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Forest Law and Governance: Blog

Sacrificing South America’s forests on the altar of EU market access

By Perrine Fournier

The first trade talks between the European Union and the Mercosur bloc of nations - Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay – began almost 20 years ago. Since then they have stuttered through 28 rounds of negotiations, but this year it looks as if an agreement will finally be reached.

A critical issue remains unresolved, however: the amount of beef the South American nations can export to the EU.

Last week, in the latest round of bilateral talks currently taking place in Brasilia, the EU tabled an offer to increase the amount of beef imports from the Mercosur nations to 70,000 tonnes. But for the South American negotiators, this is still apparently not enough.

It’s an issue that has the potential not just to radically alter the EU agricultural landscape - with European farmers’ unions arguing that it will have a “devastating impact” on rural jobs and EU food standards – but the EU’s efforts to lead the world in the fight against deforestation and climate change.

The Mercosur countries are already the biggest exporters of beef to the EU, with up to 86 per cent of imports coming from these countries. But under the new free trade deal this would increase sharply.

Whether the EU’s offer is accepted or they make a further concession, the upshot is that the forests of Latin America will be sacrificed on the altar of EU market access.

Cattle ranching is the biggest driver of deforestation in South America: a fact which – along with its disastrous consequences - has been thoroughly documented, from Greenpeace’s   Slaughtering the Amazon 2009 report, to numerous academic studies.

Brazil’s rise to become the world’s largest exporter of beef – a position it is set to maintain, according to the latest OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook - has come at the expense of the Amazon, the earth’s biggest rainforest. And this has been driven, to a large degree, to meet the needs of a voracious EU market.

In 2013, a study commissioned by the EU found that the EU has been the world’s largest driver of tropical deforestation. Between 1990 and 2008, 53 per cent of global deforestation was due to agricultural expansion, and the EU as a whole was the largest single destination for these crops and livestock.

In 2015, Fern went a step further, revealing in our Stolen Goods report, that the EU is also one of the largest importers of products resulting from illegal deforestation. In one year (2012) the EU imported roughly a quarter of all the internationally traded agricultural products that had been grown on illegally cleared tropical forest land – and beef from Latin America was one of the prime products.

So by making this concession on beef, the EU is putting trade and consumption above its commitments to halt deforestation.

The protections to forests outlined in the draft Free Trade Agreement texts are nowhere near specific enough and provide no effective enforcement mechanisms.

In 2015, the UK, Netherlands, Germany, France and Denmark signed the Amsterdam Declaration reaffirming their commitment to eliminate deforestation from agricultural commodity supply chains by 2020, as agreed in the 2014 UN New York Declaration on Forests.

This deal flies in the face of these commitments and will do nothing to achieve it. Until it complies with them, it must be vigorously opposed.

The fate of the Congo Basin forests must lie with its people

By Marie-Ange Kalenga

A light breeze of democratisation is blowing through the Congo Basin – and it is being driven by civil society.

In the Central African Republic (CAR), civil society is playing a key role in rebuilding a nation torn apart by civil war. In Cameroon, it is pushing for democratic reforms in the face of often fierce government pressure. In the Republic of Congo (Congo), civil society is alerting to human rights abuses against indigenous communities and dissenting voices. And in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), it’s playing a vital role in providing humanitarian assistance in conflict prone regions, and supporting social and economic development.

As well as campaigning for the strengthening of political and social rights, many civil society groups in the Congo Basin are also demanding that ordinary people have the right to benefit from their nations’ natural resources, and that they are protected for future generations rather than pillaged by powerful elites.  

Forests are a prime example.

At nearly two million km2, the Congo Basin is the world’s second largest tropical forest after the Amazon. It’s a breadbasket for millions: a source of meat, wild fruits, vegetables, spices, medicine and building materials. It also plays a crucial role in regulating the global climate and the flow of water.

