), is Rainforest Alliance certified for its coffee products, but is the village most involved with illegal hunting in the park’s core zone!

Tropical forest-based pollinators produced a 20% increase in coffee yield

The reasons why such illegal activities continue are many and complex. Short-term benefits may be pursued in spite of greater long-term losses, even if those losses are known. This is particularly true when people live at or below the poverty line and so the poverty reduction achieved by existing schemes is very important for conservation. Another key problem concerns who benefits from the certification schemes and, more importantly, who does not. In the Honduran village just mentioned, the offenders are not from the certified producer co-operative (these co-operatives typically comprise less than 10% of the community), but from the wider village.

A final critical problem is that the full value of tropical forest is typically not taken into account when people decide to fell or degrade it. One reason is that many forest-based ecological services – such as the provision of pollination, clean water and pest control – are hard to measure.

Another is that local people often do not know about these benefits, yet tropical forest-based pollinators were recently found to produce a 20% increase in coffee yield and great improvement in quality in a coffee farm in Costa Rica (see further reading); the resultant local economic benefits in terms of coffee production alone rival any other land use for that forest.

Wildlife Conservation Products

Overcoming problems like these is difficult, but the Operation Wallacea Trust has trademarked a new scheme called Wildlife Conservation Products. In this scheme, communities receive Fairtrade equivalent prices for their commodities, but only if they have signed conservation agreements committing the whole community to specified management criteria that will be continually monitored (no logging, hunting or change in the forest/farm boundaries).

If evidence emerges that village members are contravening these criteria then the scheme is suspended until the problem is addressed; this has been shown (in Indonesia) to happen quickly, through intra-community pressure. The payment of prices significantly above market rates in these communities provides a strong positive incentive for whole communities to ensure ‘their’ forest is protected.

The main difference between the Wildlife Conservation Products (WCP) scheme and both Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance is that the enhanced price is paid not to a producers’ co-operative, but to a village-level co-operative whose membership must exceed 90% of the community. The products are bought by the village co-operatives from the local farmers at the normal market rates, but are then sold to exporters at the enhanced rates, which can produce a village-level premium of up to 70% over the farm gate price. The village then decides what to do with the money from this premium.

However, it has not been easy for WCP products to enter the UK market. Is there room in the market for yet another certification scheme? Is it better to develop a new category in a recognised scheme such as Fairtrade (perhaps ‘Fair Trade Conservation’)? These questions lie at the heart of a research project we have recently started at the University of Nottingham.

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