“I THINK it’s bollocks!” growls Anthony Sebastian as I sit up, clutching my notebook aghast. We’d been talking about those pithy green phrases people usually add as part of their email signature, ‘Save a tree, don’t print this email’ or ‘Please consider the environment before printing’.
He had asked me if I used those phrases in my e-messages and I had hastily said yes, hoping to score brownie points with the leonine man whose formidable presence has been well known within the Malaysian conservation circle for over two decades.
“That’s so wrong. It doesn’t work that way anymore,” he protests, before adding glibly: “Because in order to save trees, you need to use paper!”
It’s a controversial statement that would undoubtedly twist the knickers of most nature lovers I know, mine included. I’m debating between walking out in a huff —my inner-greenie affronted — and standing my ground to find out if he’s finally sold his soul to the devil.
For as long as I’ve heard about Anthony “Tony” Sebastian, he’s been championing the environment with the same dogged perseverance, pragmatism and assertive outspokenness that has seen him ruffle feathers, tread on sensitive toes and yet go on to be a prolific voice for conservation on numerous platforms. He’s the proverbial environmental gadfly. Love him or hate him, you can’t ignore him.
A wildlife ecologist by training and a conservation-planning specialist by profession, Sebastian was the first Asian chairperson to preside over the international board for the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).
Specialising in fields of conservation, agriculture and wetlands, forestry, policy as well as international conventions, the Sarawakian, who continues to remain on the FSC Board of directors is intent on strengthening the council’s presence in Asia.
And at the moment, he seems to be intent on ruffling my feathers.
Sebastian had flown in from Kuching to attend a stakeholder dialogue organised a day earlier by FSC on forest certification.
A pioneer of forest certification in Malaysia, Sebastian hadn’t only served on the board of the Malaysian Timber Certification Council, but has been involved in the early efforts of using certification as a tool for the advancement and betterment of our forest industry since the 1990s. At present, he chairs the Malaysian FSC Standards Development Group (SDG), established in 2010 to tailor FSC’s global certification standards for applicability to Malaysia.
Suffice to say, all this indicates that he knows what he’s talking about. Sitting comfortably across me, his eyes twinkling at my obvious discomfort while I struggle to make sense of his “use more paper” statement, he then asks: “What do you know about FSC?”
“Not much,” I reply cautiously. Was that another open door for yet another loaded statement? He doesn’t disappoint. “Well to begin with, FSC was founded by a bunch of hippies!” he declares, chuckling.
Back in 1992, Rio de Janeiro hosted the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED). The focus of this conference was the state of the global environment and the relationship between economics, science and the environment in a political context. The conference concluded with the Earth Summit, where leaders from 105 nations gathered to demonstrate their commitment to sustainable development.
“Tropical deforestation was one of the big issues brought up during the summit. The country unfortunately they quoted most was Malaysia, particularly Sarawak, which according to reports, was experiencing the highest rate of deforestation in the world,” explains Sebastian drily.
The summit meeting didn’t achieve what was hoped for. There was no lack of good intentions, but they generated conflicts rather than solutions. Since it failed to produce an agreement to stop deforestation, a group of environmentalists and community leaders banded together to create the Forest Stewardship Council.
“They were hippies from Canada. Our history verifies that!” reiterates Sebastian, grinning.
Gathered in the first FSC General Assembly in 1993 in Toronto, Canada, the group set out to create a voluntary, market-based approach that would improve forest practices worldwide.
“They came up with a concept of a certificate. And that’s not just how the FSC was born; that’s how the certification was born. So nowadays when you get marine sustainable fisheries, fair trade for your coffee grown by local communities and all those eco labels — they started from here,” says Sebastian not without a little pride, adding: “It only began in the early 1990s. Before that, there was no such thing.”
The founding members spent one year designing the first ever standards by which forests are audited and issued with an FSC certificate, which eventually rolled out a year later. These set of standards however came with a firm message to plantation owners. From 1994 onwards, FSC does not accept the conversion of natural forests to any other form, including tree plantations.
“The 94 rule is a stake in the ground that’s emotional at its core,” says Sebastian. “The rationale behind it is deforestation. No more cutting off forests to plant trees.” The purpose was noble and not without reason. After all, forest conversion poses the biggest threat to terrestrial landscapes globally.
