History is littered with the victims of unintended consequences. Could it be that the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) will be the latest – and by its own making?

This does seem to be the view of the timber sector after the FSC’s decision to "disassociate" hardwood supplier Danzer . As reported previously, the certification body acted after it was alerted by Greenpeace to disputes and an outbreak of violence between local people and the police in Yaliska in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a Danzer subsidiary, since sold,

ran the forest concession. An FSC Controlled Wood audit by consultancy SGS stated that the subsidiary SIFORCO "could not have influenced violence committed by the security forces". But a complaints panel voted to disassociate Danzer anyway.

An FSC spokesperson said its panel took into account SGS’s report, but also "other relevant materials". They added that the organisation’s Policy of Association was an extra safety net for its certification scheme to cover "unacceptable activities in areas or operations" in which companies are deemed to be "directly or indirectly involved", but are "not covered by the scope of their certificate".

But it did not make public the evidence on which the complaints panel based its verdict. Danzer can invoice for existing FSC stocks until August 21, but after that can’t sell FSC material until "reassociated", which could take at least a year. This includes timber from Congo Brazzaville subsidiary IFO, which manages the largest FSC-certified concession in the region.

A major criticism of the FSC’s action is that it has punished the whole Danzer operation over incidents in one part of it where, moreover, no evidence has been disclosed that it was directly implicated in wrongdoing. This, it is feared, could shake industry confidence in the fairness and logic of the organisations’s procedures, a fear compounded by the fact that the FSC complaints panel made its decision after the SGS audit passed the allegedly offending concession. There are concerns too that the faith of the wider market in the audit process could be undermined.

The fact that the trade will be without all the FSC-timber the 1 million ha IFO concession can supply for at least the next year will also not help in the urgent task of raising consumer awareness that sustainable hardwood is available from Africa, say suppliers.

That this treatment has been dished out to Danzer, a company regarded as a pioneer in legal and sustainable tropical forestry management, or "one of the good guys" as James Latham chairman Peter Latham says, is seen as even more damaging for the wider cause of environmental certification. The FSC has emphasised that its complaints panels are drawn from all its stakeholder ‘chambers’: social, environmental and economic. But the Danzer case, and prominent involvement of Greenpeace, has once more raised questions about the relative influence at the organisation of timber industry input.

"Rather than NGOs having too much influence, we’re saying perhaps the economic chamber does not have enough," said a hardwood supplier. "There is also scope for more timber sector involvement in that chamber, in addition to retail and other business sector interests. After all, we’re the ones in the front line who understand conditions on the ground and we’re as committed to the cause of sustainability and certification as anyone."