World Rainforest Movement

Certification of tree plantations by SGS and SmartWood. A history of controversial certifications

By Ricardo Carrere –

This study provides general background information on two of the main companies involved in the certification of tree plantations under the FSC system, and documents the reactions and denunciations provoked by their activities in different countries around the world. The study was carried out in the framework of a broader work on the certification of plantations in Uruguay, which is why it does not include other companies (particularly Scientific Certification Systems –SCS) which have also certified large-scale monoculture tree plantations in numerous countries. The broader study provides a detailed critical analysis of the procedures followed by SGS and SmartWood in granting certification to four tree plantations in Uruguay – three from SGS and one from SmartWood. Titled “Greenwash: Critical analysis of FSC certification of industrial tree monocultures in Uruguay”. The full study is available here

 1. SGS Qualifor

 1.1. General background

SGS (Societé Générale de Surveillance) is an inspection, verification, testing and certification company based in Geneva, Switzerland, with offices in numerous countries around the world, including Uruguay (SGS Uruguay, Ltd., Acevedo Díaz 996, Montevideo).

One of the company’s divisions is SGS QUALIFOR, described on its website as “the world’s leading and most recognised certification programme of responsible forest management. Since 1994, more than 1550 forests (covering over 15 million hectares), wood processing enterprises and wood products producers have achieved the SGS QUALIFOR certification, in 60 countries around the world.”

The company’s website further notes: “The SGS QUALIFOR forest management certification programme is accredited by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which promotes forest management that is environmentally responsible, social beneficial and economically viable. The certification programme can be applied to all tropical, temperate and boreal forests as well as to plantations and partially replanted forests.”

 1.2. Plantation certification

When it comes to the certificate of plantations, SGS is undoubtedly a world leader, with a total of 3,863,103 hectares certified under the FSC in 20 countries around the globe (as of August 2005). Those countries are: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, France, Germany, Guatemala, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Panama, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Thailand, the United Kingdom, Uruguay and Zimbabwe.

Within this group of countries there are significant differences in terms of both the total number of hectares certified in each and the number of hectares owned by the individual certified companies.

The following list shows the total number of hectares certified by SGS in each of the 20 countries

United Kingdom: 1,177,020

South Africa: 1,154,177

Brazil: 644,910

New Zealand: 279,258

Chile: 209,294

Uruguay: 115,612

Zimbabwe: 85,942

Argentina: 39,566

Colombia: 38,388

Japan: 29,525

Ecuador: 20,000

Costa Rica: 19,560

Sri Lanka: 16,251

Germany: 14,370

Spain: 12,201

Panama: 8,827

Guatemala: 2,242

France: 2,100

Netherlands: 939

Thailand: 921

As can be seen, Uruguay is in sixth place worldwide.

Given that the impacts of plantations are directly linked to the surface area they occupy (although other factors like the speed of growth play a role as well), it is also worthwhile to consider the companies with the largest plantation areas certified in these countries. The following is a list of companies certified by SGS that operate plantations covering more than 100,000 hectares:


– CAF Santa Bárbara Ltda.: 122,824 ha

– Cenibra – Celulose Nipo-Brasileira S.A: 233,778 ha

– V&M Florestal Ltda.: 198,801 ha


– MASISA S.A. División Forestal: 120,237 ha

South Africa

– Komatiland Forests (Pty) Limited: 200,077 ha

– Mondi Business Paper: 399,068 ha

United Kingdom

– Forest Enterprise (North Scotland): 298,780 ha

– Forest Enterprise (South Scotland): 657,790 ha

– Forestry Commission Wales: 127,561 ha

 1.3. Denunciations

In 1997, SGS was suspended from certification activities by the FSC for six months, due to controversy arising over the certification of a logging operation undertaken by the forestry company Leroy in the forests of Gabon.

(For more information see

With regard to the certification of plantations specifically, there are two detailed research studies that provide ample concrete evidence of misconduct on the part of companies certified by SGS in Brazil and Ecuador. There have also been harsh criticisms of SGS certifications granted in South Africa, Swaziland, Colombia and Spain. As this study demonstrates, the fact that there have not been more denunciations is due more to a dearth of research than to a lack of activities that deserve to be denounced. The cases investigated in Brazil and Ecuador, for example, reveal serious failures and shortcomings in the certification process.

