AFS - Tick for the Status Quo

1 August 2012

The Australian Forestry Standard (AFS) is currently stamped on wood from endangered species' habitat in Victoria. The AFS has also been stamped on wood from unlawful sources  in Victoria when VicForests breached its allocation. For these reasons and others relating to stakeholder engagement, the AFS fails to protect our forests because it sets a low threshold of performance and endorses standard logging practices, which are considered a threat to endangered species. The auditing of the AFS for companies like VicForests has been insular, made weaker by the absence of a rotation system of auditors. The companies' certificates are not subject to rigorous third party scrutiny and in the case of VicForests, they are not made available to the public.

The AFS is an industry developed standard luxuriating in a federally funded refuge, so it has not 'earned' a market-respected edge. Former Liberal forestry Minister, Wilson Tuckey, pioneered the standard and this ensured it had great government support. In contrast, government refused to provide one cent to the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). But, although the AFS’ number one sentry has been the government, this may not have worked in its favour.

In 2009, the government actively sought to safeguard the standard, it did so by threatening all green building and product initiatives, such as the Green Building Council and Eco-buy, with withdrawal of funding if they didn’t recognise the AFS as being equivalent to the higher performing FSC Standards. This  threat effectively homogenised the competition to the AFS and the impoverished FSC lost its competitive edge in winning market relevance. FSC was working to make itself the leading scheme by offering transparency, stakeholder engagement and a high environmental bar in performance. In contrast, the AFS did not need to do this as it was well supported by government and industry and therefore easy to attain.

 The AFS has failed an important key performance indicator - to attract and legitimately retain the support of environmental groups. Standards Australia, a national standards development body, approved the AFS without the consent of the environmental and community sector. The AFS could not get an environmental non-government organisation to sign off on its standard. Greening Australia and WWF were approached but rejected a role in the review. The Ecological Society of Australia was eventually used. However, it made clear that it did not represent the the environmental non-government sector - it is a scientific organisation.

Planet Ark is now the signatory to the standard in its first review. Planet Ark is currently receiving money from Forests and Wood Products Australia, a group with over 60% of its members being certified under the AFS and/or purchasing logs from AFS certificate holders. With such a high preponderance of AFS certificate holders, some of whom also sit on the AFS board, it could be argued that Planet Ark may have a conflict of interest. If Planet Ark were to argue for environmental improvements to the standard, then that would incur additional cost to the members of Forest and Wood Products Australia who are certified under the AFS. Whose interests are being served here? The AFS requires an independent environment group on this review. 

The involvement of Planet Ark in the AFS gives this forest certification scheme an opportunity to marginalise the concerns of genuine, independent environmental groups throughout Australia, again!