The purpose of my trip was check the verification procedures for timber companies that want to gain the prized Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certificate for their operations. Increasing numbers of producers and retailers are realizing that the FSC stamp for wood products is not only good for the environment but also helps their business.
The FSC is a non-profit organization formed to reconcile the disparate aims of environmental and social groups, the timber trade and forestry services for the common purpose of ensuring that forests are both protected and managed according to accepted standards of good practice.
I was in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais so called because of its wealth of mineral resources with SGS
Forestry, an auditing company charged with checking whether the forestry practices of a firm called Mannesmann Florestal Limitada were up to the high standards demanded by the FSC before a certificate was granted.
It was a week of driving through vast forests of eucalyptus trees, talking to managers, workers, representatives of national and state institutions, local government and local non-governmental organizations, helping the auditing team with translating and inevitably ploughing through paperwork.
Mannesmann Florestal was set up in 1969 to supply charcoal to its parent steel-making company. By last year the 'Mannesmann steel production process was using charcoal exclusively from its own eucalyptus plantations and it was the operations and practices in these plantations that the auditing team set out to check. The company wanted FSC approval because it would open up new markets for its charcoal including the UK barbecue market and fend off the threat of cheap imported coke which can be used as an alternative source of carbon in steel-making. The Brazil-based charcoal distributor Meltaltec has provided the international markets for the certified charcoal, and also paid for Mannesman's certification audit.'
SGS Forestry had just one week and five people to check 125,000 hectares of forest dotted over a radius of 500 kilometres. The team consisted of two trained forest assessors, one ecologist, one sociologist, a specialist in state environmental law and me. And every aspect of the forestry company's operations needed to be inspected in detail to ensure compliance with the FSC's principles of forest management.
Many aspects of such operations are extremely complex and lengthy meetings were necessary. For instance, the team had to be sure that there were management staff responsible for seeing local laws were adhered to, that they were clear about land ownership and that the multiple resources of the forest were being utilized to the full. The FSC also requires documentary evidence that proper monitoring systems are in place verbal assurances will not do.
Then there were the social questions put to local dignitaries and NGOs about how Mannesmann's operations affected the local people, economy, and infrastructure. The team also visited the plants making charcoal in industrial quantities. Row upon row of huge, beehive-shaped kilns were tended by workers carrying out tasks by hand. One worker was using his own ox-drawn cart to make deliveries, but modernization plans are under way to mechanize the operations.
When we came across a group of men digging a huge hole, the sociologist asked them about safety precautions. They were all wearing protective clothing and using safety equipment. I helped with translating during a meeting with Mannesmann's welfare officer and then we talked to some men cutting down trees. They knew they should not spill oil on the ground and they knew the trees must be felled inside the plantation and must not fall in natural areas outside.
Thousands of questions were asked in order to build up a final picture and I was impressed by the audit operation. By the end of the week the team could pinpoint exactly where the company had met the standards and where it needed to do more work before the FSC certificate was granted.
In some areas Mannesmann Florestal was exceptional. The head of the audit team, Ruth Nussbaum, commented: The standard of health and safety was comparable to, if not better than, operations I have seen in Europe. As for myself, I came away convinced that the company was completely committed to gaining the certificate and had worked exceptionally hard to achieve it. I also realized that while the FSC standards are high, they are entirely realistic and that carrying out an audit is completely exhausting.
*Vanessa Sequiera is Forest Information Coordinator in WWF's Forests for Life Campaign