In Brazil, a group of seven researchers assessed the certification of V&M Florestal Ltda. (Vallourec & Mannesman), which obtained FSC certification though SGS in 1999 for its entire 235,886 hectares of tree plantations. The research showed that the certifiers had committed numerous irregularities during the certification process:

– They did not make an in-depth study of the context surrounding the companies planting eucalyptus and neglected a series of important social, economic and environmental aspects;

– They listened to only a few “stakeholders” and then only to the least critical ones. They did not listen to the most important “stakeholders” and therefore, did not obtain essential information on a series of serious problems involving the companies;

– It was not clear whether the conditions and recommendations in fact reverted the evident lack of compliance with certain FSC principles and/or criteria and whether an adequate follow-up regarding compliance with these conditions and recommendations is being carried out;

– They did not disseminate the public certification summary for the knowledge of local and regional civil society and the public bodies. SGS did not even place a version of the public summary in Portuguese, the official language of Brazil, on the internet.

The following are some of the companies’ main breaches of FSC Principles and Criteria, as verified during the research:

– It was verified that neither the V&M Florestal Company, nor Plantar had made an Environmental Impact Assessment or Report (EIA/RIMA), a legal requirement in Brazil before carrying out any undertaking that may potentially cause environmental impacts. As verified, a deadlock exists between the technicians of the responsible state entity, the State Forest Institute, who demand the assessment, and V&M Florestal, which does not want such an assessment to be made.

– There are strong indications that a major part of the companies’ land was what in Brazil is known as “devoluta” land, that is, common land and therefore, belonging to the State. Thus, the companies could not have purchased this land. Even so, when searching for land, the companies managed to rent these lands from the dictatorship government during the seventies, by means of contracts with the state agency Ruralminas for a 20-year period. Over the past years, these contracts have started to expire, threatening continuity of tenure.

– Conflicts exist over the land with local owners who have the companies’ eucalyptus plantations on their property.

– Since September 2002, a Parliamentary Investigation Commission, installed in the Parliament of the State of Minas Gerais, has its sights on the companies V&M Florestal and Plantar S.A., to investigate the labour conditions of the workers in the extractive industry in Minas Gerais. In March 2002, the Regional Labour Commissariat brought action against both companies for not respecting Brazilian labour laws. Presently the Public Ministry of Labour is bringing them to trial through a Public Civil Action, on the charge of illegal practices of sub-contracting as well as of degrading and precarious work conditions.

– Most of the workers in the certified areas are sub-contracted, with fewer rights and benefits that the companies’ permanent staff; it should be noted that the tasks they carry out are extremely heavy and dangerous. According to the Public Ministry of Labour, there is a “black list” in both the companies assessed, indicating that the companies persecute the workers and their leaders, violating ILO agreements 87 and 98.

– Eucalyptus plantations do not generate social, environmental or economic benefits for the neighbouring communities. The “cerrado” zones, which have always been used by the communities due to their extraordinary biodiversity, were fenced in by the company, preventing these lands from being used collectively by the local communities. The “cerrado” has always fulfilled all the conditions for sustainable use and management, generating employment and income.

– Cerrado deforestation and plantation of eucalyptus by the companies has caused rivers and water sources to dry up, the flora and fauna of the region to decrease, it has encouraged erosion and has poisoned workers, the fauna and existing water resources with agro-toxic products. The V&M Florestal Company continues to use the herbicide oxyfluorofen, defined as toxic and persistent by the FSC itself in the year 2000, according to a follow-up report by SGS in 2001.

– Close on 25% of V&M Florestal’s eucalyptus plantations are located in a region having an annual rainfall of some 1000 mm, an amount considered as unadvisable for this type of large-scale plantation, as witnessed by the dried-up rivers, streams and wetlands in the region.

– The companies have a management plan that is only implemented for the eucalyptus areas and not for the others. In the case of V&M Florestal, 46% of the certified area does not have an implemented management plan. Following certification, this company started to submit flora and fauna surveys and follow-up plans for these areas, objectifying a management plan that so far has not been implemented.

– The V&M Company of Brazil, which buys all its charcoal from V&M Florestal, continues buying charcoal from “cerrado wood” to supply its furnaces and without information on the chain of custody, that is to say, there is no guarantee that the certified charcoal really comes from certified Forestry Management Units.

