Wood and paper products – certificates for a clear conscience

Certificates are intended to give orientation to wood and paper customers. They promise that the products have been manufactured in a socially and environmentally responsible manner. But the reality is often different – also at TÜV Rheinland and FSC.

Marcus Engert, Fabian Grieger, Isabel Schneider, Lea Struckmeier and Benedikt Strunz (NDR), Andreas Braun and Petra Blum (WDR)

The village of Lubuk Mandarsah is tucked away almost in the middle of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Just a few years ago, the place was surrounded by rainforest. But today, those who want to go to the village drive for hours through endless plantations. Nothing remains of the rainforest. The reason for this: 15 years ago, the company PT Wira Karya Sakti (WKS) acquired concessions on the land to produce wood for its parent company Asia Pulp and Paper, one of the largest paper companies in the world.

A scary time began for the villagers of Lubuk Mandarsah, according to Frandody Taruna Negara, head of a local farmers’ association. Since then, the group has dispossessed more than ten thousand families in the region and displaced many people. The rivers have dried up due to the deforestation of the rainforest and the planting of monocultures. “WKS says that this type of planting is environmentally friendly. That’s a lie,” Negara said. The conflict between the villagers and WKS reached a sad climax eight years ago. At the time, company security guards beat 21-year-old Indra Pelani to death after an argument broke out.

Certificates despite illegal logging and violence

Despite all these conflicts, the WKS company held a certificate from TÜV Rheinland until 2019, which attested to the legal origin of the wood. When asked, the TÜV confirmed that it had maintained the certificate even after the activist’s death, after an inspection commission had been set up. TÜV Rheinland pointed out that it carries out its test orders “carefully, conscientiously and independently”. Frandody Taruna Negara sees it differently. “These certificates are just a way to legitimize these companies’ crimes and their sales in the market,” Negara said in an interview with reporters NDR-Magazine Reschke television.

To the project

The #deforestationinc research project was led by the International Consortium for Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). 140 journalists from all over the world were involved in the nine-month research.

The 39 media involved in the research are in Germany NDR, WDR, “Süddeutsche Zeitung” and the “Spiegel”. Internationally, CBC in Canada, ORF in Austria, “Le Monde” and “Radio France” in France and “The Indian Express” in India were among others involved.

The project focuses on the ongoing global deforestation and focuses, among other things, on the questionable trade in sustainability certificates, on the illegal trade in precious wood and on the Romanian timber mafia. All research results are published internationally.

The village of Lubuk Mandarash is not unique. This is shown by research by NDR, WDR, “Süddeutsche Zeitung” and the “Spiegel”. According to this, TÜV Rheinland alone has issued at least 48 certificates for companies in Indonesia in the past 15 years that are accused of illegal deforestation, violence and the expulsion of indigenous communities or illegal slash and burn.

According to research, TÜV still maintains business relationships with 24 of these companies. TÜV will confirm the figures on request. Business relationships with 24 companies have been terminated due to unresolved local conflicts, among other things. The company continues to maintain business relationships with the other 24 companies and is proceeding “according to the prescribed process”, which provides, among other things, for “reports to the responsible authorities”.

Furthermore, a total of 48 auditing companies could be identified that declared timber companies to be sustainable, although they are accused of clearing forest areas of indigenous communities and trading in illegally felled timber. Since 1998, at least 340 timber companies that have been accused of environmental crimes and other misconduct have received sustainability seals.

standards lowered

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is one of the best-known certification companies. In the past, the company has repeatedly been accused of lowering its own certification standards. The non-governmental organization Greenpeace, which was one of the founding members, therefore left the FSC in 2018.

The research project Deforestation Inc. now shows that since 2004 at least 140 companies have held FSC certificates that have been accused of crimes such as environmental pollution, illegal logging or other misconduct. Investigations were launched against 48 of them. There are also several German companies among the companies. FSC explained that they actively take action against fraudulent companies and have therefore discontinued several business relationships in the past. FSC does not accept illegal trade or illegal logging of timber.

The research of WDR, NDR, SZ, “Spiegel” and other media casts a shadow over the booming certification industry. Companies that certify sustainability and environmental compatibility for wood processing companies have been doing excellent business for around twenty years. In the meantime, environmental certificates such as FSC have become an important advertising tool for wood and paper products.

Critics such as Pierre Ibisch, professor for nature conservation at the University for Sustainable Development in Eberswalde, complain that the certifiers on the one hand and the companies to be checked on the other hand are often too close: “Of course there are conflicts of interest because the certifiers ultimately come from depend on the company to be certified”. Ibisch is referring to the practice common in the industry, according to which companies that want to acquire a sustainability certificate choose their auditors themselves and also pay for them.

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