This recent study - supported by WWF Chile - indicates that FSC forest management certification has overall positive effects on freshwater supply, erosion control and biodiversity conservation in forest landscapes of south-central Chile.

Forests give people many services, from climate regulation, carbon sequestration, and the provision of timber and fuelwood to reliable fresh water supplies, ecotourism and soil erosion control. These benefits are known as ecosystem services, which are crucial for human well-being. FSC-certified forests are sustainably managed, and this includes the protection of valuable ecosystem services.

The Belgian university KU Leuven and the Universidad de La Frontera in Chile collaborated in 2018 and 2019 for a master’s thesis research project on the ecosystem services-related ecological impacts of FSC certification. The study combined literature reviews, stakeholder analysis and empirical research in the Nahuelbuta forest landscape, a priority landscape of WWF Chile located in the biodiverse Valdivian ecoregion. For the statistical analysis, the study area was divided into five sub-areas, representative of the landscape. The study showed indications of overall positive effects on erosion control (in three to four sub-areas), fresh water supply (in two sub-areas), and biodiversity conservation and habitats for plants and animals (in all five sub-areas).

FSC certification effects on fresh water supply

Fresh water supply and water regulation cycles are crucial for life on Earth. Nowadays the importance of reliable, clean, and fresh water supplies continues to rise, as the demands (and also the scarcity) for this finite resource are increasing.

To quantify fresh water supply in the Nahuelbuta landscape the study used an Annual Water Yield model. Annual water yields refer to amount of water, on average, produced in different parts of the landscape each year. The results from three of the five sub-areas were uncertain and didn’t give a clear conclusion of the effects. However, in two sub-areas there were indications that FSC certification had overall positive effects on the quantity of fresh water production.

FSC certification effects on erosion regulation

Erosion control and the minimization of soil erosion are important because the soil is a dynamic ecosystem, containing carbon, nutrients and many species. Soil erosion can result in the loss of fertile land, leaving behind degraded areas that are more prone to flooding. In addition, erosion can lead to sedimentation and pollution in rivers, and in this way negatively influence water quality.

The study used a Sediment Delivery Ratio model to produce maps of sediment retention and sediment export, the former being a positive indicator and the latter being a negative indicator for soil conservation (or erosion control).

Results mainly showed indications of overall positive effects of FSC certification on soil conservation and erosion regulation in the Nahuelbuta landscape. Based on the sediment retention indicator, overall effects were found to be positive in four of the five sub-areas. The study indicated overall positive effects in three of the five sub-areas, based on the sediment export indicator.

FSC certification effects on biodiversity conservation and habitats for plants and animals

The quality of habitats – the places living creatures call home – is a possible proxy for biodiversity. This study used a Habitat Quality model that combined data on land cover and threats to biodiversity to create maps of habitat degradation and ultimately habitat quality. This quality was then used as an indicator for plant and animal habitats and biodiversity conservation. The results indicated overall positive effects of FSC certification on biodiversity conservation and plant and animal habitats in the Nahuelbuta landscape (in all five sub-areas).

Why is the Valdivian ecoregion in Chile so important?

Chile is an important producer of forestry products on the world market. The country has more than three million hectares of plantations with exotic tree species, mainly radiata pine (Pinus radiata) and eucalyptus (Eucalyptus spp.). Chile’s long and narrow geography results in an extraordinary variety of climates, from semi-arid in the extreme south to ‘Mediterranean’ zones in the centre, and a desert climate further north. Most tree plantations are situated in south-central Chile, where climates are the best suited for this. In addition, Chile has the second highest amount of FSC-certified area in Latin America and the Caribbean: more than 2.3 million hectares (as at December 2019). This makes it relevant for the study of FSC certification effects.

Evaluating the ecological effects of FSC certification in Chile is important because of its spectacular nature and in principle. The Valdivian ecoregion in south-central Chile is like an island, with natural boundaries formed by the Andes Mountains, the Pacific Ocean and the Atacama Desert. Because of this isolation, species could evolve independently from their congeners (organisms of the same genus) outside this ‘island’. Therefore, the ecoregion is characterised by extraordinary biodiversity and holds a high number of species that only occur here and cannot be found anywhere else in the world. Moreover, the ecoregion also contains the second largest of the world’s five temperate rainforests and therefore represents unique ecosystems that are important to preserve.

However, this spectacular biodiversity is threatened. It is historically affected by the conversion of species-rich native forests to agricultural areas and exotic tree plantations, leading to soil degradation and native forest fragmentation. Currently, forest fires are the greatest threat. The ecoregion is one of the 35 biodiversity hotspots on Earth and thus important for conservation. Therefore, one of the WWF priority strategies aims for sustainable natural resource production and consumption. WWF Chile, for example, promotes voluntary FSC certification of forestry companies and supports the monitoring of its social and environmental effects. Sustainably managed plantations play an important role to partially fulfil forest product demands from natural forests. In addition, forestry companies with FSC-certified plantations also need to protect or restore set-aside areas of natural forests (Buffer zones and High Conservation Value Areas).

There are still many challenges ahead for extending scientific research on the environmental effects of FSC certification. For example, a more detailed long term monitoring of FSC certification effects on a larger number of ecosystem services is needed. Local surrounding communities should also be included in the evaluation, because it is mainly these communities that receive the forest ecosystem services. This pioneering study provides preliminary indications of overall positive FSC certification effects on fresh water supply, erosion control and biodiversity conservation in the Nahuelbuta landscape. In this way, the research contributes to a better understanding of FSC certification effects on ecosystem service supply in south-central Chile.