While the Congo Basin forest has long been exploited by industrial loggers, hunters and farmers, it remains mostly intact compared to other tropical ecosystems like the Amazon or the Mekong region. But concerns are growing that the demand for commodity crops and timber which has ravaged the forests of the Amazon and Southeast Asia is spreading to Africa. Already millions of hectares of land in sub-Saharan Africa have been acquired by large-scale landholders for palm oil, rubber and cocoa.

The battle to save the Congo Basin forest from agricultural plantations and logging is largely being led by civil society.

In Cameroon’s southern coastal town of Kribi last month, civil society groups from CAR, Cameroon, Congo, DRC and beyond gathered to share knowledge and views of the best way to make a difference. The answer, most agreed, lies in community forestry.

“People have lived in these forests for generations and managed to protect them,” said Maixent Agnimbat from the Forum pour la Gouvernance et les Droits Humains (FGDH), an NGO based in Congo. “Who are we to teach them how they should live, to take forests away from them or deny their traditional knowledge?”

It was a view echoed by Guy Julien Ndakouzou, of Centre pour l’Information Environmentale et le Développement Durable (CIEDD) from CAR: “People will conserve biodiversity, reduce deforestation and manage forests sustainably when they get direct regular benefits from them and when they can fully participate in decision-making processes regarding those forests,” he said.

“Giving communities legal rights over their forests is vital,” said Inès Gady, of Comptoir Juridique Junior in Congo: “Where communities are not empowered to manage their forests and are unable to derive benefits, they are not encouraged to invest in the long-term management of the forests. To address this, communities should be given tenure of their forests.”

Agreement that community forestry can help end the threat to the Congo Basin forests and improve local livelihoods was unanimous among those attending. And their belief is one based on sound evidence from around the world.

A growing body of research shows that forests are best protected when they are owned and managed by the communities that depend on them. In 2014, for example, the World Resources Institute (WRI) published detailed evidence showing the significant social, economic and environmental benefits generated by giving indigenous people secure tenure rights.

The reason is straightforward: communities who have rights to resources protect them, while communities without rights to them have no reason to. So, as Andrew Steer the head of the WRI has said: “If you want to stop deforestation, give legal rights to communities.”

Forests and people in the Congo Basin are intrinsically linked; protecting the latter means giving a chance to the former. As participants at the conference concluded, if those who depend closely on forests to survive are not taken into account, then saving forests will become an empty and distant promise.

Ghana is on the brink of a major advance in its fight against illegal logging. But now its forests face serious threat from mining.

By Samuel Mawutor

Between 1990 and 2005 Ghana lost an estimated quarter of its national forest cover. Illegal timber harvesting was rife, and poor governance and a lack of transparency plagued the forest sector.

Things began to change for the better from 2008 with the introduction of the Natural Resources and Environmental Governance programme, an initiative supported by international donors on the basis that Ghana agreed to reform its forest sector, and improve the governance of its natural resources more generally.

One of the commitments Ghana made was to embark on a Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) with the European Union (EU).

The VPA is a timber trade deal that – uniquely - tackles the causes of illegal forest destruction by involving civil society groups, forest community representatives, the timber industry and governments in shaping more just laws. As such, the definition of legality is reached through the consensus of all who have a stake in the country’s forests.

After years of often painstaking negotiations involving the Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources, the Forestry Commission and civil society groups such as Forest Watch Ghana, reforms to the country’s forest laws and policies are close to concluding.

Ghana is set to become only the second country in the world (after Indonesia) to issue a so-called FLEGT license for timber exports. This guarantees that timber has been harvested, processed and exported legally.

Already, institutional change in our forest sector is reaping benefits for forest communities across the country.

In the past, when a company was awarded a contract by the government to harvest timber in a specific area, the people who lived around it would see none of the wealth generated by the forests’ exploitation. All too often their lot worsened, as the logging disrupted their lives and limited their access to the forest resources they relied on. This was despite Ghanaian law saying that local communities, represented by their chiefs, owned their forests.

Now however, companies are required to show proof of a social responsibility agreement, which requires them to pay benefits to communities in the area, or build local services like schools or water pumps. 

