FSC remains the dominant certification scheme in Africa.
• African forestry certification entails extensive stakeholder liaison and investment in social projects.
• Growth in certified forest concessions and training by FSC is creating a bedrock of certification expertise in Africa.
• More needs to be done by industry, NGOs and government to educate the market about the availability of certified African timber.

Some people still move swiftly on when they see a particular timber is from Africa. Regardless of the country of origin, their belief is that it’s either environmentally suspect, or can’t be proven to be otherwise.

But African timber suppliers are hoping that such assumptions will soon be history thanks to the increasingly rapid spread of environmental certification and proof of timber legality systems on the sub-continent.

To date, as far as the international market is concerned, the Forest Stewardship Scheme is the only African certification game in town. The much-heralded Pan African Forest Certification (PAFC) programme remains embryonic and the one PAFC national scheme that is fully established, in Gabon, still awaits the PEFC-approval it needs for acceptance abroad. However, driven to a major extent by the big name European suppliers, the area of FSC-certified forest is expanding rapidly and, it is felt, is approaching the critical mass where it will gather pace under its own momentum.

Getting a forest concession in Africa certified is still challenging, as an earlier TTJ article on the experience of Wijma in Cameroon highlighted. Besides establishing sustainable management practices, its FSC obligations to local stakeholders involved investment in regional infrastructure, a school, hospital and chicken farm, the latter providing cheap meat to reduce the temptation for new forest roads to be used to hunt wildlife. Similarly DLH subsidiary CIB is setting up local radio stations as part of its stakeholder-engagement initiative in the Republic of Congo.

However, say timber suppliers, the countries where certification has taken root now have a bedrock of expertise in the certification process and sustainable forest management on which future projects can build. To help develop this and supplement the work of individual companies, Ghana-based FSC Africa has itself been running certification workshops since 2007.

“We’re limited in what we do by resources,” said FSC regional director Demel Teketay Fanta, ”but training is one of our major engagements.”

“The requirements of FSC certification are becoming ever higher, but we do now have the human resources to put them in place,” said Nicolas Charlot, marketing manager for leading French-based trader Rougier.

Last year, he added, his company secured FSC certification for forest areas in three of its concessions in Gabon, a total of 688,262ha.

“This is the biggest area ever certified in Africa in one audit,” he said. “It represents 23% of total certified forest in the Congo Basin and approximately 10% of FSC certified natural tropical production forests worldwide.”

Following this success, Rougier’s annual FSC offering from Africa is now 35,000m³ of okoume plywood, 17,000m³ of okoume sawn timber and “surface materials” and 70,000m³ of logs in various species. It also produces 60,000m³ of sawn wood and 30,000m³ of logs under SGS’s Timber Legality & Traceability Verification scheme (TLTV).

Netherlands-based Wijma, the pioneer of central African certification, also made major strides last year with the successful FSC audit of its 09-024 concession in Cameroon. At 55,078ha this more than doubled its certified forests in the region to nearly 100,000ha, on top of which it operates 330,000ha accredited legal under the Origine et Légalité des Bois system. “And the newly FSC-certified concession, which we started working at the beginning of the year, will triple our FSC volumes,” said Wijma vice-president Ad Wesselink.

In November last year Swiss-based Precious Woods and subsidiary CEB secured FSC certification of 616,700ha of concessions in Gabon.

“This has doubled the volume of FSC timber we offered from Brazil, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Holland,” said Precious’ communications head Patrick Mauron.

CIB has not been exactly idle either. FSC certification of its 450,000ha FMU Pokola operation in the Republic of Congo has taken its total certified concessions in the country to 747,000ha and its remaining forests there are accredited under the TLTV scheme or meet the FSC Controlled Wood standard.

Expansion of certified forest has boosted CIB’s range of FSC species, which now includes sapele, ayous, sipo, bosse claire, essessang, wenge and iroko. And Precious Woods says its Gabonese certification will also reinforce its reputation for offering unusual varieties.

“Precious Woods is [already] famous for promoting lesser known species from Brazil via our business in Holland,” said Mr Mauron. “Okoume is by far our most important African species, but we can offer another 40.”

Increasing its certified acreage has added some new timbers to the Wijma FSC offer too and is also giving it a broader range of grades and log sizes. This, said Mr Wesselink is a potential customer plus, albeit one where they may initially need some persuading. “The challenge will be to sell the volumes of smaller lengths and sizes next to more popular heavier sections,” he said.

Rougier says its total of certified African species remains roughly the same, at about 70, but its increasing volumes are attracting new customers and opening doors in particularly environmentally conscious markets. “For example, we now sell much more okoume in Holland than we used to,” said Mr Charlot.

Suppliers vary in their views on prospects from country to country, but agree that the market with greatest potential overall for certified African timber is northern Europe. The immediate sales outlook in the UK is seen as fair to middling, with the economic downturn impacting demand more severely than elsewhere. But longer term interest is expected to grow, Rougier highlighting that the UK leads the way in FSC-chain of custody certificates, with 1,587, nearly twice as many as its nearest rival Germany and six times the number in France.

According to DLH environmental manager for Africa Lucas van der Walt there is still a need to improve awareness of the availability and benefits of certified African material among specifiers. “More should be done to promote it, especially with public authorities and architects, many of whom have zero knowledge when it comes to African timber,” he said. “In Denmark and Holland with other companies, the FSC and the WWF, we put together an information toolkit for local councils and mayors and that got positive feedback.”

Having pressed for certification in Africa, Mr Wesselink said there was a role for European governments, as well as NGOs, to encourage and help broaden use of the resulting timber.

“For instance, in the UK they could promote the use of FSC ekki in the country’s many lock gates!” he said.

But longer-term, suppliers are clearly optimistic. “Latest forest certification and legality verification will increase buyer confidence in the eco-friendliness of African timber and its potential as an alternative to South American and Asian products,” said Mr Charlot.

Suppliers also see big public projects, notably the upcoming London Olympics and Glasgow Commonwealth Games, giving certified material added impetus.

Underlining their confidence and undeterred by the market downturn, these companies are pressing on with African certification programmes and setting the bar ever higher – as evidenced by final comments from Mr van der Walt. “We aim to have 100% of CIB output FSC-certified by 2010 latest,” he said. “And we forecast that, driven by various factors, including growing interest in carbon credits, we could see total FSC certification covering 10-15 million ha of African forest by 2012. In turn, that could help move FSC certified timber from niche product to the market mainstream.”