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Post: SAFCOL celebrating 25 years of Komatiland Forests FSC® Certification

SAFCOL celebrating 25 years of Komatiland Forests FSC® Certification

Interview with Paul Wainwright, SAFCOL Senior Manager SHEQ

This year, SAFCOL celebrates a quarter of a century of Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC®) certification (FSC® – C013832 – Forest Management and FSC®- C007806 – Chain of Custody) of its Komatiland Forests SOC Ltd (KLF) making them the oldest certified forests in Africa and one of the oldest in the world. 

“Being the first certificate holder in Africa and having held on to it for 25 years has enabled us to not only meet our economic and environmental responsibilities, but to measurably improve the lives and livelihoods of our employees and the communities adjacent to our plantations.” 

Talking to Paul, it is clear he works for a company that views itself not as plantation owners, but as custodians of an important state-owned asset; one which they are required to demonstrate active and effective stewardship of. “FSC certification is an important public indicator that KLF manages its forests in a responsible and sustainable manner.”  

Indeed, demonstrating the sustainability of plantation forestry was one of the initial driving factors that encouraged SAFCOL to take the plunge. 

“FSC certification was an unknown entity 25 years ago. FSC was only a year old when we approached them in 1994, at a time when many other forestry companies rejected the concept of FSC certification over concerns about ‘outsiders’ expressing opinions on how forests were managed. SAFCOL did not see it like that, we saw them as an independent, internationally recognised, source who could look at our processes and make a judgement about our environmental performance.” 

An independent voice was something the industry needed 25 years ago, as it faced mounting pressure over environmental concerns about the impact plantation forestry had on rivers, streams and wetlands. Many companies had tried to set the record straight, but their voice lacked credibility. FSC certification seemed a credible solution to this, and internationally, FSC was seen to be leading the way in responsible forest management.   

“The certification process wasn’t easy, especially during those first meetings. I am told there were a lot of frayed nerves and fear of the unknown as FSC representatives asked numerous questions that were uncomfortable at the time. However, we persevered and became pioneers of the process, receiving our first certificate in 1997 for the 187 000 ha KLF plantations, spanning 16 business units in Mpumalanga, Limpopo, and KZN provinces and have maintained that ever since.” 

Now, over 80% of Forestry South Africa’s members are FSC certified, and you would be forgiven for thinking that, once you have been through the certification process, any subsequent audits are easier. However, as Paul explains, it’s not quite that simple. 

“After 25 years we are more comfortable and confident with the process, and FSC principles and practices have been absorbed into our day-to-day operations and are the way we do business and engage with our stakeholders. Yet there is still a need for constant management oversight to ensure the standard is maintained. As tempting as short-cuts might seem in the face of internal and external pressures, we need to maintain the standard and guard against complacency. While the first audit required a huge mindset shift, and was perhaps opposed to established practices at the time, as well as being all very new, subsequent years have been equally intense as the standard is regularly being lifted.” With the FSC standard constantly developing to stay aligned with international best practice, changing legislation and changing public perceptions, subsequent audits certainly are not a case of cut and paste. 

“When I started with KLF in 2015, we were audited against a generic version of the international standard as interpreted by SGS, our certification body. The biggest change since then has been the introduction of the country specific FSC National Forest Stewardship Standard of the Republic of South Africa. This came into effect on 01 March 2019. Another big change is that we are beginning to see Auditors as people, they like us are only interpreting the standard and do not always get it right. As opposed to the past, when auditors’ interpretations was readily accepted,  now the emphasis is on understanding the standard internally, so that we can accurately interpret the requirements, and ensure a fair and objective assessment, and evaluation of compliance.” 

While the Standard has changed significantly over the past quarter of a century, the reason for being certified has stayed the same.

“Although the evolution of the Standard has meant that there is now greater emphasis on specific areas, like social economic upliftment and water, that have arisen to address specific challenges the country and world is facing, it remains, primarily, about the ability to demonstrate publicly that our forests are responsibly managed, the environment is being preserved and protected, and our people and those around us are benefiting from our activities. In many ways this is more pressing today than it was 25 years ago as we live in a world that is more aware of the impact humanity’s use of natural resources is having on our planet. The scale and impact of deforestation and illegal logging is now well known, and markets, individuals, and businesses want to ensure their forest products are sustainably sourced. FSC certification provides this assurance, unlocking markets and increasing public approval.” 

Public approval of certified forestry and forest products is a key selling point of FSC certification and is reliant on the public being aware of the assurances the FSC logo brings.  

“Seven years ago, if asked whether those outside the industry really knew the assurances FSC certification brings, I would have said ‘to some extent’. In recent years, FSC have put great emphasis on improving public awareness through various communication initiatives. Certainly, family and friends who know very little about forestry take great delight in pointing out to me the FSC logo on their books, charcoal and other purchases, with outlets such as Woolworths and KFC actively promoting the FSC mark on their goods. In general, people are becoming more aware of the impact our use of natural resources is having and the importance of the organisations like FSC that ensure these resources are managed sustainably. This is good for FSC certified plantations, but those not certified face an uncertain future as consumers become more demanding and markets that were once secure begin to only accept certified wood.”

It is clear forest certification has transformed dramatically over the past 25 years, but it might have an even greater evolution in the future. “Forest certification needs to keep up with the rapidly changing world in which we live, and this will be a challenge. Climate change alone will bring many new and challenging factors into the industry, making genuine indicators of effective adaptation an essential addition to the standard. Credibility is also of paramount importance, and I think certification bodies are going to need to get better at identifying the one-off audit responses as different from the genuinely entrenched compliance in everyday activities. KLF is working very hard to reach a point where audits can take place with minimal pre-audit preparation, simply because of the consistently compliant way we run our affairs.” 

When asked where SAFCOL will be in another 25 years, Paul’s response is without hesitation, “I would hope we are the first company in Africa to celebrate 50 years of continuous FSC certification. We are still seen as leaders in this context, and it is a position we must hold onto. FSC certification is the ‘gold standard’ and although economic realities are presenting many challenges in terms of financial resources, I believe that if certification is not maintained KLF, will be unable to deliver value for the company, its people, its communities, and the country at large.”

Source: Forestry in Focus

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SAFCOL celebrating 25 years of Komatiland Forests FSC® Certification

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