The full report is available at:

In the case of Ecuador, a recent research study conducted by Patricia Granda resulted in serious criticisms of the certification of plantations in this country by SGS. The study questions how these plantations could have been certified, and concludes: “FSC Certification does not guarantee that the communities within a certified project will receive economic, social and environmental benefits. FSC certification does not guarantee that the beneficiary communities in the FACE project will receive economic, social and environmental benefits. Rather a considerable and questionable flexibility in the application of the Principles and Criteria is to be observed. Eight years after starting its activities, FACE obtained certification; it was of scant relevance that for the establishment of its plantations primary ecosystems were destroyed, nor did it matter that mitigation measures for the impacts generated were not demonstrated.”

The study continues: “In the year 2000 when certification was granted the verification body SGS observed FACE PROFAFOR’s deficient capacity to provide adequate support to the communities regarding the social implications of the contracts. SGS did not require an Environmental Impact Assessment to be made as a condition to grant certification. FACE had not identified rare, threatened or endangered species or environmental protection zones in eight years of work. The verification team admitted that exotic species were not necessarily best indicated for environmental protection, not even for degraded soils. It also recognized that Eucalyptus and Pine can contribute to the degradation of soils rather than to their protection.”

Granda raises a crucial point by stating: “We need to ask ourselves how FACE obtained certification. Perhaps we will find the answer in the fact that certifiers and verifiers are private bodies whose rationale is profit and competition among themselves, leading to a race towards non-excellence, lowering standards to attract clients.”

The full report is available at:

With regard to certified plantations in South Africa (most of which were given certification by SGS), there are numerous well-documented denunciations of their social and environmental impacts, as well as critical analyses of the role played by FSC certification. These include:

– South Africa: Quo vadis FSC?

– South Africa: Nearing one million hectares of FSC certified plantations

– What is the Future of FSC Certification in South Africa?

– South Africa: FSC Certification of Industrial Timber Plantations

In Colombia, the only company certified by SGS is Smurfit Cartón de Colombia (38,388 ha of certified plantations), a subsidiary of an Irish-based transnational with a long and well-documented history of conflicts with local Colombian communities. In 1998, researcher Joe Broderick described the situation in his book, “The Cardboard Empire: The Impact of a Multinational Paper Company in Colombia”.

In November 2003, I visited the area, spoke with the local communities and personally observed the social and environmental impacts of this company’s plantations, which have since been certified. After my visit, I wrote an article in which I stated: “The visit not only fully confirmed the information provided by Broderick, but also showed that the company has not changed one iota of its policies regarding people and the environment and that their relationship with the local society continues to be as problematic as it was when the book was first published.”

The article summarises the situation as follows:

“Something similar could be said of the impacts in Colombia, where the company has been involved in deforestation processes, where there have been severe impacts on water, fauna and flora and where it has been a key factor in the eviction of the rural population in the zones where it has established itself. All this, and much more, became evident from the interviews WRM held last month with the local population.

“The local people told us that ‘the plantations have finished off the water,’ that ‘spraying has finished with everything there was in the soil,’ that ‘there is hardly any fauna left,’ that there used to be ‘clouds of birds’ and that now ‘only in the summer does some bird appear, but not in winter time,’ and that ‘there are no fish left either.’

“Regarding employment, they reported ‘all the work is seasonal’ (it is outsourced) and that ‘the contract implies working for two and earning for one.’ Like in the jungle, only the fittest survive: ‘If you don’t reach production, they remove you, you can’t be over 40 and we all have to be strong to reach that production.’ Regarding worker organization, not only is there no trade union, but ‘he who grumbles is out’ and ‘here no comments are made.’

“With this curriculum, no one would think that the company might be interested in the subject of certification of timber produced in a socially and environmentally responsible way. Its over 60,000 hectares of monoculture tree plantations are not certified and we doubt that they ever will be. Therefore, we are amazed that Smurfit is a member of the board of directors of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), considered to be one of the most credible certification systems on an international level. The FSC web page informs us that Mr. Victor Giraldo represents the company on the FSC board of directors.”

Despite all of the facts outlined above, these plantations have now been certified by SGS. The full article is available at:

As for Spain, on 23 June 2005, the Association for the Defence of the Galicia River Mouth (Asociación pola defensa da Ria de Galicia) sent a letter to the FSC delegation in that country, requesting “the urgent cancellation of sustainable forest management certification granted to NORFOR, given the serious deficiencies in the certification report and the clear inadequacy of NORFOR’s management system with respect to FSC principles and criteria.” The NORFOR company is a subsidiary branch of the Spanish pulp and paper company ENCE, certified in April 2005.

