Q&A: ICTs and forest certification

Zandra Martinez

Forest certification is a relatively new means of promoting sustainable forest management. The most widely used certification system is managed by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) in Bonn, Germany. Zandra Martinez explains how the FSC is using ICTs to support its activities.

What are the core activities of the FSC?
The FSC is an international non-profit organization that was founded in 1993 to introduce an international forest certification scheme and to act as an accreditation body. Forest certification is the process of inspecting particular forests or woodland to see if they are being managed according to an agreed set of strict ecological, economic and social criteria or standards. The FSC does not itself certify forest operations or manufacturers. These important activities are carried out by independent, FSC-accredited certification bodies in more than 30 countries.

An important component of forest certification is product or chain-of-custody (CoC) verification. CoC is the process through which the source of a timber product is verified. In order to qualify for the FSC trademark, timber products must be traceable from the forest through all the steps in the production process until they reach the end user. The FSC provides producers with international labelling standards to facilitate this process. Over the past few decades, CoC labelling processes have greatly benefited from ICTs.

How have CoC methods evolved?
The oldest methods of wood labelling involved painting or chiselling company information and ID numbers onto a tree, or on one or both ends of a log. Such labels are commonly used in conjunction with paper records on tree or log species, dimensions and volume. More recently, ICTs are providing increasingly sophisticated means of labelling, as well as more efficient tools for tracking and storing additional information about timber products.

The first major technological leap was the bar-coded label. Bar-coded data can be instantly read by a handheld scanner, stored electronically and transferred to a computer for analyses of stock inventories, for example. Bar-coded labels are increasingly being used to identify individual logs, particularly in countries that export high-value logs, and it is important to capture export revenues.

Another key development has been the emergence of labels containing radio frequency identification (RFID) transceivers that receive and transmit data by radio signals. A handheld scanner can instruct any RFID label to transmit its data through a coded signal. The scanner may then be plugged into a computer and the data downloaded for further analysis. An important advantage of RFID systems for log tracking is that the data signals can be read rapidly, remotely and under difficult conditions. Also, RFID labels can store a large amount of data with a high level of security – they are difficult to counterfeit or tamper with. The tags come in a variety of forms, including plastic cards and tiny injectable transponders.

On the down side, available radio frequencies vary from country to country, so there are currently no internationally standardized RFID technologies. What’s more, RFID labels are still too expensive for labelling individual logs and processed bundles of wood.

What advanced technologies are now being used to capture data?
CoC systems require careful documentation and record keeping, including files related to stock inventories and inspections, transport documentation, and retail and distribution records. The forestry industry has developed extensive databases to manage these records more effectively.

Also, Global Positioning System (GPS) technology has had a major impact on this aspect of the CoC. GPS is commonly used in forest inventories to delineate the boundaries of forested areas and to determine field locations, but can also be used to track shipments of logs and timber products and to provide estimated delivery times.

Microchip cards, or ‘smart cards’, and magnetic strip cards are also very useful. These pieces of plastic can store large amounts of data and have built-in security features – they are ideal replacements for paper records and make the logistics of tracking timber products much more efficient.

Finally, how is the FSC using ICTs to disseminate information?
As an international network, the FSC relies on electronic communication to reach its 500 members and 33 national offices, in addition to annual face-to-face meetings. The FSC provides information in both Spanish and English to reach its stakeholders in the South, and has recently launched a new website and intranet. All relevant new developments are announced in the monthly FSC email newsletter News+Notes, which is sent to more than 4000 subscribers around the world.

Moreover, the FSC has set up a hotline to answer questions, and has created a number of web-based forums so that stakeholders can more easily exchange information regarding the Council’s policies, consultations and other issues related to forest management. Taken together, these initiatives form part of a concerted, ongoing effort on the part of the FSC to increase awareness of the many benefits of forest certification – now and in the future.


Zandra Martinez is FSC media officer. For further information, visit www.fsc.org

08 June 2004

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