An American environmental group is lashing out at Canadian logging companies and their customers for not supporting its preferred certifier of sustainable forest management, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) favours FSC as a certifier, one of three independent third-party certifiers that Canada’s federal and provincial forest ministers (CCFM) have endorsed. The others are the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) and the Canadian Standards Association (CSA).

NRDC is not shy about denigrating FSC’s competitors in public, and the Canadian forest industry in general. It claims that FSC’s forest certification program is ‘’significantly more robust and respected’’ than its rivals, that it offers “superior sustainability,’’ and that wood and pulp customers are engaging in ‘’double-talk’’ when praising other certifiers.  

It talks of a “troubling dynamic” where ‘’actors in the logging industry, the companies that purchase wood products from these actors, and even the Canadian government, broadly claim logging in Canada is sustainable simply because so much of it is third-party certified.” And in a recent report, it targets three companies (Aditya Burla Group, Domtar, and Resolute Forest) for helping to legitimize ‘’much weaker certification schemes while undermining the strongest certification in Canada.” That would be FSC.[i]

Loss of market share

While the American group has a long history of criticizing the Canadian forest industry, its rhetoric of late does seem to be somewhat elevated. Whether this has something to do with FSC’s recent loss of market share in Canada is a moot point. Canada is particularly important to FSC because it represents some 22% of FSC’s entire global certification area. Quebec and Ontario alone represent 17%,[ii]  so you can see why FSC would be worried about any slippage in market share. Prominent supporter NRDC has noticed this.

“The vast majority of logging operations (in Canada) are not FSC-certified,” NRDC acknowledged in a recent report, adding that Resolute Forest Products had virtually halved the total area of FSC-certified land that it managed across Canada since 2012, from 15.8 million hectares down to 7.5 million hectares in 2019.[iii]

Forest certification in Canada.

The recent loss in market share (down to 26%) is perhaps an extra incentive to lobby (some would say bully) companies into committing 100% to FSC, rather than to SFI or CSA. NRDC seems particularly incensed that companies see the three competing certification programs as being in any way equal. Procter & Gamble, for example, says all the third-party certifiers it relies on for pulp ‘’ensure forests are responsibly managed’’, and that they all “protect diversity,’’ ‘’preserve water, soil and air,’’ ‘’respect (the) right of Indigenous peoples,’’ and ‘’ensure no deforestation.”   

That’s how Canada’s federal and provincial forest ministers see it too. All three third-party certifiers are being ‘’consistent with national and international agreements related to sustainable forest management and meeting criteria for balancing interests, being objective and science-based, (and being) implementable and practical,’’ says the Canadian Council of Forest Ministers. All three certifiers “set high thresholds that forest companies must clear, in addition to (meeting) Canada’s tough regulatory requirements.’’[iv]

The President and CEO of independent non-profit SFI, is more focused on the new standards SFI announced on Earth Day than on “spending time debunking’’ NRDC’s claims. “With more than 150 million hectares certified to our forest management standard and tens of millions more to our fibre sourcing standard, SFI has the scale to make a difference on many important sustainability issues such as climate change, species at risk, and water quality,’’ says Kathy Abusow. “New enhancements in the standards include climate-smart forestry objectives, increased fire awareness and resiliency requirements, and we have further strengthened the need to recognise and respect Indigenous rights while building lasting relationships. SFI is also unique among certifiers in that its work also focuses on conservation impact, community engagement, and environmental education.”  

Free, prior, and informed consent

One of NRDC’s main criticisms is that Canadian companies are undermining Indigenous peoples by not requiring wood to be obtained without free, prior, and informed consent (known as FPIC). What NRDC does not say, however, is that the ‘free, prior, and informed consent’ outlined in the United Nation’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP), which Canada supports, does not constitute veto power within most decision-making processes. The declaration is far more nuanced than that, with good faith consultation and cooperation giving way to informed consent only in extreme circumstances such as the relocation and disposal of hazardous waste.

Canada’s federal minister of justice has affirmed that free, prior, and informed consent ‘’refers specifically to the importance of meaningful participation of Indigenous peoples, through their own mechanisms, in decisions and processes affecting them, their rights and their community.” Free, prior, and informed consent is about working together in partnership and respect.[v]

How these nuances will actually be put into practice in Canada is currently being discussed among Indigenous, federal, provincial, and territorial governments. Given the complex history of Crown-Indigenous relations and the patchwork landscape of title, treaty, and Aboriginal rights that currently exist, it is far more likely that UNDRIP’s interpretation and implementation within the Canadian forest sector will be regional or even specific to individual Indigenous nations rather than the simplistic one-size-fits-all interpretations being advanced by some advocacy groups. The actual rights holders should be the ones hashing this out at this point. There will be plenty of time for outside comment later.

