in Norway

Norwegian funded study exposes the myth of sustainable forest management

In 2007, sustainable forest management was written into the definition of REDD in the Bali Action Plan. Ten years later, the main funder of REDD, the Norwegian government, has commissioned a review of sustainable forest management.

As the report is not available on the website of Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative (or anywhere else), REDD-Monitor is making it available here, in the interests of transparency and to generate further discussion.

(It’s possible that the report is still in draft form, although there is no indication in the report that this is a draft version. The file title – and the file properties – indicate that it was created in November 2017.)

The review, “Sustainable forest management in the tropics: between myth and opportunities”, was written by Ervan Rutishauser and Martin Herold. They write that,

The aim of this review is to provide an objective assessment of the effects of wood harvest in tropical forests and identify current knowledge gaps.

Rutishauser and Herold note that a 2011 draft conclusion defined by the chair of the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice defines sustainable forest management as “a dynamic and evolving concept aiming at maintaining and enhancing the economic, social and environmental value of all types of forests, for the benefit of present and future generations.”

That, of course, covers just about everything and nothing, depending on whether you think cutting the trees to save the forest is a good idea, or not.

The executive summary is not a summary of the report

The report’s executive summary is at odds with the rest of the report. The executive summary gives the impression that sustainable forest management exists and could provide a way of preserving forests. The report itself provides considerable evidence that this is not the case.

The executive summary states that sustainable forest management is carried out in only 18% of active production forests in the tropics, but no source is given for this figure, and the figure doesn’t appear in the report itself.

The executive summary states that lack of regulation allows expansion of illegal logging and conversion of degraded forests, and that investment in sustainable forest management is hampered by low timber prices, lack of financial incentives, and unsecured land tenure.

Nevertheless, sustainable forest management, the executive summary states, “could play a significant role in climate change mitigation efforts in reducing the negative environmental impacts (e.g. loss of biodiversity, carbon emission) of industrial logging”. The report itself makes no such claims for sustainable forest management.

The executive summary concludes that,

Overall, this report points out that preserving intact forests, encouraging sustainable management of production forests and developing a restrictive forest policy framework appear as a best (but hard to attain) compromise.

It’s difficult to believe that the executive summary was written by the same authors as the rest of the report.

Having looked at the executive summary, let’s take a look at what Rutishauser and Herold actually write in the report itself. The authors provide a whirlwind tour of sustainable forest management in the tropics.


Rutishauser and Herold write that, “Concessions are covering almost 56 million ha in West and Central Africa (30% of the total tropical moist area).” Later in the report, they write that, “in Central and West Africa, … at least 75 million hectares (45% of tropical forests in the region) are under concession to logging companies”.

Management plans are required by law in all African countries. “The implementation of management plans should be seen as an absolute precondition for keeping the concession,” Rutishauser and Herold write.

But the reality, they add, is that,

the majority of non-certified concessions (or those having certification of legal sourcing or timber, even though this is less stringent) does not implement fully their management plans, and many do not implement it at all.

Rutishauser and Herold hold out little hope of logging companies in Africa benefiting from carbon markets:

Carbon credits will probably not benefit forest concessions in Africa, despite the eligibility of ‘Sustainable Forest Management’ into REDD+ scheme. Increasing minimum harvestable diameter, and, to a lesser extent, extending the cutting cycle length could increase carbon stocks, but at high opportunity costs (i.e. loss of timber volume extracted and income). Given the current difficulties with the carbon markets and the low carbon credits’ prices, perspectives are limited.


Rutishauser and Herold acknowledge that there’s not much sustainable forest management taking place in Asia:

Logging practices are still largely perceived as unsustainable, remaining detrimental for the environment and creating wide social conflicts. The biggest obstacle to SFM is the security of land tenure. Fearing to lose their permit, concessionaires are reluctant to invest in infrastructure and implement sustainable forest management; favouring a ‘cut and run’ approach to maximize profits. As a consequence, forest area under certification is still very low, representing only 3% of total forest estate in the region.

South America

Rutishauser and Herold find that the situation is no better in South America:

Over the past decades, forest policy reforms endeavoured to promote SFM by clarifying rights to forest resources and by promoting the adoption of reduced-impact logging practices. Unfortunately, the new rules were complex, imposing a single “fit-them-all” management model to both timber companies and local forest users (including indigenous people and smallholders), that greatly increased the transaction costs for small holders and favoured illegal logging.

In other words, Rutishauser and Herold fail to find much evidence of sustainable forest management anywhere in the tropics.

“Cut and move on”

The report highlights one of the most serious problems that the theory of sustainable forest management faces. Logging companies can make more money by logging destructively once, rather than dividing the concession into 30 parts, carrying out reduced impact logging, and then waiting around for 30 years before logging that part of the concession again.

Rutishauser and Herold write that,

The notion that SFM can be an effective conservation tool rests in part on the premise that it can stabilize wood production in a given area, and hence reduce pressures on other primary forests. However, most extractors of tropical timber follow a logic of cut and move on, because resource is abundant and the outlays for long-term management are often excessive. While “unsustainable” logging can generate 20 to 450% more profit, it becomes economically uninteresting to plan for even a second cut.

Good governance

The authors also raise the issue of good governance. Regulatory oversight is necessary to ensure that logging companies carry out sustainable forest management in their concessions. But good governance in the forest sector in the tropics is a rare commodity.

Rutishauser and Herold write that,

Beyond direct investments in the forest sector, political instability and/or lack of institutional capacities are precluding efficient enforcement of SFM in many tropical forest-rich countries. Thus, beyond SFM, lie complex socio-political aspects, and more efforts should be put to tackle the corruption and enhance institutional capacities.


Certification of logging operations is not seen as a solution in the report. “A clear methodology to pinpoint the positive impacts of certification of forest and society still need [sic] to be developed,” Rutishauser and Herold write. In any case, “only a small number of concessions operating in tropical countries comply with international certification standards”.

Certification accounts for between seven and 10% of the total area of production forests worldwide. 89% of certified operations are in the USA, Canada, Europe, and Russia.

In a 2014 paper, logging concessions certified under the Forest Stewardship Council in Indonesia were found not to have lower overall CO2 emissions than non-certified concessions.

Certification has failed stop the destruction of Intact Forest Landscapes. Rutishauser and Herold cite a 2017 study that found that certification has had a negligible impact on slowing the fragmentation of intact forest landscapes. The study found that, “the pace of IFL fragmentation due to selective logging in Central Africa is faster within FSC-certified concessions than outside them.”

The study states that,

Industrial timber extraction, resulting in forest landscape alteration and fragmentation, was the primary global cause of IFL area reduction. In
Africa and Southeast Asia, selective logging was the dominant IFL loss cause (77 and 75% of the total loss of IFL area, respectively)…

The sustainable forest management myth

Having reported little or no evidence for sustainable forest management in the tropics, Rutishauser and Herold write that,

Despite recent initiatives across the Tropics to trigger a shift in forest management, one cannot but to admit that current logging practices remain in their vast majority detrimental for the environment.

And, in a damning commentary on the practice of sustainable forest management, they write,

While SFM has been increasingly integrated into legal frameworks, it seems to remain poorly applied in practice, and most commercial logging remain stuck into the paradigm of “sustainable income”, instead of progressing towards “sustainable provision of goods and services”. Poor forest-related law enforcement in producer countries and low prices of wood or carbon credits are creating uncertainties among stakeholders, who generally prefer fast return on investment.


PHOTO credit: From the cover of the report. Logging trucks in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia’s REDD pilot province.

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