On 22 June 2020, a non-governmental organisation, SAVE Rivers, protested the granting of forest management certification under the Malaysian Timber Certification Scheme (MTCS) to Samling Plywood (Miri) Sdn Bhd – Gerenai Forest Management Unit (Gerenai FMU), alleging that the certification was issued without meeting the requirements as outlined in the MTCS. It also called for the cancellation of the certificate as it was allegedly granted during the movement control order (MCO) period. The articles that were published on online news portal DayakDaily and SAVE Rivers website were trailed by a number of articles repeating the similar statements, with some even stating that the right to harvest the forests had been granted by the Malaysian Timber Certification Council (MTCC), which was incorrect.

While no formal complaint had been lodged by the aggrieved parties, MTCC as the owner of the MTCS, viewed these claims very seriously and had immediately sought feedback from the certificate holder, the Gerenai FMU, as well as the certification body, SIRIM QAS International Sdn Bhd, particularly on the allegation that the certification process had violated the rights of the affected indigenous communities.

Based on information provided by SIRIM QAS International Sdn Bhd, the initial Stage 1 audit for the FMU was conducted on 16-18 October 2018 while the certification or Stage 2 audit was conducted from 22 to 27 July 2019. During the Stage 2 field inspection, consultations were conducted with 18 out of a total of 22 indigenous communities located within and adjacent to the FMU. To ensure that all communities had been consulted during the Stage 2 certification process, the FMU held a follow-up meeting with the relevant district authorities and Gerenai Community Representative Committee (CRC) on 4 September 2019. It was reported that the meeting was attended by 60 representatives from all 22 indigenous communities. Additionally, prior to the decision made by SIRIM QAS International Sdn Bhd to grant certification to Generai FMU on 12 April 2020, the audit report was subjected to a review by a panel of independent experts, termed as the peer review process, to confirm that the auditors had acted judiciously in the conduct of the audit and that the FMU has satisfactorily fulfilled the requirements of the certification standard. It should be noted that the certification process had been conducted well before the MCO, therefore it is incorrect to claim that certification was pushed through during the Covid-19 crisis.

Based on the statements and allegations made in the articles, MTCC realised that there is still a lack of understanding and misconception on certification as a process and tool for promoting sustainable forest management. MTCC therefore hopes that this article can help to clarify some of those misconceptions relating to the nature, institutional set-up and certification processes under the MTCS.

Voluntary scheme

The MTCS is a voluntary scheme operated by MTCC, a company that was set up with the objectives to promote the implementation of sustainable forest management and increase the market value of products from these forests by way of certification. As a non-profit organisation, MTCC does not have any authority to grant harvesting rights/licence to a logging operator or a concessionaire. As a scheme owner and to ensure good governance and independence, MTCC does not play any role in the decision-making process of a certification body to grant a forest management certificate to an applicant. It is important to point out that under the Malaysian Federal Constitution, natural resources including land, forest and water are under the jurisdiction of the respective State Governments in terms of ownership, management and utilisation. Hence, forest management certification under the MTCS is required to abide by the prevailing state and national laws that deals with matters involving fundamental issues such as the ownership or tenure of a forested land.

The core structure of the MTCS comprises (i) MTCC as the governing body that oversees all aspects of the scheme, including development and review of certification standards; (ii) STANDARDS MALAYSIA as the national accreditation organisation that accredits and monitors the competence of certification bodies in conducting certification processes in accordance with international standards; and (iii) accredited certification bodies such as SIRIM QAS International Sdn Bhd, the third-party organisation that conducts independent audits on an applicant against a certification standard and makes the decision to grant, suspend or withdraw a certificate based on the audit findings. The relationship between these independent entities within the MTCS framework is as indicated in Figure 1. Each of these independent organisations has its own dispute mechanism in place to resolve any complaint related to its role in the MTCS. For example, in the case of any complaint regarding the certification process, the complainant could address the matter to the certification body.

Figure 1: Institutional arrangement of MTCS

Ensuring robustness of certification standard

In addressing sustainability requirements, forest certification requires the FMU manager to take actions that may go beyond the mandate of the federal, state and laws, such as the need to undertake stakeholder consultations on matters relating to their legal or customary rights, application of their traditional knowledge as well as fair and equitable compensation for the use of this knowledge.

The development of the standards for forest management certification under the MTCS is led by a multistakeholder standard development/review committee, comprising representatives independently elected by the stakeholder groups such as civil society organisations and associations that represent a variety of concerns and interests namely environmental, economic, social and forest related government authorities for Peninsula, Sabah and Sarawak. The social interests comprise stakeholder groups that represent indigenous communities and workers. Amongst others, the committee is required to consider comments and feedback received from stakeholders through multiple public consultations held throughout the development/review process. 

MTCC plays the role as the facilitator in the development of certification standards to ensure that the process is conducted in conformance with its standard development procedures. This means the development is done  in accordance with internationally accepted best practices that guarantees a transparent, independent and inclusive process. In addition to the robust procedures, the standards must also take into account the expectations of international communities to ensure that the various concerns at the global level are also addressed. MTCC is committed to ensure that the international recognition which it has painstakingly obtained especially through the endorsement by the Geneva-based Programme for Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) since 2009 is maintained.

Certification process

As with any type of credible certification system, the processes to obtain certification can be long and demanding. Depending on the applicant readiness, the process for forest management certificationcould take from six to 12 months from submission of application to obtaining certification. Figure 2 below summarises the procedures involved to undertake certification under the MTCS:

Figure 2: Process flow for forest management certification

One key fact to emphasize is that all certificate holders are subjected to annual surveillance audit to ensure that the forest management practices within the designated FMU continue to comply with the requirements of the certification standard.

Commitment for sustainability

As a groundbreaker for tropical forest certification schemes in Asia, the MTCS has faced numerous challenges locally and internationally, ranging from pushback from stakeholders, to suspicion and scepticism on the intent and integrity of the system. MTCC’s confidence on the robustness of the system has been strengthened through the multiple and arduous assessments conducted and the subsequent recognition by a number of experts and authorities in the field, such as the Central Point of Expertise for Timber in the United Kingdom, the Dutch Timber Procurement Assessment Committee and the PEFC.

MTCC is committed to raise awareness on the importance of sustainability and the implementation of sustainable forest management on the ground. Currently, 5 million hectares of forests in the country have been certified under the MTCS. This means the management of these forests are subjected to continuous monitoring of sustainability aspects covering social, economic and environmental considerations as stipulated in the forest management certification standard. In this complex and challenging field, MTCC recognises that garnering the understanding, support, participation and commitment of all stakeholders are key to achieve its vision of shaping a nation that appreciates and internalises the full value and contribution of forest towards global sustainability.

Malaysian Timber Certification Council

13 August 2020