Yet, just at the point that the threat to Ghana’s forests from illegal timber harvesting has receded, and their benefits are being more equitably spread, the danger from mining has grown.

Hunger for bauxite, one of the world’s main sources of aluminium, which is also used - among other things - in hydraulic fracturing (fracking), is threatening precious forest reserves such as the biodiversity-rich Tano Offin, Atewa and Fure River. Campaigners have united in protest.   

But the spread of open cast mining is not just damaging the environment. It’s straining diplomatic relations with China, one of Ghana’s most important allies and trading partners.

Over the past few years, as the price of gold has soared, people from China and elsewhere have sought riches in Ghana from open cast gold mining, particularly in the densely forested areas in the west of the country.

Local miners, known as ‘galamseys’ (from the phrase: gather them and sell) have scraped a living for decades this way. But because politicians have got involved and regulators have turned a blind eye, it’s now happening on an unprecedented scale, with heavy equipment, and is causing conflict within local communities, destroying local water supplies, and turning landscapes and forests into wastelands.

There was optimism when Ghana elected a new government in December 2016: at the heart of their election manifesto was a promise to deal with galamsey mining. They are keeping their word -but, unfortunately, by cracking down on the local-level miners themselves, rather than the more serious sources of corruption at the top. 

No heads have rolled at the regulatory authority and no politician is being prosecuted or investigated for this mess, despite reports that some of them invested in and benefitted directly from the mining boom.

Meanwhile Chinese nationals - involved in small-scale operators - are being vilified for the part they play. China has protested about how it has been portrayed, and declared its support for the rule of law in Ghana.  Though there is a general consensus on the need to halt the environmental destruction, the news of China’s intention to invest about 15billion USD to destroy two important forest ecosystems: Tano Offin and the Atewa Forest Reserve, for bauxite sends very worrying signals.

Ghana must indeed make sure it has the right laws to halt this destruction, that these are being followed, and that the powerful businessmen and politicians helping drive this industry are held to account. 

And China needs to assume greater environmental responsibility as a global powerhouse and climate leader.

If this doesn’t happen, then we risk squandering the advances Ghana has made in tackling illegal logging through the VPA.

Blog: What can the EU do to curb corruption in the forest sector?

By Laurence WETE SOH (FODER, Cameroon)

Corruption. It has blighted countries in every continent for generations, and is identified as a main reason why illegal logging continues at a seemingly unstoppable rate. Each year Transparency International produces a Corruption Perception Index, and it is no surprise that timber-producing countries often hold a high position. If the European Union (EU)’s efforts to end illegal logging are to be successful, they will have to help tackle corruption.

This is where the 2003 FLEGT (Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade) Action Plan comes in. It aims to combat illegal logging and the associated trade by dealing with problems in both consumer and producer countries.

As part of this work, Cameroon and the EU have been negotiating a Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) since 2007. Cameroon's National Anti-Corruption Strategy (NACS) recognises that the VPA can help the fight against corruption in the forest and wildlife sector, but that fight isn’t going to be easy. My organisation FODER does its own Corruption intensity Perception Assessment (CIPA), which revealed that corruption is systemic in this sector in Cameroon.

The social, economic and environmental consequences of this corruption are serious. Not only does it take away from state revenues and corporate profits, it also catalyses social injustice and encourages unfair competition. What’s more, it destroys efforts to combat deforestation, tackle climate change, preserve biodiversity, respect human rights and achieve inclusive and sustainable development.

The EU should be applauded for the key roles it plays, both political and technical, in resolving global environmental and sustainable development challenges. But we should also be honest that the issue of corruption needs to take more prominence. It is barely part of the FLEGT Action Plan, either in the VPAs or the EU Timber Regulation, and is absent in mechanisms to fight wildlife trafficking. The EU must commit to tackling corruption in developing countries and specifically in the forest sector if it is serious about combating climate change, improving sustainable development and respecting human rights.

