Forest pledges are a COP out

Indigenous reps at COP27 say we are “horrifyingly far from our goals” if what is happening on the ground continues to be ignored

November 15th, 2022

Last month, a coalition of NGOs submitted a complaint to the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) against Malaysian timber giant Samling. The 40+ page report chronicles allegations from more than a dozen Indigenous Sarawakian communities. Their claims are backed up by evidence spanning five years of encroachment. 

The complaint was submitted at the FSC General Assembly, where hundreds of FSC members and other stakeholders meet every three years to work towards “a responsible future for the world’s forests”. At the meeting, members of the Indigenous Peoples Committee put up a banner to commemorate handing over the complaint.

Permission was given by FSC staff to hang the banner, but shortly after it mysteriously disappeared. No one explained to the Indigenous representatives why it was removed, and it was never returned. 

While countries and corporations line up ahead of COP27 to reiterate their pledges to go deforestation-free by the end of the decade, we know that implementation will fall flat if what is happening on the ground is ignored. The glacial pace of scaling back deforestation means these pledges do little to help the frontline defenders trying to protect their forests today.

“We are horrifyingly far from our goal of making the planet inhabitable for life” says Celine Lim, COP27 representative and Manager of Sarawak’s SAVE Rivers. Her organization is being sued for defamation by Samling in what is widely considered to be strategic litigation against public participation. “World leaders and industry players pledge towards sustainability while still marginalising the roles of the Indigenous communities and their rightful customary land tenure through discriminatory funding, profit-driven reforestation schemes and pro-industry policies in the international timber trade and other commodities”.

When we interrogate the certification systems designed to protect the planet, we find that they often fail to deliver. This is the case with several of Samling’s timber concessions that are certified by the Malaysian Timber Certification Scheme as supposedly sustainable. 

The report to FSC contends that if timber comes from Samling it should be a major red flag for certification bodies and for buyers around the world. According to local communities, the path of Samling’s operations in Sarawak is littered with misconduct: willfully ignorant environmental and social impact assessments, logging outside of approved coupes, encroachment into multiple sacred site areas, divide and conquer tactics, and legal harassment of civil society actors like SAVE Rivers. 

Compiling and documenting evidence for all of these cases was a monumental effort. Each case alone demonstrates a lack of free, prior and informed consent — the benchmark against which all extraction from Indigenous lands is supposed to take place. But together, the cases demonstrate an undeniable pattern of negligence and abuse. 

Malaysia can’t step out of the shadows of corruption if corporations like Samling continue to get away with crimes against people and planet. And Sarawak — the largest state in Malaysia — has yet to disclose any key information about the state of its forests, or provide impact assessments to communities. It remains in the dark.

There will be no alleviating rising temperatures without protecting forests. And there is clear evidence that Indigenous communities like those that submitted the report against Samling must play a central role in protecting those forests. Indigenous lands cover a quarter of the world’s surface and overlap with a third of the world’s forests.

A responsible future for forests is one that doesn’t just invite Indigenous representatives to the negotiation table, it is one that takes notice when Indigenous communities speak up, incorporates their voices as an essential component of the decision-making process, and then takes appropriate action. 

As Lim puts it, “Unless Indigenous communities are fully included in the highest level of decision-making and leadership in our global efforts to ‘combat’ climate change, I fear we will meet a most devastating end.”

It’s up to international certification bodies to stop greenwashing dirty timber and start listening to communities. Part of the responsibility lies with importing countries to shut down trade paths and take seriously grassroots organizations when they sound the alarm. If the halls of power continue to echo meaningless promises it will simply be too late. There will be no forests left to make pledges to protect.