In China, in the company of partners

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Bella Roscher, Forest Project Coordinator for the WWF and IKEA partnership, reports on the importance of smallholders, certification and partnership in creating a more sustainable timber market.

Around the world, millions of “smallholders” – people who manage or use forests that are considered small in relation to others in their region, and who mainly apply low intensity harvest practices – depend on forests for their food, fuel and livelihoods. While their individual forest parcels may be small, collectively smallholders manage much of the world’s forests – so they are essential to WWF’s efforts to improve forest management and create a more sustainable timber market.

A key part of driving sustainability among these small producers is securing access to markets. They want to supply international companies, but many of these companies are making certification programmes like the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) a prerequisite for doing business. Meeting certification standards is not a simple task for many smallholders, but support from WWF and influential market players like IKEA can provide a real incentive for producers and communities to engage in certification.

Understanding how this works on the ground, in the forest, and the related challenges and benefits, is central to my work on the forestry component of the WWF and IKEA partnership. I recently joined colleagues from WWF, IKEA and FSC on a trip to China, where we visited Sunway, an IKEA supplier supporting smallholder certification in the Guangxi region.

What I learned was both inspiring and challenging.

Sunway factory. © WWF / Bella RoscherSunway factory. © WWF / Bella Roscher

Sunway supplies IKEA with MDF (medium density fibre board) from around 7,000 ha of eucalyptus, stone oak, and Masson pine, some of which is held by the 4,774 smallholders who supply the company, each working about 1.15 ha on average. While there is a growing understanding within Sunway about the process of FSC certification, and to some extent among the smallholders with whom it works, there is still a long way to go before domestic and international market demand for FSC is strong and stable enough to incentivize Sunway and companies like it to expand FSC certified areas to meet WWF and IKEA’s ambition for a more sustainable timber market.

Sunway has already provided training and support to its smallholder suppliers, and worked hard to develop forest management plans for group certification, labour safety, and environmental and social evaluations. It has laid the foundation to enlarge its certified area, but as Deputy General Manager Mr. Fang Fengchao explains, there is as yet no market demand beyond that offered by IKEA, and so no incentive for the company to involve more smallholders and procure larger quantities of FSC certified material.

As part of our visit to Sunway, a meeting with Mr. Zou Fuyuan, the Lao Yi Village Council Head, offers us the smallholder perspective. In a crowded room around a large table, we are all eager to ask questions. Immediately likeable, he smiles a lot and explains that roughly half of the 750 odd households in Lao Yi have joined the FSC scheme with Sunway.

The benefits of joining include an extra RMB10 per ton of timber, being paid in advance and receiving RMB200 per ha per year in rent for their land. Beyond this, Sunway covers harvesting and transport costs, and provides services such as cutting licenses, cutting teams, protective equipment, and help digging fire prevention trenches. So, while it is up to each smallholder to decide whether to sell to Sunway, these benefits and services provide a strong incentive.

But despite the simple requirements for joining the scheme – to hold a tenure certificate and grow stone oak for seven years – it is quite a commitment. As Mr. Zou Fuyuan points out, seven years is a long time.

China is the world’s largest wood importer and, beyond its own domestic consumption, a key global supplier of timber goods. With the scale of its forestry operations, responsible forest management in China is critical for the sustainability of the entire sector. The WWF and IKEA partnership has an important role to play in this endeavour – particularly in promoting FSC among smallholders and across extensive plantations in China. The partnership has already supported the certification of around 2.8 million of the 3.4 million hectares certified in China, and globally contributed to the certification of nearly 40 million hectares – producing far more timber than IKEA uses. But it’s clear that our journey in China and for the world is just beginning.

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