I am presently in Brussels to explain to forest policy makers how they can learn from Cameroon to make sure their anti-deforestation efforts achieve the best results. On this tour FODER is calling on the EU to:

  • Raise the issue of corruption in the forest and wildlife sector in all discussions about processes to combat illegal logging, deforestation and poaching. Official Development Assistance (ODA) often increases corruption. Public funds that were to be used for projects are diverted and projects carried out with development aid instead. To receive ODA, countries must be required to show progress in the fight against corruption.
  • Support in-country efforts to deter corruption, and to obtain fair and equitable reparation for its victims. In many countries there is a culture of impunity, which has allowed corruption to prosper. Independent and credible grievance mechanisms are needed, especially where corruption is systemic and legal frameworks weak. Victims need support and to have confidence in judicial institutions.
  • Encourage the establishment of complaints mechanisms. Victims need to be able to easily file complaints and obtain redress without fear of reprisals.

There are many ways the EU can support countries such as Cameroon to wean themselves away from corruption. There is a need for awareness raising and education, but also incentives and sanctions. Without increased efforts to deal with this most pertinent problem, there is concern that corruption could nullify all efforts taken to fight illegal logging and deforestation and promote human rights.

Editor’s note: FODER is Cameroonian organisation working to improve forest governance by enhancing forest communities and civil society organisations’ participation in the decisions that affect their lives. They fight illegal logging and corruption in the forestry and mining sectors and have been involved since the early days of FLEGT.

Guest blog: Can forests help revive war-torn Central African Republic?

Bienvenu Gbelo is an environmental journalist from Radio Ndeke Luka in Bangui.

By Bienvenu Gbelo

Earlier this month, the United Nations envoy for the Central African Republic (CAR) reminded the world of the neglected tragedy unfolding in my country.

“The intensity of the attacks, their premediated nature and the targeting of ethnic minorities are a reminder of the darkest moments of the Central African political and security crisis,” said the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative, Parfait Onanga-Anyanga.

He was speaking to the Security Council to mark the release of the UN’s 369-page report documenting human rights violations in CAR between 2003 and 2015.

He added that the political process needed to be re-energised to achieve sustainable peace.

Another way of helping bring stability back to CAR is by ending the trade in illegal timber. 

The forest sector drives the national economy. It’s the second largest employer (after the state), and timber is the country’s number one official export – with its importance to the economy growing since the Kimberley Process cracked down on the trade in ‘conflict’ diamonds.

But just as our vast natural mineral wealth is plagued by high-level corruption - and those at the bottom of society rarely benefit from it - the same is true in the forest sector.

The market is flooded with illegal timber; even public figures buy it and build their houses with it.

Those who fight it, can face grave retribution. For instance, when a forest inspector catches an illegal operator, they often receive a call from a minister, a general or some other high-ranking official, telling them to let them the illegal operator go. As a result, the forest inspector feels that his job and family are threatened and that his children may pay the price of becoming orphans for his work - so he drops the illegal timber seizure operation he started in the area.


Even the municipal authorities are not spared from intimidation. Illegal timber shipments of all kinds enter Bangui, the capital, through the Pk9 barrier in Bimbo commune. Odon Omokoboumon, acting mayor of this locality, says he does not have sufficient means to stop illegal loggers who often have firearms.

Yet there is hope that things will change.

One cause for optimism is the trade deal, known as a Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA), that our government signed with the European Union in 2012. It was suspended because of the crisis in the country, but last year started up again.

The Agreement uses the incentive of favourable trading arrangements with the EU to encourage timber-producing countries to include civil society and forest communities in the shaping of new, and more just, forest laws. This VPA is important for the country, as we cannot accept that warlords set up parallel companies to exploit forests.

It was championed by our new president, Faustin Archange Touadera, so we are hopeful that the government which was elected in March 2016 will implement it properly.

Already it is having an impact.