Indigenous ownership

There are currently over 1,400 Indigenous-owned forestry businesses in Canada today, including sawmills, silviculture businesses, and biomass energy facilities. Some 12,000 Indigenous workers are employed in the industry and the growing population of Indigenous youth is a key demographic moving forward. Indigenous peoples directly control nearly 10% of Canada’s wood supply and this is trending upward. In the boreal forest of Saskatchewan, nearly 30% of the wood supply is under direct management of Indigenous peoples.[vi]

“Today we work with over 500 youth from 80 Indigenous communities to provide opportunities to build a diverse and resilient workforce,’’ says SFI’s Abusow. “We provide employers with training to ensure they have a welcoming work place for all. In fact, 40 Indigenous communities have chosen to certify to the SFI standards, in addition to the land managers, land owners, conservation groups and universities who choose our standard.’’

As Canada’s forest ministers say, all three certification programs (SFI, CSA, and FSC) are ‘’tailored to consider global forestry issues as well as circumstances specific to the Canadian landscape, such as the livelihood of local communities and the interests of Indigenous people.’’[vii]

Misinformation

In its wide-ranging criticism of the industry (which includes commentary on the plight of the caribou and the industry’s role in contributing to the climate crisis), NRDC accuses the Forest Products Association of Canada of “muddying public understanding” and “disseminating misinformation and obscuring the negative environmental impacts of industrial logging.’’ There’s some irony (or hypocrisy) here since NRDC has a long track record of misinformation itself.

It frequently calls logging in Canada ‘unsustainable’ when the country, unlike most others, has managed to retain over 90% of its original forest cover[viii]  and leads the world in forest certified as being sustainably managed (including by FSC).[ix]  NRDC also exaggerates. The “widespread’’ industrial operations in Canada’s boreal that it cites in its latest report actually involves only about 0.16% of boreal forest land. Which is later regenerated.[x]

Here we have an American environmental group telling Canadian forest ministers how to run their forests, lobbying (or bullying) customers to use only FSC, and even sponsoring state legislation that would ban Canadian wood products from US markets. Imagine if the shoe was on the other foot. How do you think a Canadian environmental group would fare if it was telling US states how to run their forests? Not too well, I don’t think.


[i] NRDC. By a Thousand Cuts: How Powerful Companies’ Wood Sourcing is Degrading Canada’s Boreal Forest, April 2021 and P & G and its Suppliers’ Words Undercut FSC by Courtenay Lewis & Shelley Vinyard, 10 May, 2021.

[ii] https://certificationcanada.og/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/2020-Year-end-SFM-Certification-Summary-Report.pdf            https://fsc.org/en/facts-figures         https://certificationcanada.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/2020-Yearend-SFM-Certification-Detailed-Report-ON.pdf      https://certificationcanada.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/2020-Yearend-SFM-Certification-Detailed-Report-QC.pdf

[iii]Changes in market demand and Resolute closing some of its operations contributed to this drop.

[iv] CCFM (Canadian Council of Forest Ministers)   ccfm.org/healthy-forests/environmental-leadership/          

[v]“Arising from the right to self-determination, ‘free, prior and informed consent’ as it appears in various articles of the declaration, refers specifically to the importance of meaningful participation of indigenous peoples, through their own mechanisms, in decisions and processes affecting them, their rights, and their community. Free, prior and informed consent is a way of working together to establish a consensus through dialogue and other means and of enabling indigenous peoples to meaningfully influence decision-making. Free, prior and informed consent does not constitute veto power over the government’s decision-making process. After all, human rights and the resulting obligations and duties, particularly those provided for in the declaration, are not absolute. The declaration states that indigenous peoples have individual and collective rights equal to those of other peoples. That means that the provisions of the declaration, including those that refer to free, prior and informed consent, must be taken in context. Different initiatives will have different impacts on the rights of indigenous peoples and will require different types of approaches. Thus free, prior and informed consent could require different processes or new creative ways of working together to ensure meaningful and effective participation in decision-making. If passed, this bill will not change Canada’s existing duty to consult with indigenous peoples or the other consultation and participation requirements under other legislation such as the new Impact Assessment Act.”  (Hon. David Lametti, Minister of Justice). Hansard, Volume 150, No. 060, February 17, 2021.    

[vi] National Aboriginal Forestry Association (NAFA), 2020, Fifth Report on Indigenous-held Forest Tenures in Canada 2020    http://www.nafaforestry.org/pdf/2020/NAFA%20Fifth%20Report%20on%20Indigenous-Held%20Forest%20Tenures%20in%20Canada%202020.pdf

[vii] CCFM, ibid.

[viii]Calculation by the Forests Products Association of Canada based on data from the UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre and Natural Resources Canada.  

[ix] https://www.certificationcanada.org

[x] An average of 453,600 hectares of the boreal forest’s 285 million hectares (0.16%) was harvested per year between 2000 and 2015, according to a Canadian Forest Service analysis. See Suzuki dead wrong on paper’s circular economy, John Mullinder blog, October 1, 2020.