Is forest certification working?

Forest certification is considered a promising tool to improve forest management, but there needs to be a robust evaluation of a complex web of factors to establish its true value for various stakeholders, according to a new analysis.

Certification is a market-based scheme under which companies or communities managing forests voluntarily submit to audits by independent inspectors. If they meet responsible forest management criteria, their timber products can then carry a recognized branding such as that of the leading certification scheme, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

The scientists analyzed existing literature on forest certification. Although much information has already been collected, they found that none of the approaches they reviewed resembled what could be considered a well-designed, independent evaluation.

This means that almost all the existing knowledge on certification is potentially skewed by a variety of factors influencing why and when forest managers choose to enter the scheme, and where scientists chose to conduct their research.

Framework for Impact

As an example, the paper explains that fewer work-related injuries among forestry workers – a desirable outcome of certification – may well result from improved safety regulations rather than from certification itself.

Researchers call such an intended path towards better forest management a “theory of change”. It’s a mental model that helps evaluator to see where specific activities are supposed to generate the desirable outcomes, and how certification interacts with other factors.

While the paper provides the building blocks needed to construct a theory of change anywhere in the world, it warns researchers that they will need to follow a participatory approach with local stakeholders before they can clearly lay out a model against which to check the impact of certification on the ground.

In addition to this evaluation of certification’s impacts against an expected theory of change, researchers will also need to look at the quality of the certification process itself.

Aiming for Impartiality

Another challenge in evaluating certification is to detect and avoid bias when choosing sample areas to study. Because certification is a voluntary process, certified and non-certified forests are not randomly allocated to each treatment  the paper warns. The choices behind a company’s decision to enter or leave a certification scheme result from a range of factors, which can also influence its outcomes.

Finding the right comparison points for scientists studying the impact of certification – the so-called counterfactuals – seems to be one of the main challenges going forward.

More research will help flesh out the evaluation model, including ongoing studies on variation in size, experience and other characteristics among forest management units as well as on the dynamics leading them to join or abandon certification and changes in contextual factors that affect decision-making regarding forest management.

Source: Thomas Hubert | CIFOR