The Alert against the Green Desert Movement is a broad network of opposition to the expansion of large scale eucalyptus tree plantations in the region which covers the States of Minas Gerais, Espirito Santo, Bahia and Rio de Janeiro and Rio Grande do Sul. Its existence and struggles arose from the proven social and environmental impacts of these plantations, some of which presently enjoy FSC certification.
A team from this Network took part in a case study carried out at the end of 2003 (Certifying the un-certifiable. FSC certification of tree plantations in Thailand and Brazil” (http://www.wrm.org.uy/actors/FSC/text.pdf) and investigated the plantations of V&M and Plantar S.A. Reflorestamentos, certified by FSC through the certifying bodies Société Générale de Surveillance (SGS) and Scientific Certification Systems (SCS).
V&M owns 235,886 hectares of land in the State of Minas Gerais, distributed among 25 properties of between 1,000 and 36,000 hectares. Plantar is the owner of some 15 rural properties totalizing 280,000 hectares.
The study observed that some of the certified plantations occupy lands by encroaching on their originating inhabitants, thus undermining the struggles of the local peoples to recover their lands. Other disputes were also identified between small farmers and the companies regarding the use of agrochemicals, blocking of roads or the alteration of access to and management of water resources.
In Brazil, FSC certification has also seriously undermined workers’ rights: “Nothing can excuse SGS’s and SCS’s absolute silence, in their Public Summaries and annual monitoring reports, regarding the serious labour problems in V&M’s and Plantar’s certified forestry management units, especially given the prominence of the issue in local political discussion and the Minas Gerais press and on television. Sub-human labour conditions, excessively long working hours, child labour, illegal outsourcing, subjection of workers, irregular transportation, unhealthy and degrading work, blacklisting of worker leaders, lack of freedom and lack of union autonomy – all this has been the subject of innumerable articles in the regional mass media as well as public debates in several municipalities and the state and federal parliaments.”
Restoring lands planted with monoculture tree plantations back to forests is no easy task, either politically or practically. In the case of certified plantations, the difficulty is even greater and certification becomes a tool which the plantation owners use to confront the local communities.
The Brazilian case study also documents how eucalyptus plantations – including those of the two certified companies – have been one of the major causes of destruction of the native cerrado vegetation. As a result, local communities have been deprived of sustainable means of livelihood. For the purposes of FSC certification, it may matter little that the plantation companies burned this cerrado for the sake of charcoal and eucalyptus plantations, since the destruction took place before November 1994. Nevertheless, “the impact of the destruction of the biome is felt up to today, mainly by the local people who lost much of their flora, fauna and water and suffered the consequences of the application of agrochemicals. Far from protecting what native vegetation remains, the thousands of hectares planted with eucalyptus ended up becoming a hazard.”
The study contends that the economic and social benefits of products such as charcoal for steel production or timber for paper pulp production are “small compared with the negative social impacts of the associated industrial plantations on the lives of workers and the negative socio-economic impacts on the life of local communities.”
An issue related with the certification process as a whole should also be noted, namely the irregularities in the certification process that have led to non-observance of FSC criteria and to the influence of the certifying organizations’ vested interests. The study concludes that V&M and Plantar’s forestry management infringes national and international legislation, such as some of the International Labour Organization’s treaties. Regarding environmental legislation, V&M and Plantar have failed to observe the resolution requiring that enterprises of their size must obtain permits through the submission of an Environmental Impact Assessment.
The report also documents the fact that V&M and Plantar do not fulfil some of FSC criteria as the majority of the plantations were established on lands covered by native “cerrado” vegetation. They contributed to destroy this threatened biome, simultaneously causing social, environmental, cultural and economic prejudice.
The FSC prides itself on its attention to social issues. Consultation with local people, communities and organizations lies at the core of its credibility. However, in the case of Brazil, consultation has been lacking. The Public Summary for V&M enumerates various “interested parties” with which, according to SGS, “meetings and discussions were held”, but does not comment on the results of these meetings and discussions. Trade union members mentioned in the list of “interested parties” supposedly consulted by SGS deny that they were consulted during the certification process in 1998.
Furthermore the services of the certifying firms are paid by the companies wishing to obtain certification. This gives the firms a strong incentive to grant quick certification, without imposing too many conditions or monitoring the fulfilment of FSC criteria in a strict way.
Finally, the reports by the certifying organizations regarding the plantations owned by these companies lack a careful analysis of the socioeconomic universe in the places where they have been established and have not been placed in context. The reports reflect the fact that the auditors made a subjective interpretation, ranging from the selection of content and priority items in their study, to the selection of less critical interlocutors. They made field visits oriented by an extremely narrow interpretive horizon, ignoring the territory’s temporal and spatial references.
The conclusion of the study is that: “after having assessed the certification of Plantar S. A. and V&M, we can state that any such consumer certainty would be sadly misplaced."