The letter was accompanied by a detailed 85-page report. As stated in the letter sent to the FSC, according to this report and in view of the analysis made of the process, the enquiries and contacts with people and members of the sectors involved in forestry activities and environmental defence and from the analysis of press reports and other publications, it is evident that the NORFOR company is basically involved in monoculture eucalyptus plantations and it is clear that a good number of the principles and criteria established by the FSC are not being fulfilled.

It is also affirmed that the basic objective of this company is to obtain a maximum production of biomass in the form of wood fibre, at the lowest cost, even though this implies severe environmental damage and impoverishment of the forestry sector and rural economy, as shown in the report.

The letter also requests that the report prepared by the Association for the Defence of the Galicia River Mouth be sent to the FSC central body, with a request to proceed to a revision by independent people or bodies of the other certification processes carried out by SGS around the world, in order to determine whether irregularities and deficiencies of the magnitude of those appearing in the NORFOR certification report exist.

The full report is available at:

 2. SmartWood

 2.1. General background

SmartWood is a programme of the Rainforest Alliance, a global non-profit conservation organization based in New York. According to its website, “the mission of the Rainforest Alliance is to protect ecosystems and the people and wildlife that depend on them by transforming land-use practices, business practices and consumer behaviour.”

With regard to plantation certification, the website defines SmartWood as “the world’s leading non-profit forestry certifier” and specifies: “We certify all types of forest operations, including natural forests, plantations, large commercial operations and small-scale family or community forests.”

The Rainforest Alliance is accredited by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

 2.2. Plantation certification

SmartWood is undoubtedly another major actor in the certification of plantations, with a total of 1,543,533 hectares certified under the FSC in 18 countries around the world (as of August 2005). These countries are: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Indonesia, Japan, New Zealand, Panama, Portugal, Spain, the United Kingdom, Uruguay and Venezuela.

As in the case of SGS, it is also interesting to observe the number of hectares certified by SmartWood in each of these 18 countries:

Brazil: 792,450

Australia: 509,716

Venezuela: 139,650

New Zealand: 109,330

Chile: 64,570

Portugal: 49,341

Colombia: 20,056

Uruguay: 18,099

Costa Rica: 12,992

Argentina: 6,424

Guatemala: 5,324

China: 5,237

Panama: 3,413

United Kingdom: 2,712

Japan: 2,249

Ecuador: 1,341

Spain: 477

Indonesia: 152

As can be seen above, Uruguay falls in eighth place in this case, with a relatively small area of certified plantations.

In terms of the size of the plantations involved, the companies certified by SmartWood that operate plantations covering more than 100,000 hectares are:


– Hancock Victorian Plantations Pty. Limited: 246,117 ha

– Integrated Tree Cropping Limited: 166,536 ha


– Klabin S/A (Klabin Florestal Parana): 229,356 ha

– Klabin S/A Unidade Florestal Santa Catarina: 104,269 ha

– Suzano Bahia Sul Papel e Celulose S.A. – Unidade Mucura: 168,794 ha


– Terranova de Venezuela S.A: 139,650 ha

 2.3. Denunciations

The most extensively documented case of opposition to the certification of plantations by SmartWood can be found in Thailand. A wealth of violations of the FSC principles were uncovered on these plantations, in addition to numerous failures and shortcomings committed during the certification process by the certifying body itself. Despite all of the criticisms raised and the political connotations of this certification, SmartWood nonetheless proceeded to certify the state-owned forestry company FIO. This led local NGOs to participate in independent research aimed at documenting the facts and pushing for the company’s decertification. These efforts culminated in a report authored by Chris Lang, titled “SmartWood’s Certification of the Forest Industry Organisation in Thailand: Why FSC Should Revoke the Certificate”.

In his introduction to the study, Lang notes: “Despite the fact that the certified area covers less than 3.5 per cent of FIO’s total plantation area, the certificate enables FIO to claim that it is practising ‘sustainable forest management’. Before the assessment was carried out, FIO’s Chittiwat Silapat told the Bangkok Post that certification would be ‘a major step towards the end of deforestation and the beginning of sustainable development.’ (Umdao 2000).

