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Forest Certification for Community Enterprises: Challenges Ahead

by Augusta Molnar

Photo by Michelle Zweede, USDA Forest Service
While certification has helped some community-based operations, it is not viable for others due to many factors, such as high start-up costs and increased competition from tree farms.
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Augusta Molnar is the director of the Communities and Markets Program for Forest Trends, Washington, DC.
The Chiquitanos have their lands back. For centuries, this Bolivian indigenous group had struggled for government recognition of lands that had been Chiquitano since time immemorial. In 1986, with help from local nongovernmental organizations and international donors, 25 Chiquitano communities formed a block for managing 131,000 acres (53,000 hectares) of forest land. In 1995, the Chiquitanos won certification from the Forest Stewardship Council. Two years later, impressed by Chiquitano achievements in forest stewardship, the Bolivian government formally recognized the tribe's territorial claim.

Since 1993, about 50 community enterprises have been certified worldwide, mostly in Latin America. From its inception, forest certification has had social as well as environmental goals. As the Chiquitanos can attest, there have been some notable social successes.

In many places, however, certification has yet to win the support of forest communities. In fact, a study in 2003 revealed some daunting challenges ahead.* A quarter of the forests in the developing world are community owned or managed, a figure that is likely to double in the next 15 years. Yet certification has reached less than 1 percent of these forests.

Photo by Michelle Zweede, USDA Forest Service
The Chiquitanos won certification from the Forest Stewardship Council, leading to the Bolivian government's recognition of their long-standing territorial claim.  

Why aren't more community-based forest enterprises getting certified? The Forest Trends study indicates some of the challenges:

  • It is difficult to tailor certification standards to local values and scales while still keeping them globally credible.
  • Community-managed natural forests face growing competition from tree farms. Certified markets do not yet differentiate natural from plantation products.
  • Indigenous peoples worry that accepting outside standards and expertise will keep them from building on their own traditional knowledge and nurturing their own forestry professionals.
  • Certification costs are especially high for community-based enterprises, which tend to be small, informal, and inexperienced.
  • Many certification costs for communities are borne by donors or through grants, but the limited availability of such funding restricts the number of community-based enterprises that can become certified.

Another difficulty is that other community enterprises, such as ecotourism or agroforestry, might have their own certification schemes. Communities might find it too cumbersome to engage in several unrelated certification processes.

There are ways of bringing more forests under certification. In several countries, for example, the Pan-European Forest Certification system has established special criteria for cooperatives formed from groups of smallholders. It also has special criteria for community-based forest enterprises in France.

Community enterprises also need more support from governments, donors, and nongovernmental organizations in laying the foundations for their participation in certification programs. In particular, they need more organizational and technical capacity, more business skills, and more market information.

But the bottom line is this: Communities need to see more payoffs from sound forest management. Markets for environmental services, such as biodiversity or carbon sequestration, might offer some of the needed incentives. More work is needed to give communities and smallholders access to such markets.

The fate of forests in developing countries depends on the fate of forest communities. Certification can have social as well as ecological payoffs, as the Chiquitanos discovered when they won tenure of their lands. But certification also faces enormous challenges. New communities find it challenging to enter the process, and certified communities are unsure that markets will support their interest in recertifying. Their future-and the future of forest communities worldwide-will depend on better strategies for bringing the benefits of good forest management to community-based forest enterprises.

* See Forest Certification and Communities: Looking Forward to the Next Decade (at, sponsored by Forest Trends, a nonprofit organization that advances sustainable forestry and poverty alleviation worldwide.

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