27 Feb 2024

Audit finds 'major non-conformities' in granting East Coast forests a green stamp of approval

6:57 pm on 27 February 2024
Slash from the heavy rain in Gisbourne, June 2018.

Slash from the heavy rain in Gisborne, June 2018. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

* This story has been updated. It originally stated PF Olsen had earlier been suspended, which is incorrect.

A damning report has found "major non-conformities" in the way East Coast forests were granted a stamp of environmental stewardship, despite "compelling evidence" of problems.

An audit of the auditors who gave Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification to forests owned by Malaysian company Ernslaw One has found serious shortcomings in the checks carried out over multiple years.

Intense storms in 2017, 2018 and 2023 caused massive landslides from logging sites in FSC-certified forests, devastating properties, roads and bridges.

The FSC badge is supposed to prove a forest is under responsible management, so some green advocates were surprised when Ernslaw One kept its FSC label, after being fined in court for breaking environmental law.

Late last year, an independent assessor from overseas auditors ASI visited Gisborne to check on the forests on behalf of FSC and speak to people in the area, after locals and green groups complained.

The findings were released today, after FSC earlier confirmed Ernslaw's FSC certificate was suspended.

The audit found serious shortcomings in the way the New Zealand office of auditors SGS carried out checks on Ernslaw's compliance.

FSC says the problems concern SGS, not Ernslaw itself, and SGS needs to show how it will improve.

SGS hasn't lost its ability to certify forests.

A second certifier, Preferred by Nature (formerly Nepcon), was also audited, after it signed off on PF Olsen's FSC certificates.

List of problems

The problems found with SGS include "failing to visit sufficient sites or to interview sufficient stakeholders and experts or to review relevant documents in four surveillance audits in 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2022".

SGS also failed to rotate the staff member carrying out compliance visits, with the same person making five audits in a row. The maximum was meant to be three, to ensure the checks remain impartial.

A theme of the audit was failures to read documents or interview people who might have shown the forests didn't comply.

ASI said, by the time the 2022 audit came around, Ernslaw had been convicted on charges involving its forestry operations in Gisborne - but SGS didn't follow up this information.

"The non-compliant practices were clearly outlined in a publicly available written judicial decision....and described in news stories.

"[SGS] did not follow-up this compelling evidence of non-conformance, and did not visit any sites in the Gisborne Region in the 2022 audit," ASI's report said.

The report also said SGS also didn't visit Ernslaw's Gisborne forests in 2019, despite much of the area being at high risk of landslides.

"The region is well known as one of the most erosion prone landscapes on earth and rivers in the region carry some of the highest sediment loads recorded anywhere," it said.

"[SGS] carried out very limited sampling of sites in the three other audits - 2018, 2020, 2021 - following the June 2018 storm," the report said.

"By 2019, the charges laid by the Gisborne District Council against [Ernslaw] were public information," it added.

ASI noted SGS had several documents available that might have shown non-compliance, including a 2017 Gisborne Council investigation into forestry slash and court and newspaper reports from 2022.

"There is no indication in any of the audit reports that any of these documents were reviewed," the audit said.

"Based on interviews conducted by ASI, [SGS] did not interview any of the Gisborne District Council compliance and enforcement officials or legal council involved."

On work safety, ASI said SGS failed to detect any non-conformity with the rules in 2019, after a worker was killed and Ernslaw was convicted and fined over workplace safety.

According to ASI: "In the 2020 audit report.. [SGS] presented a table that identifies 5 forestry fatalities over a 4-year period 2016/2017 to 2019/2020. All these fatalities occurred....in the Gisborne [management area]. By any objective measure, 4 fatalities in 5 years is an excessively high number of fatalities in a relatively small operation and represents a very high frequency. ....The safety record was described to ASI by the current [Ernslaw] Health and Safety manager as 'horrendous - the worst in New Zealand' and far higher than industry norms."

ASI said SGS failed to follow up on this - though it also noted Ernslaw had carried out safety reforms since then.

In response to the findings, Manu Caddie from Mana Taiao Tairāwhiti, which complained about the certificates, said the findings showed "poor practice" and few opportunities for locals to get involved in the certification process.

"This is not surprising to locals but hugely disappointing," he said.

"Now that we have brought the issues to their attention, we expect FSC and ASI to ensure the FSC standards, which are now even stronger than they were when these audits were undertaken.

"Consumers and business customers expect FSC standards to mean what they say - sustainable management and good stewardship of natural resources, safe work places and positive relationships with the communities FSC certified products come from."

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