Today, indigenous communities who were previously marginalised in decision-making by the forest administration and company officials, are involved in forest management. Being deprived of resources from a forest where you were born and grew up is not normal. For forest communities, the forest is their life: they live on barks, seeds, leaves, caterpillars, and everything in the forest.

So organisations working in this field, and environmental journalists such as myself, are continually pushing to ensure that representatives of local communities can be part of the official structures helping to implement the VPA. I am proud today to be one of the many people who have contributed to this fight through reports, publications and magazines.

We want a peaceful country, a country where corruption is at least reduced, because we know it will not disappear. A country where people get what they need and deserve. And of course, a country where everyone is given the opportunity to express themselves freely on any subject, including good forest management.

It is often said that CAR is a rich country with vast natural resources, but in reality, the population, one of the poorest in the world, does not benefit from this wealth.

It is deplorable that local communities will continue to see forests, and their livelihoods disappear, if business as usual continues.

From June 21-23, a conference on tackling deforestation and illegal logging takes place in Brussels at which the key recommendations in the EU’s FLEGT Action Plan will be presented. For further details see:  http://illegallogging-deforestation-conference.eu/

Blog: Hope for a hard-pressed community

By Mark Olden

The head of Tan Hoi village sits cross-legged on the floor describing the pressures his people face.

“The older generation lacks education. The younger ones leave school as early as 11. Only one person has ever graduated from university [out of a community of 328 people] as most people don’t have the resources to be able to afford it,” says Lê Văn Bức, a wiry, softly-spoken man in his 40s.

We’re in a community room decorated with environmental posters, the Vietnamese flag and a portrait of Hồ Chí Minh, in a village around ten kilometres from Vietnam’s border with the Lao, which lies in the shadow of a jutting mountain range covered with dense foliage.

It’s a spectacularly rugged terrain. And one which can present deep challenges for those who live off it.

Speaking through an interpreter, Bức continues: “Surviving with very limited resources is a big challenge. The potential for agriculture here is very low, and the total plantation area for the village is small.” So as well as cultivating rice, bananas and cassava, the villagers subsist through their animals - goats, pigs, chickens, cows - and by collecting honey, rattan and bamboo shoots from the forest. 

In many ways, the plight of the Tan Hoi villagers mirror that of rural communities the length and breadth of Vietnam: a lot of people eking a living from relatively little, husbanding the natural resources around them as best they can, trying to use the available arable land productively without destroying it.

It’s a struggle compounded by the dizzying rates of deforestation and forest degradation that blighted Vietnam over past decades - and which have reduced biodiversity, decimated many of the protective canopies which stop torrential rain from eroding the soil, and razed the forests which guard against floods, drought and silting.

Forests have been cleared – often illegally - for agriculture, not just to feed the population, but to meet export demands (for instance, in less than ten years, Vietnam has gone from nowhere to being the world’s second largest coffee producer). They have also been cleared to construct dams and other large-scale infrastructure projects, as well to feed the international furniture market.

Then there’s the legacy of war. From 1962 to 1971 the United States’ Air Force sprayed more than 80 million litres of defoliant chemicals - including Agent Orange – on hardwood forests, mangrove jungles and vast swathes of cropland to destroy the canopies where the North Vietnamese troops and Viet Cong were concealed, and to deny them food.

Tan Hoi village sits inside the A Shau Valley, site of the Hồ Chí Minh trail, a strategically vital network of routes used by the Viet Cong to funnel supplies and soldiers. As such, it was a major battleground and target for the US’s chemical assault.

It was in the aftermath of the war that Tan Hoi village’s inhabitants, who are from the ethnic minority Paco group, were first settled here by the Vietnamese government. The Paco’s traditional belief system holds that everything in nature has a soul, and the spiritual world is anchored in the landscape around them.

Recently, hopes have risen for a future in which the natural environment they see as sacred is protected for future generations.

From October 2014 until earlier this year, the Tan Hoi villagers took part in a community-based forest management scheme supported by local NGOs, researchers and the provincial Forest Protection Department.