Lang explains: “FIO is a state-owned forestry enterprise formed in 1947 to manage logging concessions in Thailand. Until the government’s logging ban of 1989, FIO was responsible for organising the destruction of large areas of Thailand’s forests. FIO has also established 140,000 hectares of plantations in Thailand, often without the consent of local communities using the land. Certification under FSC enables FIO to cover up its history and its financial problems, which have become severe since the logging ban deprived the organisation of its main source of income.”

“FSC certification of FIO raises several issues of concern to local people and NGOs in Thailand,” Lang comments, providing the following examples:

– FSC certification of two FIO plantations allows FIO to legitimise and expand its overall operations.

– The fact that only two of FIO’s more financially-viable plantations have been certified allows the organisation to deflect attention from its debts of US$11.5 million and the fact that it makes a loss every year.

– Certification of the two plantations could result in an increase of monoculture plantations throughout the country under the guise of “sustainable forest management”.

– The certification could undermine Thailand’s 1989 ban on logging concessions. SmartWood’s public summary of the assessment makes no mention of the ban.

– FIO’s main reason for wanting the certification appears to be to sell its timber internationally, to raise the money needed to rescue the organisation.

As Lang points out, “The introduction to FSC’s Principles and Criteria states that ‘FSC intends to complement, not supplant, other initiatives that support responsible forest management worldwide.’ Yet in Thailand, SmartWood has effectively undermined an ongoing discussion about people and forests and what constitutes ‘sustainable forest management’. Rather than contributing to the ongoing discussion of forestry issues in Thailand, SmartWood’s certification process has side-stepped it.”

“SmartWood’s certification process raises a further series of issues,” the report adds, mentioning the following:

– SmartWood’s assessment was not thorough and involved little consultation either with Thai NGOs or with local people living near the plantations.

– SmartWood’s public summary of the certification does not conform to motion 26a, passed at the 1999 FSC General Assembly, which states that “Public Summary Documents shall contain sufficient information to make clear the correlation between the specific results of the certification assessment and FSC Principles and Criteria.”

– The certification took place before any broad-based discussion about certification in Thailand had started. There was no Standards Working Group at the time of the certification. However, rather than developing an interim standard, which according to Motion 29, passed at the 1999 FSC General Assembly, “must be finalised and circulated to stakeholders at least one month prior to the certification decision,” SmartWood used the SmartWood “Generic Guidelines for Assessing Forest Management” to carry out the assessment.

– SmartWood appears to have awarded the certificate on the basis of hoped-for rather than actual improvements. SmartWood set 26 conditions, 15 of which FIO had to meet within one year. According to SmartWood’s first-year audit, FIO had failed to meet five of the conditions and had only “partially met” seven more conditions. However, instead of revoking the certificate, SmartWood issued a series of “corrective action requests” with new deadlines.

The full study was included in the book “Certifying the Uncertifiable: FSC Certification of Tree Plantations in Thailand and Brazil”, published by the WRM in English, Spanish and Portuguese. The book was widely circulated, and it is quite likely that it was the main reason why on December 1, 2003, Smartwood finally revoked the certificate for these plantations. The full report is available at:

Another highly controversial certification granted by SmartWood involved a teakwood plantation in Costa Rica, which even gave rise to the publication of a book on the subject: “Green Gold: On Variations of Truth in Plantation Forestry”. The book, written by Paul Romeijn, provides a carefully detailed assessment of the technical, legal, political and ethical issues connected to a teakwood plantation established in Costa Rica by the Dutch company Flor y Fauna and the dramatic impacts that have resulted.

Romeijn explains, “the present study describes the erosion of the credibility of these assumptions by following key statements over time. These statements are effectively ‘variations of truth’ since they come from the Teakwood contract partners themselves and from organizations and individuals which the Teakwood contract partners have recognized as authoritative, including the Rainforest Alliance and the Forest Stewardship Council, FSC. The Rainforest Alliance is based in the USA and it certified the Flor y Fauna forest operation as “well managed” in 1995… In January 1998 the FSC endorsed the Rainforest Alliance certificate for the Flor y Fauna plantation management. However, the Flor y Fauna plantations management were found not to comply with several FSC Principles and Criteria”

The full book is available at:

Remarkably, according to the information provided on the FSC website, Flor y Fauna remains certified.