By Marimuthu Nadason

Saving our forests a collective responsibility

Malaysia is home to the one of the oldest tropical rainforests in the world. 62.3 percent or about 20,456,000 ha of Malaysia is forested. It is disheartening to know that between 1990 and 2010, Malaysia lost an average of 96,000 ha or 0.43 percent per year.

Our land use for food and fuel has led to clearing of forests at break neck speed and species including humans fighting for their survival. The damage to the forest causes loss in the supply of wood fuel, soil and water resources, and the quality of rural life. All things combined, the cost of deforestation on a global level is estimated at between 2 to 5 trillion dollars.  

The World Environment Day 2011 carries a theme to emphasise the importance of forests i.e, nature at your service. The UN has also declared 2011 as the International Year of Biodiversity.  

As the president of the largest consumer organisation in Malaysia and also one the oldest, I would like to stress the importance of involving consumers as important stakeholders in sustainable forest management.

Consumers can be the solution. Consumers can drive demand for products derived from forests managed in a sustainable manner. Sustainable management of forests is crucial to sustainable development as it is effective in preserving economic growth, environmental conservation and societal development.  

One of the way suppliers and government agencies can promote demand for sustainable products among consumers is through labelling schemes. Transparent, independent and accountable eco-labelling schemes addresses consumer rights to information and right to healthy and sustainable environment.  

In relation to sustainable forest management there is the Forest Stewardship Council certification scheme or FSC and chain of custody that addresses illegal trade of endangered forest species.  

Forest certification was developed as an instrument to give due recognition to and to provide an incentive for sustainable forest management. The chain of custody tracks timber taken from the forest to the end-user, which has to be verified by an independent body before a product can be labelled as coming from the certified forest.

To ensure that certifiers work competently, independently and to a common standard, they are accredited by a third-party organisation.  
Consumers can also demand for food products produced in a manner that have minimum impact on the forest. Such information is again available through certification schemes such the Rainforest Alliance (RFA) certification and the Fair Trade labelling scheme.  

RFA certification encourages farmers to grow crops and manage farms sustainably. Agricultural expansion is responsible for 70 percent of global deforestation. Indiscriminate land use lead to soil erosion, water pollution and wildlife habitat destruction.  

Fair trade schemes create ethical links between export companies and producers in developing countries and buyers in the developed countries. For poor and isolated forest dwellers, such schemes can bring many benefits including transparent transactions, training, access to market information and a more stable income.  

A survey by Fomca in 2007, on sustainable consumption revealed that only 5 percent of the respondents surveyed could recognise energy efficiency rating label. Although the 3R label was well recognised by more than 88 percent of the respondents only 30 percent know where the nearest recycling facility/collection is located.

Awareness on FSC, RFA and Fair Trade labelling are even lower as these are not mainstreamed in government policies in Malaysia.  

Thus, government intervention needs to be increased and eco-labelling schemes need to be integrated into many policies namely those related to food, building, products and other climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts.

Businesses should promote and make available such products to consumers. It is part of the social responsibility of organisations to promote sustainable consumption among consumers – as recommended in the ISO 2600 Guidance on Social Responsibility. As with many sustainable development efforts all three stakeholders - government, business and consumers - need to complement one another’s efforts.

Marimuthu Nadason is president of Federation of Malaysian Consumers Associations (Fomca).