FLEGT’s achievements must be saved at all costs, says Christian Mounzéo of Rencontre pour la paix et les droits de l’homme (RPDH), Republic of Congo.
When the European Commission published its draft Regulation on deforestation-free products last November, the first reaction among Congo’s civil society was surprise. The second was concern.
This was because – in stark contrast to the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) negotiations – the draft was not reached through a multistakeholder process, in which those who will most feel its impact had a say.
It was also because we questioned what would happen to the FLEGT VPAs, and whether all the efforts made in the process would be in vain.
Our recent tour of Brussels with other civil society organisations (CSOs) working on the VPA allowed us to better understand the European Union’s (EU) position, and share our concerns and expectations.
The feedback from the many meetings we attended with EU or Member State representatives, was that the FLEGT VPAs would remain.
We also learned that even at the European level, there is no consensus on how this Regulation will be implemented. We will therefore decide, once it is adopted, how we will proceed and on what we will base our advocacy work.
For now though, there remains a number of critical issues that need resolving.
Opening the door
Of fundamental importance, is guaranteeing the participation of Indigenous communities and CSOs. There has to be synergy between the different actors - European, the producer countries, industry, CSOs and communities living in forests - if the Regulation is to succeed. As FLEGT has shown, there are huge gains when CSOs and Indigenous communities have a role in monitoring and implementing forest protection laws.
When you look at the context, and the reality of countries with weak democracies like ours, then you can see how VPAs have opened space for dialogue. It allowed civil society and community representatives to have seats at the table for the first time: to be heard and to have our proposals taken into account.
This participation has been a great thing for us, a game changer in fact. The FLEGT VPAs also opened the door to the participation and inclusion of civil society in other policy discussions, such as the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI) and Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD).
Another fundamental issue is how the Regulation addresses the problem of illegal timber being transported to neighbouring countries and laundered, in order to get access to the European market.
Wood traceability can help us tackle many other problems: it can help eradicate corruption, and ensure that communities and others get revenue due to them, and that the wood is produced in a sustainable and legal way.
Independent observation, whether mandated or not, remains an important tool, and independent monitoring through FLEGT has enabled civil society to participate, contribute, and highlight many illegalities that other stakeholders would not mention – either by omission or choice. It would be good therefore, if the new Regulation could provide support to independent observation.
Another question which remains unaddressed is the impact the Regulation will have on communities who live in areas where the timber is being logged. At present, communities feel that they alone have to deal with the negative impacts of logging.
The text on draft law that the EU Parliament voted on, proposes that FLEGT licences should be considered compliant with the Regulation, thus allowing legal timber to access the European market. This is great news.
Yet an issue raised during our Brussels visit, was that the human rights clause could indirectly and negatively impact FLEGT VPAs.
There is a debate to be had with the EU on this clause. We are in favour of human rights, and all the organisations present on the tour were in favour of introducing human rights into the Regulation. But it is essential that this will not undermine the VPAs.
The EU needs to raise awareness around this clause so that those of us who are going to implement the new Regulation in producer countries know what it is all about. That way our common goal of protecting the Congo Basin and other tropical forests can be achieved.