Need for Forest Certification to help promote wooden handicraft export

VK Bahuguna

June 16, 2020, 08:45:16   

(Writer is a retired civil servant)

In India around 100 million artisans are involved in making handicrafts and form the back bone of non-farm based economy in the hinterlands where mostly the tribal and rural poor live. Over the years this sector has been the major source of livelihood for the landless poor in rural areas. According to an estimate of export-import council the total export of handicrafts during the financial year 2018-19 was to the tune of Rs 26590 crore compared to Rs 24500 crore in 2016-17. Around 70 % (roughly 18,600crore) of this is wood/forest based. It is a sizeable amount and if proper institutional and other help is extended this sector has the potential to act as an effective anti-poverty programme and to make the people self dependent. 

The important clusters of wooden handicrafts in India according to a report of World Wide Fund for Nature India are based at Saharanpur and Nagina in Uttar Pradesh, Hoshiarpur and Amritsar in Punjab, Jaipur and Jodhpur in Rajasthan, Srinagar in Jammu & Kashmir, Jagdalpur and Behrampur in West Bengal, Chennapatna and Chennai in Tamil Nadu, Bengaluru and Mysore in Karnataka and Ernakulum and Cochin in Kerala. There are many others artisans in small towns and villages all over India producing crafts and selling through middle men. 

Though there is adequate availability of raw material and talent in the country, the scope for scaling up the growth of wooden/ forest based handicraft sector exists in India but for trade barriers, poor policy and institutional back up, lack of hand holding and more than everything else, the necessity of procuring certificate of its origin from a sustainable forests/plantation sources, the sector has not grown as expected. The forest certification has become a Gordian’s knot for the artisans for quite some time.

What this certification business is all about? On account of deforestation in the tropical countries there was hue and cry in the western world especially in USA and other European countries; the civil societies activists and Non Government Organizations started pressurising their governments to stop importing the timber and timber products unless the source of production is certified as having been obtained from the sustainably managed forests/plantations. It was introduced in 1990s to ostensibly promote biodiversity and save forest but in fact is a trade barrier imposed by rich countries. It entails that the certificate should be validated by an independent agency with a complete chain of command validation from origin to final manufacturing of product and its export. This opened a chance for some experts to do business of certification. The certification on forest management covers forest/plantation inventory, management practices, harvesting, and environmental, economic and social impacts of such forests/plantation. Many countries have enacted laws and banned import of timber and wooden handicrafts from being imported if the same is not accompanied by a ‘validation certificate’ by third party of its being sourced from sustainably managed forests. Certification today covers 30 percent of world timber trade.  This gave rise birth to some agencies like 'Stewardship Council' of Canada as an international body to help the exporters in certifying their products for a cost.

In view of aforesaid reasons the Indian wooden handicraft artisans and exporters started facing hurdles especially after the year 2000 though they kept exporting after payment of high fees. The fees are high if viewed from our standards and process cumbersome. There is therefore, an urgent need to have an independent autonomous body within the purview of government of India at the national level to deal with the entire matter of forest certification. The Malaysian forest department which was way behind India in sixties has had long back taken over the leadership in forestry issues in Asia for quite some time. They created a National Forest Certification Council soon after the year 2000 and set up a detail standards and mechanism to certify the timber and wooden products.  

The Indian forest working plans are based on sustained yield concept the bedrock of SFM. India being a timber deficient nation need to import wood, we need not buckle under international pressure for institutionalising certification for domestic use of timber as most of the timber coming from government forest is as per the working plan based sustained yields concept. The government should not support any agency outside government to do certification for obvious reasons. 

As  more than 70 percent of wood is coming from agro-forestry and other private lands, we would need to have a certification set up for the timber grown outside the recorded forests mainly to overcome the trade barrier imposed by the western nation to help our handicraft export. In fact all over the world the basic focus of certification is to overcome trade barriers. This writer in early 2003 while working in the Ministry of Environment and Forests had proposed setting up of a National Forest Certification Agency under section 3 of the Environmental Protection Act 1986 (with public figures, farmers, economists and industries etc in its governing board), with zonal offices in the Ministry’s regional offices and a provision for accreditation of charter foresters and other experts. The objective was to establish an institutional frame work for forest certification in the country with a view to support the export of wood/forest based handicrafts. The then Minister Mr TR Baalu approved it but the then Secretary sensing a new organization coming up after CAMPA was being formalised sent the file to one Special Secretary on a specious pretext to get the views of a division whose brief on this was to control such activities in order to keep inter services relativities intact in the Ministry. It met its dead end after I left. The problem in this Ministry is unnecessary projection of foresters as anti-development before Ministers and Prime Minister. The senior officers should rid themselves of unnecessary fear and angularities for better governance. The people remember late TN Seshan who as Secretary Environment is remembered for making landmark reforms like setting up regional offices, setting up of ICFRE and National/State Forest Academies etc and will be long remembered for setting environment governance to right trajectory. It would, be appropriate that a national forest certification agency is created under section 3 of the Environment Protection Act 1986 within the overall purview of environment, forest and climate change Ministry with clear cut authority to conduct its business independently and focus on helping the exporter with minimum transaction cost . 


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