Twin track for forest assurance

Snake Image copyright Other
Image caption Borneo has yielded a number of spectacular species finds, such as Kopstein's bronzeback snake

Although it usually happens by accident rather than design, the good cop/bad cop routine is perhaps one of the environment movement's most useful strategies.

A company's reputation is taking a battering from environmental group A, which is accusing it of doing illegal or rapacious things.

It wants to clean up its act - and it can turn best to environmental group B, which can show it the error of its ways - the good cop.

Or, a government wants to bring change but is worried that it'll take a pasting from green groups; so it brings one of those very groups inside the process of making change, in order to garner instead a bill of green health for itself.

The danger in these scenarios is that organisations working alongside the company or government compromise their principles in some way, or that they are less than 100% effective in scrutinising their partners.

Which is why the set-up also needs a bad cop - an independent organisation outside the set-up that can monitor and verify and investigate, able to hold both the company/government and the co-operating environment group to account.

Global Witness, which has a long tradition of going to investigate difficult situations on the ground at first hand, has just issued a fairly damning report on the Global Forest and Trade Network (GFTN), an initiative established 20 years ago by environment group WWF.

GFTN's aim is not merely to regulate trade in wood and other forest products, but to use it as a force for social and environmental good.

Companies signing up are supposed to eliminate illegal products from their operations over a period of time, and commit to gradually improving their record on certification, tracing their origins of their products, and so on.

Altogether, 284 companies are now in the scheme, encompassing producers in countries such as Indonesia and Brazil, and importers and retailers in Germany, the UK and such like.

Image copyright SPL
Image caption GFTN is supposed to certify legality and sustainability from forest to product

The Global Witness report centres on contentions that companies inside the scheme have been able to log illegally and trade illegal timber, despite their membership.

It says that one of the big Malaysian companies, Ta Ann Holdings Berhad, has been logging rainforest in Borneo in an area that overlaps with WWF's own Heart of Borneo initiative, seen as priority conservation area in which many new and exotic species have been discovered.

For Tom Picken, leader of the forest campaign at Global Witness: "When a landmark scheme created in the name of sustainability and conservation tolerates one of its member companies destroying orangutan habitat, something is going seriously wrong."

European companies are named in the report as well for continuing to trade in illegal timber after the five-year phase-out period permitted under GFTN rules; and there are wider concerns about the paucity of information provided by companies that are members of the scheme.

In Global Witness's eyes, this means that GFTN as currently constituted is not fit for purpose.

In one concrete sense, they have a point, in that laws in the EU and US have moved on so much in the last 20 years that they're now stricter than the GFTN code of practice when it comes to eliminating illegal products.

But the EU and US are not the world's only markets.

In some product areas, China is now the biggest consumer, with other major developing nations such as Brazil and India coming up on their shoulders.

How to improve standards in this trade is a huge issue - and it's probably no exaggeration to say that the health of West Africa's remaining virgin forest depends more on this than on any other single factor.

If initiatives such as GFTN can play a role, their continued existence and involvement could prove worthwhile, even if standards may sometimes fall lower than western campaigners might like.

WWF, for its part, denies some of Global Witness's contentions but says it "is taking the allegations seriously and... intends to examine Global Witness's recommendations in detail".

Ta Ann has also queried the allegations.

If forestry is to be made genuinely sustainable, it probably needs both actors in this drama to continue their involvement.

Criticism from the outside has done little on its own to change things, while the involvement of NGOs with the corporate sector has brought some real progress - most recently, on palm oil.

Organisations working with producers bring expertise and principles, which help companies to make conservation-positive decisions.

But others need to be watching to make sure everything's up to date, and that the relationship doesn't get too cosy - otherwise all the good intentions turn into mere greenwash.