Good for the forest, good for business



Posted on 22 May 2001  | 
Santa Cruz, Bolivia: "This year 80 per cent of our sales - (worth about USD5 million) - were certified," says Roberto Saenz, general manager of Aserradero San Martín S.R.L. "If we hadn't been certified, we wouldn't have had those sales," he adds, noting that the number of buyers demanding certification in Europe and the United States is growing.

Certification assures buyers and consumers that wood products have come from environmentally and socially-friendly forests. The most prominent and respected organization promoting certification is the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization which the conservation organization WWF helped establish in 1993.

Pointing to an FSC code on a box of do-it-yourself wooden garden furniture, Saenz explains that the registration number allows buyers, stores and consumers to trace each product back to the company and its forest concessions.

"When we first began this process of certification in 1998, there wasn't such a big market", admits the charismatic general manager. "But we were thinking of the future and now that future is on its way."

Saenz explains that many buyers now offer price premiums, paying 10-15 per cent more if wood is certified. With or without price premiums, however, a growing number of forward-looking companies are embracing certification in Bolivia because of the potential to corner new markets. Bolivia is the number one tropical country in terms of FSC certified natural forest, which now covers nearly 900,000 hectares.

San Martin has proven a leader in this field with three of the company's six forestry concessions under certification, totaling 300,000 hectares. By the end of 2002, the company expects to add the rest for a grand total of 460,000 certified hectares. San Martin also has "chain of custody" certification for its finished wood products, guaranteeing that the manufactured goods in the stores which carry the FSC logo come from certified forests.

Being part of the world-wide network of FSC-certified forests helped the company open-up new markets in alternative species (previously non-commercial or unpopular woods). Certification favours the use of abundant alternative wood species so that rare or threatened species like mahogany can be left to regenerate. Saenz says species like tajibo (tabebuia sp.), a greenish to yellowish-brown heartwood, were very little known in the marketplace until San Martin introduced them to buyers.

In the process of becoming certified, Saenz is quick to applaud his country's government for passing tough new forestry regulations four years ago, requiring logging companies to follow "sustainable forest management." San Martin realized that simply by following Bolivian law, they were very close to operating along FSC standards and required few changes. Most of the necessary adjustments involved improving worker-conditions in the logging camps, like putting up health and safety signs and providing written contracts, which Saenz says has bettered the company's relationship with workers.

The costs of certification are assumed by the company and depend on a variety of factors including the direct costs of evaluation and costs of changes to meet certification standards. In the case of San Martin's first two concessions, which are side-by-side, an FSC-accredited certifying organization evaluated them together for USD20,000 - a price Saenz believes companies should regard as an investment. Yearly monitoring costs by accredited certifiers of about USD4,000 are assumed as operating expenditures.

"If certification is calculated this way, the cost is very low compared to the benefits received," says Saenz.

In the heart of the company's concession in the Chiquitania forest near Bolivia's eastern border with Brazil, Javier Torrica, a forestry engineer, inspects a giant cambara tree. The brownish-red heartwood is one of San Martin's top selling woods, but this ancient tree will remain standing.

"We decided it can not be cut because it likely would have fallen back on the forest behind, and caused great damage," says Torrica. The tree's strategic location, marking a fork in a narrow dirt road, is also important adds Torrica. Once the loggers leave, such seed trees will help ensure natural regeneration of the forest, swallowing up even the temporary road.

Pointing to a serial number etched onto a silver plaque nailed to the tree's bark, the young engineer explains that the tree's dimensions have been entered into a central surveying system. Back at the camp with serial number in hand an untrained journalist is able to locate the tree on a surveying map. Beside the number is a tiny red X - not for cutting.

Such meticulous planning - a key component of certification - is at the root of San Martin's success, explains Torrica. If a company does not have good surveying, then time and money is lost trying to find the correct trees to fill orders. Now San Martin can inform their clients in advance of the quantity and availability of each species.

San Martin has already won several awards for the company's commitment to sustainable forest management - Saenz proudly displays his personal favourite, from the Bolivian Chamber of Forestry, the largest trade organization representing the country's logging companies.

"If you manage the forest well, you'll have it for thousands of years," he says, "but if you manage it poorly, the forest won't last for more than ten years."

(920 words)

*Stephanie Boyd is a freelance journalist and documentary video maker based in Lima, Peru.

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