PEFC – global forests providing a sustainable future for twenty years

As the world’s most important ecosystem, forests play an important role in all this. PEFC forest certification ensures that forests are managed and used sustainably.

In my work, I’ve long been involved in sustainable forest management and forest certification. But I had little practical experience until I became a family forest owner a few years ago. My forest is a typical northern forest with various natural habitats, from an old spruce stand to recently planted seedlings, and from coniferous forest to bogland, as well as natural bodies of water – we’re in Finland, after all. My forest has much that is interesting and beautiful, but no actual conservation sites. I occasionally participate in forest management work, and I pick mushrooms in my forest in the autumn. Naturally, my forest is PEFC-certified.

PEFC stands for the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification. Its purpose is to ensure ecologically, socially and economically sustainable forest management and use. Globally, more than 60% of all certified forest hectares are certified in accordance with the PEFC. The PEFC requires profitable and socially sustainable forestry to maintain forests’ biodiversity and cultural and recreational value.

The criteria, or forest certification requirements, are developed in cooperation with various stakeholders, such as forest owners, environmental organisations, forest industry operators, representatives of indigenous peoples, or others who can contribute with their respective expertise. Certificate holders’ operations are reviewed annually by a third party. Certification and the related PEFC logo ensure that the raw material for baking paper, for example, comes from a sustainably managed forest and that its origin is known.

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PEFC forest certification sets stricter sustainability criteria for forest management than legislation, which determines the national minimum requirements. In Finland, the first Forest Act came into effect as early as 1886. Today, for example, the Forest Act still requires that the growth of a new generation of trees is ensured by planting new seedlings.  

The strengths of the PEFC include its consideration of local conditions. Forests and operating methods vary greatly between northern commercial forests, which resemble natural forests, and tree plantations in warm regions in the south, for example. However, the biodiversity maintenance goals are consistent. In the Nordic countries, during regeneration felling, groups of retention trees are left in the forest. In due time, these trees will die, topple and decay, becoming homes for insects and other organisms. In southern tree plantations, natural value is fostered by leaving green corridors between cultivation areas, for example. 

The PEFC focuses strongly on the forest sector’s social aspects. In the Nordic countries, these criteria concern labour rights, the monitoring of the chain of forest contractors and advice for forest owners. In Finland, the focus is also on increasing forest knowledge among young people – the professionals of the future. There are also regions where it’s important to consider the basic livelihood and living conditions of people who depend on forests.

Change often happens slowly in forests. However, the effects of the PEFC on forests, the forest sector and society as a whole can be assessed over the 20 years of its existence. Progress has been made. In Finland, certification has had a positive effect on the well-being and biodiversity of forests. Certification has also improved knowledge and skills, changed attitudes and facilitated the creation of established operating methods. An increase in the amount of decaying wood through retention trees has had a particularly strong effect on biodiversity. Appreciation of the ecological aspects of forests has increased among private forest owners, and many want to leave valuable sites in a natural state or manage them to increase their natural value.

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Let’s return to my forest. Forest management work is being carried out there this year. A summer employee is clearing seedling stands, which means removing deciduous thickets from between spruce seedlings. On another site, a local forest service contractor is thinning a 40-year-old pine stand. This allows space for trees to grow and become sturdier. The pulpwood from the thinning is delivered to Metsä Group’s bioproduct mill in Äänekoski. Groups of retention trees are marked during thinning and will be left to grow during future felling. In line with the PEFC criteria, a protection zone is left by the lake to prevent nutrient runoffs into the water and to protect the landscape. The 100-year-old peatland forest will remain untouched to help conserve the bogland habitat. As a forest owner, I believe it’s very important to ensure a balance between natural value, recreational use and forest management.

Riikka Joukio
PEFC Council, Board member

Riikka has served as a member of the international PEFC Board of Directors since 2014. As a Board member, her strengths include providing industrial and northern perspectives. Riikka is in charge of Greaseproof Papers business at Metsä Tissue in Finland, and has held various managerial and other positions at Metsä Group. The sustainability of the forest industry has always been close to her heart. Riikka’s hobbies include exercise, handicrafts and gardening – in addition to occasional forest management work.

