The University of Arizona

The role of voluntary certification in maintaining the ecologically unequal exchange of wood pulp: the Forest Stewardship Council's certification of industrial tree plantations in Brazil

Jutta Kill


Voluntary certification schemes have grown in popularity since the late 1980s. Today, a large number of consumer items from coffee and chocolate to oil palm and soya products carry labels that supposedly attest their contribution to promoting fair trade or a reduction of negative environmental impacts. Many printed books, magazines and other paper products carry a label promising 'environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial and economically viable' management of the tree plantations that deliver the raw material for the pulp and paper from which these products are made. This article explores the role that one such voluntary certification scheme used by the pulp and paper sector plays in maintaining ecologically unequal exchange. Would ecologically unequal exchange in a certified product cease to exist if the voluntary certification schemes available for pulp and paper products were to become the norm, instead of just catering to a niche market? If the answer to that hypothetical question is 'no' – which it is – then the question that arises is: what role does the voluntary certification scheme play in upholding ecologically unequal exchange? This article explores the role of one particular voluntary certification scheme – by the Forest Stewardship Council – in maintaining ecologically unequal exchange in the trade of pulp products between industrialised countries with a relatively high per-capital consumption of pulp and paper products and the global South, in this case Brazil. It shows how, from the perspective of communities who bear the ecological, social and economic cost of industrial tree plantations and who oppose further expansion of these plantations, voluntary certification schemes have (inadvertently?) helped tilt the balance of power even further in favour of corporate interests for expansion. An unacknowledged imbalance of power between corporations and the certification schemes, on the one hand, and communities and their allies, on the other, has become manifest and aids further expansion of industrial tree plantations for production of pulp for export, thus contributing to maintaining ecologically unequal exchange.

Key words: certification; commodity chains; conflicts; consumption; ecologically unequal exchange; environmental justice; Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), industrial tree plantations; pulp and paper; resistance struggles

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