Eco-label questioned

Consumers see red over questionable eco-labelling.

Green labels, which once made it easier for consumers to discern socially and environmentally responsible companies, are today leaving them frustrated, confused and deceived.

Last year, Singapore-based Asia Pacific Resources International Holdings Limited (APRIL), received a "Green" label by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an environmental group based in Bonn that runs a widely recognised labelling system to identify "green" wood and paper products. One wonders if the folks at APRIL were pleased with the award or thought it funny.

If you knew anything about APRIL’s reputation, you might think the award was somewhat of a bad joke. The labels that they so proudly carry on their paper cases now read “100% plantation forest.” What that’s supposed to mean is really anyone’s guess. Just because a tree was planted before it was harvested doesn’t mean it’s necessarily “green” or sustainable. It is well known that oil palm plantations have severely damaged the ecology in Borneo.

In fact, APRIL is one of two main driving forces behind forest loss in the Riau Province of Sumatra, where it operates a 2.2-million-tonne pulp mill. It is best estimated that APRIL may have pulped around 90,000 cubic hectares of natural forest in 2005.

A study done by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in 2007 revealed that significant areas of peat swamp habitat had been converted into timber plantations in the Kampar Peninsula landscape of Riau, where APRIL owns about 697,400 hectares of the 700,000-hectare landscape though companies it is directly associated with.

It is understood that peatlands play an important function in controlling climate change, owing to their ability to absorb and store world carbon reserves. Peatlands also maintain hydrological resources as well as store and release water horizontally. They are also biodiversity banks. Sumatran tigers, arwana fish, crocodiles and sun bears are among the species potentially present in Kampar, besides a further 21 species on the brink of local extinction due to rampant conversion in the Kampar landscape.

The environment aside, locals are increasingly marginalised as they lose their natural forest and fishery resources, on which they largely depend for their livelihood. Communities in Kampar still preserve existing natural resources such as non-timber forest products, fish, water resources and many others. The resources in peat swamp forest are used in traditional ways that are more sustainable and less exploitative than large-scale industrial timber or palm oil plantations.

So when APRIL received their "Green" label last year, some environmentalists stepped up to complain that the FSC’s rules are too lax. Others remarked, “if they (APRIL) can get an FSC accreditation, there must be something wrong with the system”.

This led to the FSC eventually acknowledging that some companies using its label are destroying pristine forests and saying it plans to overhaul its rules. The proposed new rules will be aimed at preventing any company that destroys rain forests or engages in illegal logging from using the FSC’s label.

However, critics say it is too late to prevent the damage done to the label’s credibility, and it remains unclear how it may affect the products already on store shelves. FSC officials haven’t yet decided whether the new standards will apply to companies retroactively – a move that could potentially require an extensive review of the practices of every approved forestry company.

The FSC membership will decide on the proposal for a new governance structure in November 2008, when it meets for its 5th General Assembly in Cape Town, South Africa.



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debby ngDebby Ng is an environmental photojournalist whose work has been published in several regional and international magazines, including the award-winning Lebanese magazine, Environment & Development. She has also worked with numerous Asian and international non-government organisations such as the TRAFFIC, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) and the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA).

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