Twitter: @RiikkaJoukio


We give the word to smallholders – the people we cannot fail

In this month’s chapter, the spotlight is on small- and family forest owners, the people who founded PEFC and implement our standards every day on the ground.

Millions of small- and family forest owners manage about 30% of the world's forest area. This makes them crucial partners in our work to achieve sustainable management of the world's forests.

Rather than only reporting about smallholders, we will give the word to them and hear their stories and thoughts about PEFC and sustainable forest management.

“PEFC is like a global handshake on sustainability”

Sven Erik Hammar is a smallholder in Sweden. In his video, he tells us about the meaning of PEFC for him and other smallholders, and takes us on a tour into his forest.

His forest covers 660 ha, half of which is productive forest land, the other half is marshland and mountain birch forest. The forest has been in his family for 200 years at its present site.

The PEFC certification of his forest is of special importance for Sven Erik. “I know that forest owners all over the world have the same benchmark. It’s like a global handshake on sustainability.”

Sven Erik mentions the study ‘European Family Forest Owners’ views on Forest Certification‘, a joint project of several organisations and associations representing forest owners in Europe.

“The study shows that PEFC as a system is best suited to include the smallholder perspective. In particular the possibility to balance social, environmental and ecological sustainability in one discussion.”

“Smallholders are a great resource,” he says. “We can provide the world with sustainably grown products from the forests. Our forests.”


Making forest certification work for everybody

Small- and family forest owners – the little guys – are important stewards of the world’s forests. From our very beginnings, we have had their needs at heart. 

All over the world, smallholders are managing their forests sustainably, yet certification remains out of their reach – simply because they don’t have the means to obtain it.

PEFC was founded by small- and family forest owners, and from early on, we were aware that the costs and procedures of forest certification can be a significant obstacle for them.

While we never compromised on sustainability – our requirements must be met by everyone, independent of size – we wanted PEFC certification to be attainable for all forest owners, including those with limited financial means.

The solution is group certification, a mechanism we established almost twenty years ago.  It allows smallholders to organize themselves in groups and pool their resources to achieve certification.


How does it work


Smallholders who wish to become certified don’t go through the certification process alone, but in a group with other smallholders within their region.

This lowers the administrative burden and allows them to share the cost involved in meeting and auditing against our requirements. In addition to reduced costs of certification for forest owners, group certification also enables additional benefits, such as peer-to-peer support, collaboration and sharing of knowledge and best practices.

Importantly, however, while group certification allows for small forest owners to collectively apply for certification, the requirements remain the same, and every forest owner must meet the requirements in order to achieve certification. This is verified through third-party audits, supplemented by a robustly designed internal auditing system. 

Why is this so important?


PEFC certification ensures that the management of forests is socially just, ecologically sound and economically viable. It enables smallholders to sell their timber as PEFC certified, helping them meet numerous public and private procurement policies and gain access to international markets.

Enabling smallholders to achieve PEFC certification is not only vital for them, but also for the world. 25% of the world’s forests are owned by families and communities, and the way those forests are managed can have an influence on the climate, biodiversity and health of our planet.

Latest developments – making the best even better

Although group certification has been highly successful, we continue to develop our Group Forest Management Certification benchmark standard, making the best even better.

Over more than two years, a working group revised the standard, which was approved by our General Assembly in November 2018. Key changes in the standard include improved requirements for internal auditing, such as risk based sampling groups and minimum sample size, as well as the strengthening of the groups’ management system.

By adjusting our requirements for the internal auditing process, we can be even more assured that all forest owners within a group are managing their forests in line with the PEFC requirements.

Our group certification approach has already enabled around one million small-forest owners to achieve PEFC certification, and the number continues to grow. This is a testimony to the fact that forest certification is possible for small landholders, and that it is a powerful and cost-effective way of promoting sustainable forest management.


Trees outside Forests: PEFC reaches beyond forests

Last year, PEFC revolutionized forest certification by moving it out of the forest. Now, people and organizations owning or managing trees growing outside of forests can achieve PEFC certification of their sustainable management practices. 

