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Anxiety grows as Commission shifts towards ‘soft’ approach on deforestation

The European Commission (EC) has finally released two long-awaited and hotly anticipated draft reports about the future of the EU’s flagship forest policy and a potential new Action Plan on deforestation. Over three days more than 250 experts debated the contents; a picture emerged of a Commission eager to minimise regulation and an NGO community determined to increase it.

The EC invited more than 250 actors to discuss the draft FLEGT working paper 2017 - 2020 and a two-part draft feasibility study of an EU Action Plan on Deforestation on June 21st to 23rd. Unfortunately the reports were released only a few days before the conference began, which made the event feel more like a PR exercise than a genuine discussion forum.

Nonetheless a number of people, most notably NGO representatives, used the event to emphasise their anxiety over what appears to be a shift in Commission emphasis away from concrete action to tackle the EU’s role in global deforestation.

COWI, the consultants who wrote the draft feasibility study, spoke of a ‘soft’ approach, indicating that the EC had a preference for voluntary over regulatory solutions. A similar impulse was revealed when the EC emphasised limited resources and constraints when delivering the new draft workplan for the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action .

FLEGT is the EU’s most successful and longest-running initiative for tackling tropical deforestation, with its fair share of champions and detractors. FLEGT VPAs are bilateral timber trade deals which aim to ensure that a legal, transparent, accountable and sustainable timber trade supports, rather than undermines forest communities.

A number of conference participants pushed back against proposals in the new draft work plan for ‘alternative engagement’ in countries where VPAs are proving difficult to complete, arguing that classical development cooperation or a VPA ‘light’ cannot deliver the kind of bedrock changes in governance that have made VPAs popular in countries such as Cameroon, Ghana and Liberia.

NGOs including Fern and WWF reiterated long-standing arguments that EU supply chains should be deforestation-free and compliant with international community tenure rights.

It was not only NGO voices calling for more concrete action from the Commission. Fiona Wheatley of Marks and Spencer urged the EC to look beyond certification schemes and eco-labels, and offer help to frontrunners with zero deforestation commitments. She said: “M&S wants all of their production to be sustainable and the EU could move this forward by providing technical, facilitation and financial support to countries and regions promoting sustainability.”  

The Amsterdam Declaration group, comprised of seven European governments including Germany, Netherlands, France and UK, also called for the EU to adopt an Action Plan on Deforestation and Forest Degradation while presenting the conclusions of its own June multi-stakeholder meeting.

Even though there presently seems to be a lack of EC ambition to really tackle deforestation, there are a few glimmers of hope. DEVCO Director General Stefano Manservisi said “FLEGT is relevant: we need to do more and better.” Conference participants were told that VPAs remain a priority because of their role as political levers for governance change. DEVCO Deputy Director General Rudischauer told participants that illegal logging and deforestation must be addressed at the highest political level.

If these words are going to become more than platitudes, the EC should formally include tackling ‘forest risk’ commodities in its 2018 workplan, and step up the quality of its consultation on forest issues from now on.

Photograph: EU FLEGT Facility - TDIL-conference