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Ikea responds to reports of old-growth logging

A 2011 photo provided by environmental organization Protect the Forest allegedly shows destroyed old-growth forest with piles of timber on land leased by IKEA/Swedwood in Russia's Karelia.
(Robert Svensson / Protect the Forest)
<i>This post has been corrected, as indicated below.</i>

In response to accusations by European NGOs that IKEA and its wholly owned subsidiary, Swedwood, were engaging in some questionable logging practices in Russia, Ikea is arguing that it has been cutting according to international standards that the company itself helped create.

Last week in Greenspace, Swedish group Protect the Forest and Russian group the Karelian Regional Nature Conservancy (which goes by the acronym SPOK) repeated claims that Swedwood is logging old-growth trees and is logging some High Conservation Value Forests (HCVF) in the taiga of the Russian Karelia, which is a forested area on the border with Finland. Swedwood is certified for responsible logging practices by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), a monitoring body, but both groups say the certification standards need revision.

“This area, in Northern Karelia, does contain high conservation value forests. And inside the lease that Swedwood has up there, there definitely are high conservation values,” said Anders Hildeman, forestry manager for Ikea, who spoke by phone from Sweden. “We agree on that with the NGOs, that this is an area that has to be managed with a lot of extra precaution. So there’s no argument about that.”

There evidently is plenty of argument, however, on the definitions of “old-growth” and “high conservation value,” and on Ikea’s responsibilities according to the environmental groups involved. A comment from SPOK leader Alexander Markovsky laid out the ambiguities at the heart of the conflict: Ikea might be meeting Russian standards, but high-value stands are still being cut.

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“SPOK confirm that Swedwood cut HCVF (old growth forest) in their leased area,” wrote Markovsky in English in an email (all emailed statements reproduced here as written). “Russian FSC standarts and common FSC practice does not demand full ban of logging HCVF.”

SPOK representatives confirm that they worked with Swedwood fairly extensively until Jan. 1, 2011, when they had listed Swedwood at the top of their rankings for timber firms working in Karelia. Now there seems to have been something of a falling out, as SPOK confirms it hasn’t had contact with Swedwood since that time and has publicized an ongoing petition drive by Protect the Forest to get reforms in Swedwood’s logging practices. Hildeman says the definitions definitely matter.

“I think it’s very much up to the perception of what ‘high conservation value forests’ are,” he says. “We’ve been working with the NGOs, we’ve been working with the scientists to develop these inventory methods which we’re applying on the ground. Just because there are old trees present in the stand, that does not mean that it’s high conservation value. You need to look at species, size of the area, exposition, position. I think that a lot is in the methodology on identifying high conservation value forests.”

Ikea sells its products with a promise of sustainable forestry and environmental responsibility, and the company wants to either get this right or to get the cover of agreed-upon terms. When it first approached logging leases in the Karelia in 2003, the company says it faced a federal and local Russian government with no definition for HCVF, few standards for things like “old-growth,” and local requirements to clear-cut rather than leave trees along streambeds and other sensitive areas. To its credit, the company began large-scale talks looking to include both local and international NGOs in the development of standards and to developed a Russian standard for FSC certification. When it did purchase leases, the company voluntarily excised 17% of the lease because it judged those forests to be too sensitive.

Working together with SPOK, Greenpeace and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Swedwood did identify one specially protected natural area that it agreed not to cut. Unlike some other companies in the Karelia, Swedwood honored this request.

“At the same time,” writes Markovsky, “Swedwood, bases on FSC standart should discovery Hight concervation value forest – HCVF (in their case – old growth forest) and protect it (because such kind of forest includes red listed species).”

Interviewed for the earlier Greenspace story, Swedish environmental group Protect the Forest indicated that it went to a forestry conference in Russia in 2008 and began investigating conditions on the ground in the Karelia, finding that some HCVF were being cut that should have been identified and saved by Swedwood according to FSC standards.

Swedwood disagrees, and Hildeman says that part of the problem is that Karelian forests are different than Swedish ones.

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“Where there are only a few percent of old growth and old trees left in Sweden, the forests are considerably older in Karelia,” Hildeman says. “On the average, they are 160 years old in the areas we are logging. And that’s older than the forests that are being logged in Sweden. But the definitions in Russian for HCVF are more demanding. You need to have more old trees, you need to have more species indicators present, and also size is very important.”

He also notes that a smaller amount of Russia’s total forests are being managed for timber – about 25 % -- and that the cut is happening slower. Of the estimated 300,000 hectares under management, about 0.4% per year is cut. In Sweden and Finland it’s about 1%.

WWF confirms that it has been working with IKEA on this issue.

“WWF is aware of these accusations and has encouraged Ikea and Swedwood to follow up directly with SPOK and Protect the Forest,” says Per Larsson, forest officer at WWF Sweden. “We know that Rainforest Alliance has already evaluated a complaint by the Swedish NGO Protect the Forest related to Swedwood Karelia’s operation. According to the publically available audit report, Swedwood did not breach the FSC Russia standard.”

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A company called NEPCon, which is affiliated with the Rainforest Alliance, monitors Swedwood’s logging certification in Russia. WWF has also recommended a full certification control audit, which Hildeman says he would welcome.

“I would welcome the FSC to initiate a control audit from their accreditation body,” Hildeman added, “so that there’s no doubt that we are following the Russian FSC standard. Because we are committed to doing that.”

[For the record, 8:13 a.m., June 13: A previous version of this post misidentified the WWF as the World Wildlife Fund, which is the group’s U.S. name. Globally, it is known as the World Wide Fund for Nature.]

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