“My father and I are very dedicated to the forest,” says Le Xuyen. “We joined the FSC programme 10 years ago. Since then, our livelihood has been secured and we’ve been able to save more money. For example, I have managed to buy a car while my father has built a farm – all thanks to what we have got from our trees.”
Xuyen, who manages 180 hectares of planted forest, is one of hundreds of thousands of people in Vietnam whose livelihood depends on forest products.
The timber industry alone employs 300,000 workers, worth nearly 7 billion dollars in 2015. But this industry and the lucrative export trade it supports are built on shaky foundations. Vietnam’s own forest resources have been severely overexploited. The country has lost 43 per cent of its forest cover over the last 40 years, threatening its rich biodiversity and bringing environmental problems like soil erosion. To meet growing demand, increasing quantities of timber are imported – much of it illegally logged and smuggled in from Laos and Cambodia.
One company bucking the trend is Forexco, the furniture manufacturer that Xuyen supplies. “Before 2000, the industry used wood mostly from natural forest,” explains deputy director Dang Cong Quang. “However, due to the awareness of European consumers as well as the increased awareness of our people, we stopped using wood harvested from natural forests because overexploitation was harming the environment and the forests. Since 2000, our company has been mostly processing planted wood, especially acacia.”
Assuming forests are not cleared to make way for them, plantations can provide an efficient source of timber that helps to take pressure off natural forests and reduces the risk of illegally logged timber entering supply chains. Nevertheless, wood from plantations in Vietnam is not necessarily an environmentally friendly alternative: poor practices like clear-cutting of large areas, burning vegetation, clearing trees around watercourses and overuse of chemical fertilizers and weedkillers can have severe environmental impacts.
To satisfy demands for sustainability and traceability from its European customers, Forexco decided to pursue FSC certification. But a limited supply of certified wood in Vietnam meant it had to rely on expensive imports from Malaysia and South America. With support from WWF, Forexco began building a domestic supply of FSC-certified timber – both on its own land, which is managed by local people like Xuyen, and by working with smallholders.
Transformation did not happen overnight. “Our people are used to the old method and process of planting,” says Quang. “In order to change this, our company has to train people not just once but many times so that they can see the need to protect the environment and to avoid climate change.”
Forexco has carried out numerous training sessions and awareness-raising activities with growers, workers and communities to enable them to comply with FSC’s 10 principles and 56 criteria. The company provides saplings for planting and finances the costs of all the plantation activities. Since 2013, Forexco has helped two smallholders obtain FSC certification for an additional 245 hectares. Crucially, it can also guarantee a market – and a price premium – for its suppliers.
“The local people benefit from the added value of FSC, which is nearly 15-20 per cent more per hectare,” says Quang. “These sustainably managed plantations stand in stark contrast to neighbouring areas, which have become so degraded that they offer little economic benefit.”
Xuyen has seen the change over the last 10 years. “With FSC, we have a better environment,” he says. “Burning and harvesting near the streams and riverbanks are forbidden to preserve the water quality. Also, indigenous trees are planted alongside the plantations. Compared to trees planted where vegetation was burnt before, my trees are better. Young trees have enough humidity and grow faster because the soil has moisture and humus. If we burn the trees, the top soil will be washed away in the rainy season, making it infertile.”
“FSC standards are strict, but with the certificate, the planting of forest is more beneficial and valuable.”