The project was run under the aegis of the European Union’s action plan for combatting illegal logging, which includes so-called Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs) between the EU and timber-producing countries.  

VPAs aim to end illegal logging by attacking its root causes, including corruption, power imbalances and a lack of clarity over land tenure rights. As the world’s first timber trade deals negotiated with the participation of civil society groups - including forest peoples - they are unique.

Almost seven years ago, Vietnam and the EU starting negotiating a VPA – and on May 11, they reached an important milestone in fully implanting and ratifying it, when the deal was initialled.

However, there have been some serious criticisms of shortcomings in the negotiation process, underlined by a damning recent report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) on the vast quantities of illegal timber flowing across the border from Cambodia into Vietnam with the apparent complicity of government authorities and military personnel.

Unless these issues are addressed, many say the credibility of the final VPA between Vietnam and the EU will be fatally damaged.

Yet the example of Tan Hoi village shows its potential.

Bức, who as well as being head of the village leads one of its two forest protection teams, says: “The VPA project has brought us benefits. Some people have been given small loans to improve their livelihoods through husbandry and farming. Forest protection and management plans have been introduced. So people understand that they have to protect the forest and not cut it down to make way for plantations, and the problem of land clearance for agriculture is under control.” Illegal logging in the area has also reduced.

“Villagers know they must have a land use rights certificate [which proves the legality of their goods], and which gives them a better negotiating position with traders. Because people didn’t understand the laws before, it was easier for them to be cheated and for traders to drive down the price. Now they know their goods have no problems,” he says.

Thriving from their limited natural resources over the long term remains a formidable challenge, just as it does for numerous forest communities across Vietnam. The chances for them to prosper though, will be greatly enhanced if the country’s VPA with the EU succeeds.

Fern’s new briefing Vietnam’s Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) with the EU is here. A conference on the future of the EU’s action plan on illegal deforestation takes place in Brussels this week. See: http://illegallogging-deforestation-conference.eu/

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Most recent publications

ForestWatch VPA Update November 2017: A year on from FLEGT licensing

LoggingOff and Fern publish occasional Forest Watch updates detailing events in countries negotiating a Voluntary Partnership Agreement from a civil society perspective.

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PDF iconVPA Update Nov2017.pdf5.35 MB

Sacrificing South America’s forests on the altar of EU market access

The first trade talks between the European Union and the Mercosur bloc of nations - Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay – began almost 20 years ago. Since then they have stuttered through 28 rounds of negotiations, but this year it looks as if an agreement will finally be reached. A critical issue remains unresolved, however: the amount of beef the South American nations can export to the EU...

The fate of the Congo Basin forests must lie with its people

By Marie-Ange Kalenga

A light breeze of democratisation is blowing through the Congo Basin – and it is being driven by civil society.

Analysis of gender impacts of the Ghana Voluntary Partnership Agreement with European Union

Fern commissioned this study of gender issues in Ghana’s FLEGT VPA as a tentative first step to looking at gender issues which have to date received only scant attention.It offers TAYLOR CRABBE INNITIATIVE’s observations about how gender issues have been dealt with i

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PDF iconbriefing gender ghana final.pdf741.67 KB

Independent Forest Monitoring: a chance for improved governance in VPA countries?

The forest sector is particularly vulnerable to poor governance including corruption, fraud, and organised crime. Illegality in the sector generates vast sums of money and has helped fuel long and bloody conflicts.

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PDF iconforest monitoring final.pdf514.15 KB

Ghana is on the brink of a major advance in its fight against illegal logging. But now its forests face serious threat from mining.

By Samuel Mawutor

Between 1990 and 2005 Ghana lost an estimated quarter of its national forest cover. Illegal timber harvesting was rife, and poor governance and a lack of transparency plagued the forest sector.

Things began to change for the better from 2008 with the introduction of the Natural Resources and Environmental Governance programme, an initiative supported by international donors on the basis that Ghana agreed to reform its forest sector, and improve the governance of its natural resources more generally.

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