LEED Revisions Would Leave Indigenous Peoples “Open to Exploitation”

Bill Walsh - October 23, 2008

There is a choice to be made: to promote economic policies that despoil indigenous land, or to support culture and the remaining biological sanctuaries. - Paul Hawken, Blessed Unrest, p.103.

In this issue, I continue my discussion of the US Green Building Council’s proposed revisions to the LEED® wood credit with Doug Pierce of Perkins+Will Architects. LEED currently offers credit only for wood certified by the independent, multi-stakeholder Forest Stewardship Council. The proposed revisions would recognize other certification standards that meet certain benchmarks. In this interview, Doug discusses the implications of the proposed revisions on Indigenous Peoples and their land, along with concerns that the proposed revisions reverse a number of social equity values reflected in the current standard. - BW

Doug is a LEED AP with over 25 years of experience in sustainable design. He directs the Sustainable Design Initiative at the Minneapolis office of Perkins+Will and is a Professor in Practice at the University of Minnesota School of Architecture. His comments and those of other stakeholders can be found here.

BW: Doug, your comments on the USGBC’s proposed revisions to the LEED FSC credit highlight the issue of Indigenous Peoples’ land and tenure rights. In a 2006 point-counterpoint interview I conducted with leaders from the FSC and the industry sponsored Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), one of the most fundamental disagreements between them concerned the rights of Indigenous Peoples. The SFI took the position that "[s]ome Indigenous Peoples invoke the FSC standard in the Canadian context because it strengthens their hand in land disputes with the Crown. But forest certification should not be used as a tool to solve land disputes." The FSC said, "The FSC gives Indigenous Peoples a seat at the table, where they speak for themselves, we are an inclusive consensus-building membership organization. . . . [I]t is difficult to practice responsible forestry in the context of a dispute over who owns the land." Where do the proposed LEED revisions leave things?

DP: Our analysis shows that the proposed LEED revisions greatly reduce the standing that Indigenous Peoples currently enjoy in the FSC process. At first glance, it is not obvious that changes contained in the proposed standard would be significant. But the devil is in the details, and the cuts are spread across multiple line-items. FSC has strong language citing “Public Consultation” as “central to accessing cultural, social and environmental values associated with the property” and requires consultation with a “range of stakeholders” and “interest groups.” The proposed LEED benchmark reduces this language to consultation with people “directly affected” and only a report to the public about the management plan. Also, there is no requirement that Indigenous Peoples be paid for sharing their knowledge about the ecosystem, leaving them open to exploitation.

Another serious reduction in the standard leaves illegal logging on the table. FSC allows limited quantities of “non-certified” wood to be used in FSC certified assemblies, but it must be “controlled wood,” meaning no illegally-logged timber, along with many other important FSC criteria. Unfortunately, the requirements covering illegally logged wood in the proposed LEED benchmark apply to select lands, such as parks and preserves, so wood used in certified assemblies could be illegally taken from Indigenous Peoples’ land. Worldwide illegal logging is a significant issue; it’s a big climate change driver and a threat to biological and cultural diversity.

BW: On October 9, 2008, one month after the comment period on the proposed LEED revisions closed, the USGBC announced that it was “committed to more fully integrating social equity into our work.” In your opinion, do the proposed LEED standards for certified wood products do so?

DP: No, the proposed standards significantly reduce the social equity values as currently expressed by the LEED wood credit. Again, this is not apparent until you identify all of the changes spread across multiple line-items and consider them in totality. In addition to the specific compromises in the ability of indigenous peoples to protect their land and tenure rights, the proposed standard does not recognize the right for workers to organize. This is a subtle, but powerful difference with FSC and similar certifications such as “Fair Trade.”

In many cases, these forests are the core livelihood for people who have lived there for many generations; yet if they cannot organize, they have little influence to negotiate living wages and other important quality of life considerations with the timber companies. If you add this with other benchmark reductions like not requiring audit reports to be made public and not requiring public stakeholder participation, you greatly diminish transparency and the democratic principles embodied in FSC to manage forest ecosystems.

BW: What about the suggestion by the timber industry that the FSC process is being abused tactically by First Nations in Canada to “strengthen their hand” in land negotiations?

DP: Forests worldwide are central to the quality of life for hundreds of millions of people around the world, and they should have a say in how they are managed. As we all know, the long-view on economics is a foundational aspect of sustainability and social equity. So it is significant that unlike FSC, the proposed LEED revisions have no criteria for including long-term economics in the management plan. I am also concerned about other related cuts, such as no requirements for public education about forestry. These combined reductions, along with the others we have discussed, would severely weaken the social equity criteria of the LEED certified wood credit, and by default, they reduce its ecological integrity.

BW: That reminds me of the important roles the FSC and the USGBC currently play in protecting Indigenous Peoples’ land and cultural rights, what Paul Hawken called in Blessed Unrest “the heart of our movement.” He wrote, “A world wide cultural siege is being undertaken by a global economy hooked on growth, and resistance to it represents the heart of the movement this book addresses . . . there is a choice to be made: to promote economic policies that despoil indigenous land, or to support culture and the remaining biological sanctuaries.” Do you think these proposed revisions to LEED present us with this choice?

DP: Yes. That is why I am speaking out on this issue and urging others to do so. Social equity is so very important to sustainability and I personally believe it is what will ultimately open the door to saving the whole of life on the planet. Blessed Unrest was a great book, which inspires me to recall one of my favorite quotes, as an architect, from a mentor and friend, David Orr: "Nothing is beautiful that causes ugliness in any other place or at any other time in the world."

BW: Thanks Doug, that really reminds us of what LEED can help us accomplish.


Tags: none