TIDES OF CHANGE
“I’m glad for the rule,” I remark. “The rule should be repealed,” is his blunt rejoinder. The 94 rule was a decided rally cry against forest conversions but Sebastian opines that if the FSC is to have a greater impact and remain relevant in the face of changing forest laws, it has to include companies that have previously cleared forests for plantation activity, the driver of much of the deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia.
While these large concessions are better placed in managing landscapes for conservation as well as profit, they’re unfortunately excluded by this rule.
“I think it’s very important that the FSC also has a role on plantations developed after 1994 so that companies that have legally engaged in forest clearing could receive certification,” he says.
When we think about meeting the resource needs of a growing population, issues of food and water security often come to mind. But there is another type of resource that also deserves attention, says Sebastian, because rising demand for it not only presents a supply problem for consumers, but also has direct and devastating impacts on natural ecosystems and on our climate. That resource is wood.
“Unfortunately, most of the global demand for wood has historically been met by cutting down natural forests. Although agriculture continues to be the leading driver of global deforestation and degradation, demand for wood has actually had greater deforestation impacts in certain areas, including Malaysia,” explains Sebastian.
Globally, he points out, 30 per cent of wood are supplied by plantations. A staggering 70 per cent comes from the natural forest around the world.
“That’s unacceptable,” he says heavily, adding that the projected figures for wood demand has been shown to grow rapidly at a pace that demand will soon exceed supply. “So what will happen? There’s a huge deforestation coming our way if we don’t secure sufficient plantation areas to meet our domestic supply, never mind the world.”
Turn forested areas to plantation forests? I ask incredulously. “You came here thinking I wanted to cut down forests?” He looks appalled before answering: “Well absolutely not!” Plantations need to be sustainable, by complementing —not replacing — natural forests and other native ecosystems. Ideally, commercial plantations should reclaim degraded land or former monoculture estates. When done correctly and at scale, plantations offer a very viable solution for meeting growing wood demand, providing sustainable livelihoods and benefits for people, and protecting natural forests.
While FSC is trying to change the rule and looking at it in terms of restoration and compensation, Malaysia, points out Sebastian, also needs to think about strategies. “How much of these areas should we plant? Do we need to convert some of the oil palm areas to timber?” he posits.
WORKING WITH A COMMON MAN
“A large part of making plantations acceptable lies in the mind. It’s not about getting a loan, organising your tractors and workers to do something. You need to work with the people. You need to make the people part of the economy and part of everything you do,” he explains, adding: “That’s where FSC has such great values. It brings all these people together. It has constant engagement with people.”
FSC’s presence in Malaysia, Sebastian further explains, is strategic. The non-governmental organisation doesn’t focus on issuing certificates but instead, its main audience and target groups are “ the people who walk between the shelves of supermarkets, sundry stores and DIY stores like Home Depot and IKEA.”
By doing so, FSC hopes that the power of consumerism will help pressure companies to do the right thing. “It’s a strategy that works,” says Sebastian.
The FSC logo is increasingly recognised around the world, and more and more consumers rely on the logo for assurance of responsible sourcing.
Being able to buy products with an FSC label gives consumers the chance to make a positive difference around the world, allowing them to feel the connection between the product they’d bought and the forest floor along with the people who live and work there. The demand for sustainable products and the pressure on retailers to implement sustainability programmes are increasing in Malaysia.
“If there has been a decline in global deforestation, it would be thanks partly to the increased use of recycled paper and the purchasing of paper products that are certified as coming from responsibly managed forests. This has been driven by consumers like you,” says Sebastian.
“We can’t avoid the use of wood products. It’s an integral part of our daily lives — from the paper we write on, the wood we use for construction to food packaging — it’s everywhere,” he says bluntly. “What we need to do is to find a way of producing this resource sustainably and in plentiful supply.”
And it’s back to his first controversial statement again, but — this time — it slowly makes sense. “If you use paper, there’s a reason for the plantation industry to exist. And as long as the plantation industry exists, the pressure on the forest will go. The more you fight the plantation industry and take its grounding away, the more we face the risk of losing our precious natural heritage”.