World Rainforest Movement

Uganda: Why Is FSC Certifying Land Disputes and Human Rights Abuses at Mount Elgon?

Mount Elgon has seen major land disputes since it was declared a National Park in 1993. Villagers were evicted from the park in 1993 and again in 2002. The area surrounding the park has a high population density and farmers have little choice other than to keep going back into to the park to plant their crops. Violence has flared between the Ugandan Wildlife Authority (UWA), the agency responsible for managing the park, and villagers trying to make a living. Villagers say that UWA officials have threatened them, shot at them and sexually abused them. Several people have been killed.

The situation is further complicated by a carbon offset tree planting scheme run by the Dutch FACE Foundation together with UWA. The FACE Foundation has been planting trees around the boundary of Mount Elgon since 1994. The trees are supposed to store carbon and the Carbon Neutral Company has been selling carbon credits from Mount Elgon since 2002 (the FACE Foundation and the Carbon Neutral Company share the same director, Denis Slieker). Currently the Carbon Neutral Company is not selling credits from Mount Elgon and UWA-FACE is not increasing the area of trees planted (currently around 8,000 hectares) because of the disputes.

The 25,000 hectare UWA-FACE project area has been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council since 2002. In April 2007, SGS Qualifor, the FSC certifying body, visited Mount Elgon to carry out a reassessment of the tree planting project. After SGS’s assessors had arrived in Uganda, UWA requested SGS to certify the entire Mount Elgon national park. At a stroke, the area to be assessed increased from 25,000 hectares to 112,100 hectares. Undaunted, SGS’s team of four people assessed the entire National Park in three days.

SGS raised three major corrective action requests during their April 2007 reassessment. To comply with FSC rules, the certificate could only be issued once these corrective action requests had been met. SGS, however, issued a six month extension of the certificate. After a “close-out visit” by one SGS auditor in August 2007, SGS issued the certificate. This “close-out visit” did not involve visiting the area certified, or talking to any villagers.

Accreditation Services International (ASI), a subsidiary of FSC, is responsible for checking that certifying bodies comply with FSC’s rules. ASI was also in Uganda in April 2007, carrying out an annual audit of SGS. ASI reported that SGS’s certification of Mount Elgon was based on hoped for future improvements, rather than what was actually happening in the National Park. ASI comments that “Major CARs [corrective action requests] have been closed based on documents and procedures to be implemented rather than field performance,” and adds “Compliance with FSC certification requirements is not clear.”

The audit at Mount Elgon is actually the fourth time that ASI has noticed that SGS is not complying with FSC rules: “This issue is a recurring nonconformity which has already been pointed out following ASI field surveillance audits in Russia, Poland and Guyana.”

SGS is responsible for a series of controversial certifications. As documented by WRM in 2006, these include Mondi in South Africa and Swaziland, Norfor in Spain (now the subject of a formal complaint by Spanish NGO Asociacion Pola Defensa da Ria), V&M Florestal in Brazil (certificate since withdrawn, after a V&M guard shot and killed a villager), Smurfit Carton in Colombia, EUFORES and COFOSA in Uruguay and another project involving the FACE Foundation, FACE PROFAFOR in Ecuador. SGS also certified Barama, the Guyanese subsidiary of Malaysian-based logging company Samling. The certificate was withdrawn when an audit by ASI in November 2006 revealed that SGS had issued the certificate without an “appropriate evaluation against FSC certification requirements”.

Having discovered that one of FSC’s Certifying Bodies is systematically not certifying in accordance with FSC rules, surely the only sensible course of action for ASI to take is to suspend SGS from issuing FSC certificates. Instead, ASI requested that SGS “implement appropriate measures to correct the nonconformity detected”. ASI made the same request a year earlier after auditing SGS’s certification of the Regional Directorate of State Forest in Bialystok in Poland. At Mount Elgon, ASI found that SGS had not taken any measures whatsoever, appropriate or otherwise.

When SGS’s assessors visit villages around Mount Elgon, they do so in the company of UWA staff. Not surprisingly, SGS found that villagers were reluctant to talk about sexual abuse or human rights abuses at the hands of UWA rangers. In its public summary of the reassessment at Mount Elgon, SGS acknowledges that there are disputes over land at Mount Elgon. It also acknowledges that people have been killed. FSC criterion 2.3, which states that “Disputes of substantial magnitude involving a significant number of interests will normally disqualify an operation from being certified.” How many more people must die at Mount Elgon before SGS accepts that this is a dispute of “substantial magnitude”?

In July 2007, Stephan Faris, a journalist from Fortune magazine, visited Mount Elgon. He reported serious land rights conflicts around the National Park and found that half-a-million of the FACE Foundation’s trees had been cut down in 2006. Villagers planted the cleared land with maize, green beans, passion fruit, avocado and bananas.

But SGS prefers the ostrich position when it comes to news which might affect its decision to certify Mount Elgon. In September 2007, I wrote to SGS’s Gerrit Marais to ask him how SGS could issue the certificate given the land disputes at Mount Elgon. I sent Marais a link to the article in Fortune magazine and asked for his comments. “I am not aware of the article in Fortune,” he replied.

By Chris Lang,