19th Mar 2018


Trade deals with a social conscience

  • "Voluntary agreements now cover a forest area of 168 million hectares and could impact the lives of over 100 million forest peoples" (Photo: European Forest Institute)

When the EU adopted a revolutionary approach to negotiating trade agreements in 2003, the event passed largely unnoticed. The Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan set out to create legally binding agreements between the EU and timber producing countries with an in-built focus on improved governance, reduced corruption and reforms in forest laws.

The implications of nearly a decade of FLEGT trade agreements will be the topic of a conference in the European Parliament on October 9th - the first substantial public examination of the programme.

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The timing is important as a new EU Timber Regulation will be activated early next year which could make or break FLEGT agreements as a tool for better forest governance. In the end, it will be up to EU member states to make sure the Regulation strengthens such agreements rather than undermines them.

Ghana became the first country to sign a legally binding FLEGT Voluntary Partnership Agreement with the EU in 2008. Known as a VPA, the agreement sets out a definition for legal timber which is specific to that country, not decreed by the EU but agreed within Ghana by a host of interest groups including the timber industry, civil society representatives and government.

Five countries have since followed suit, each creating a bespoke definition of legality tailored to the interests of that country, its society and its industry. In Liberia, for example, communities were uniquely involved in VPA negotiations through direct representatives, and the government cracked down on loopholes in the logging laws which came to light. In the Republic of Congo, the passing of a new law on indigenous peoples' rights became a condition of signing the VPA.

Such voluntary agreements now cover a forest area of 168 million hectares and could impact the lives of over 100 million forest peoples.

EU as arbiter

The FLEGT VPA Programme is explicit in its assumption that improved transparency, recognition of tenure rights, and enhanced civil society participation will lead to an agreement better suited to tackling illegal logging and improving forest governance.

While definitions of legal timber are generated by the timber producing country, the EU will only sign an agreement when it is satisfied that a broad base of stakeholders, including civil society, have been involved and given consent to the drawing up of that definition.

The process has been less simple in Malaysia, where civil society groups felt they could not influence the process and walked away from negotiations. Despite complaints from European NGOs, the EU pressed on with the VPA process arguing it was up to Malaysia to define adequate participation. However six years after talks began, Malaysia is still a long way from reaching an agreement. This implies that forming a VPA without addressing civil society’s concerns is not easy.

Where negotiations have been successfully concluded, civil society has demonstrated unprecedented support for the resulting agreements. When a broad base of stakeholders is onboard right at the start of the process, the agreements are far more likely to stick.

There have been suggestions that the VPA negotiation model be transposed to other resource sectors (like mining or palm oil), where civil unrest and resource or land tenure conflicts are often palpable and disruptive.

The real test

The financial incentive for timber-producing countries to fully implement a VPA lies in easy access to the European markets. In March next year the EU timber regulation will make it illegal to trade in illegally-sourced forest products within the European market. Timber importers could find it difficult to demonstrate the legality of their product, but FLEGT-licensed timber will get an automatic green light.

So far however, no FLEGT-licensed timber has entered the EU. The slow negotiation process, and the even slower implementation process, means it is unlikely there will be any licensed timber when the new regulation kicks in. If EU member states are relaxed about upholding the timber regulation and do not police timber imports carefully, the financial argument for a VPA will be lost.

The forest agreements have achieved much in terms of improved forest governance, civil society participation, and strengthened community rights, but this could easily be undone at the implementation stage.

If FLEGT VPAs are to deliver, the EU must focus on supporting implementation of the partnership agreements in tropical forest countries and effectively enforce the timber regulation at home.

The writer is the campaigns coordinator of FERN, an NGO focussing on forest policies

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