Tuesday, 21 April 2020
Thoughts on Responsible forest management in a Post-COVID-19 era in the Congo Basin.
For the last few weeks, nature's sounds can be heard again in cities, forests and natural settings are rediscovered. Many speculate about how the world will be different when the covid19 crisis is over. Environmental concerns will be at the forefront of policies. Will it really? Won't all those good intentions soon be forgotten?
Emmanuel Groutel, PhD in Management Sciences, is a specialist in strategic positioning. He focuses on the forest and international timber market flows. He wrote an op-ed (La Tribune Afrique) in which he shares his vision of these markets and the possible post-crisis developments of Covid-19, in the forests of the Congo Basin. We relay his main messages below.
The post-COVID-19, “Will it be as Alain Souchon’s song would put it “be better or worse”? No one can say. In any case, many kind souls expect us to rethink, to rebuild and to learn from the Covid-19 crisis. Everything seems to suggest that nature will be at the center of the world, thus reinvented. However, there is a real risk, spotted by fatalists and cynics that all those good intentions will soon be forgotten. A few months, a few weeks will be enough to get the global machine back on track and to strike out the right resolutions with a stroke of the pen. What seems to be unanimous, however, is the importance of forests. They protect us from extreme weather conditions and polluted air. They store what is harmful while delivering what is good for us. They have a soul. They are adorned with all the beauties. They feed us.
It should, therefore, be remembered that forests took center stage in the Paris Agreement, the universal agreement on climate and global warming, signed in 2016. The forest was, moreover, the only sector on which there was consensus and on which the various countries agreed. This was not the case for transport or other industrial sectors. On the other hand, the recent fires in California, Portugal, Russia and Australia have reminded us, if need be, of the essential place that these areas have in our lives. The biological invasions (diseases and pests) that are ravaging the European forests are leading us to take even greater account of this natural heritage. And more recently it is the context of the current anthropozoonosis, (a disease or infection that is naturally transmitted from vertebrate animals to humans) that Covid-19 is, that questions on its likely effects or influence on deforestation can be posed.
What is the timber industry saying right now? First of all, forestry activities are dependent on logistics and demand. In addition to its long-term management, wood has to be harvested, landed, transported, processed and transported again. If one link in the chain breaks, the whole chain is damaged. Many producers have decided to shut down their operations. As a result, many forestry operations have slowed down. How could it have gone otherwise, if not to endanger employees and their families? At the same time, the international conflict between Russia, Saudi Arabia and the United States over oil leadership has led to de facto fall in oil prices to levels that have made the economies of the Congo Basin’s oil-producing countries extremely fragile. Lower oil revenues and a drop in exports of forest products will have repercussions not only in terms of social unrest but also in terms of drastic reductions in investment. It is therefore important to take into account the uncertainties regarding the capacity of certain countries to respond to the current health challenge.
Central Africa is experiencing a very high probability of disorganization of supply chains. The repercussions will be on employment, and the health of companies will be severely affected.
However, early recovery is already felt in the Asian markets but with dubious prices and low levels of environmental requirements, which can only be negative to producer countries.
This is where the risks or threats to our forests lie. While Europe is still on lockdown, China is starting to buy again. We note that China has recently committed to combating illegal timber imports, for which we give it credit. However, the implementation of this new policy, which we can only hope for, will take time and Asian operators in Central Africa still have a long way to go before moving up to the level of producers certified by internationally recognized labels (FSC or PEFC). Yet it is the latter, who are most committed to sincere certification efforts, who will be put to the test in this financial and economic crisis of the post-COVID-19 recovery period. Indeed, their markets, such as those of the Netherlands, Denmark, Great Britain, and Germany, are the most demanding, in terms of sustainability and legality requirements. In short, it is in Northern Europe, where environmental associations have had the greatest impact, that is likely to experience extreme tensions in its markets.
The disappearance of some, the emergence of others, some commentators will say that it is the invisible hand of the market, a kind of ‘economic Darwinism’. Others will be satisfied with the disappearance of foresters who harvest hundred-year-old trees from Africa’s forests. Yet we know that over the last 15 to 20 years, revolutions have taken place in responsible African forestry and that it is quite exemplary, in terms of traceability and in the treatment of social and biodiversity issues. Responsible or certified forest operators have been creating local jobs at a time of population explosion throughout the sub-region. Those operators understand that it is their responsibility to preserve and ensure the sustainability of these vast forests in the context of climate change, biodiversity and the supply of vital ecosystem services. They also understand that they need also to address the growing need of African populations for wood supplies. Soon, it is Africa’s consumption of wood that will be the driving force of forest industries and not just Europe or Asia.
Africa is developing its own model, which is innovative, and certified foresters have, for the vast majority of them, made considerable efforts. It is therefore not paradoxical to want to protect forests by protecting the interests of foresters and forest operators who are undoubtedly among those who know them best. They have been established in the regions for a long time and understand their complexities. Some of them, have become Africans and recognize the fact that t these landscapes must be protected and responsibly managed They are the potential promoters of a new, more inclusive form of forest management, based on what is now commonly known as ecosystem services. Carbon storage, biodiversity and watershed management, soil protection, landscape-level forest, and agricultural production have to be accommodated in an increasingly complex 'balancing act'.
If we want to protect these forests, their hosts and those who live in them, we can only call for support from the diverse constituency of social, ecological, economic and scientific interests that the forests attract. It is in this context, that timber will continue to be harvested in a measured manner and according to increasingly refined standards, providing the essential part of the value created. For forest managers and operators to carry out their new functions, the following need to happen:
• the governments themselves must support the forest managers. Through taxation revisions and setting up systems for sharing carbon resources;
• national parks and managed forests must undertake joint actions, such as the fight against poaching;
• forest operators themselves must continue to challenge themselves and strive for forestry excellence. What they have learned must be passed on;
international donors can contribute directly through donations to payments for ecosystem services.;
• guaranteed funding at the lowest interest rates should be provided to certified foresters;
• the “polluters”, those of the hydro-carbon economy, also have their contribution to make, not only to enable the storage of this carbon but also to create new jobs and ensure respect for biodiversity;
• professional associations and unions must get rid of members who do not commit to these sustainability policies relevant to the forest sector;
• critics must revise their judgments and try to understand the needs of producer countries and the quality of the work already done;
• certification labels can no longer be passive actors. For Central Africa, it is always curious to read standards in English, whereas the most commonly spoken language in the sub-region is French. A step-by-step approach must be promoted to allow newcomers to embrace good practices. Going from legality certificate to full responsible management certification;
• importers must not choose profit over the legality and not fall into dubious practices to earn a few euros more per cubic meter. Importers cannot support illegal timber.
• The competent authorities must conduct a ruthless hunt for transgressors and mete out sanctions that will deter illegality and thereby promote the recognition of international certification systems. In Europe, it would, therefore, be wise to take inspiration from the American regulation, the Lacey Act, which makes the entire distribution chain responsible, imposes severe fines and publicizes the identities of offenders.