This is a big leap forward. But what does it really mean on the ground?

Trees outside forests are immensely important for rural communities around the world. Millions of people rely on this resource to provide them with food, materials and their livelihoods. If managed sustainably, they can contribute to rural development, food security and reduced poverty – vital Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

We find these trees throughout landscapes, from scattered on farms and settlement land, to growing in hedgerows and alongside fields. Often, trees are just one of many crops grown by a farmer or a community. 

The challenge

For many smallholders, farmers and communities, managing their trees sustainably is second nature, and they have been doing so for generations. However, with no certification suited to their specific conditions, they face challenges accessing markets to sell their timber or non-wood forest products. 

This is why we developed our pioneering approach towards certification of Trees outside Forests, also known as TOF.

Starting in 2015, we focused on an approach that would be practical and affordable to farmers and other land managers, while maintaining the stringent requirements of PEFC sustainable forest management certification. In this way, we have made it possible for landowners and managers to demonstrate the sustainable management of their trees.

“I have always been concerned that smallholders growing trees in agricultural landscapes are disadvantaged or even discriminated against in international markets. This is because it is difficult for them to meet international standards that apply to larger forest areas. So this is much needed,” said Tony Bartlett, Advisor to the ACIAR Forestry Program, speaking about PEFC TOF certification at the World Agroforestry Congress.

The next steps

In 2018, the PEFC General Assembly approved the requirements for Trees outside Forests, as part of the revised PEFC Sustainable Forest Management benchmark.

Following this approval, national forest certification systems need to develop their own TOF certification in line with the international requirements, but adapted to local conditions. Leading the way is India. Currently in a draft state, stakeholders will soon submit it to PEFC for endorsement.

Once the Indian TOF standard has achieved PEFC endorsement, smallholders in the country will be able to apply for PEFC certification for their trees outside forests – the first in the world to do so.

Implementation of TOF

Part of the PEFC Sustainable Forest Management benchmark, specific requirements within the benchmark have been adapted for the unique TOF context. For example, rather than the management aiming to maintain or increase forests and their ecosystem services (8.1.1), the management instead aims at maintaining or increasing the cover, value and/or diversity of trees in the landscape and their related ecosystem services.


PEFC governance & standards development: Clarifying roles and responsibilities

The PEFC General Assembly is PEFC’s highest decision-making body. How much fame can it claim for our most widely known output, our internationally recognized forest certification standards? The short answer is: close to none. The General Assembly has important decisions to make, but the actual content of our technical documentation is not part of it. 

“In PEFC, standards are developed by standard setting working groups,” explains Dr Michael Berger, Deputy Secretary General and Head of Technical Unit at PEFC International. 

“These working groups, comprising all relevant and interested stakeholder groups, are instrumental in the development of our standards and responsible for building consensus on a final draft standard.” 

The role of the PEFC General Assembly, as well as the PEFC Board of Directors, is limited the formal approval of the final draft standards. 

“This formal approval is necessary so that the final draft standards can in fact become PEFC standards. Without this approval through the PEFC governance bodies, they could be anybody’s standards,” highlights Dr Berger. “The General Assembly and the Board of Directors approve the standards – or can decide not to do so – but don’t have a say about the content. Neither can change a single word.”

Responsibilities of the PEFC General Assembly & the Board of Directors

So what is the PEFC General Assembly responsible for? It has quite a number of important task, focusing on the administration and management of PEFC as an association. This includes decisions about our statutes, budget, appointing the Board and membership.

Our Board of Directors supports the work of the General Assembly by preparing the budget and the meetings of the General Assembly and members meetings, as well as formal oversight and guidance of our work within the secretariat.

Impartiality at heart

That our governance bodies do not have much of a say concerning the content of our standards is done by design, explains Dr Berger. 

“We wanted to ensure that our standards benefit from the best available knowledge, from the best practices on the ground, and from the latest scientific information. This means that we needed to ensure that everyone involved in the standard setting process can speak their mind, that there’s no vested interest, no hidden agenda. To achieve this, our standards are developed independently from our governance, ensuring a high degree of impartiality.”