For the past decade, the EU’s Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs) – under the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance & Trade (FLEGT) programme-- have been the rising tide that lifts all ships, a unique force for change that marries trade incentives to foundationally improved governance. That parts of the European Commission appear to be unilaterally proposing to sink the fleet has left civil society organisations (CSOs) stunned, in Ghana as elsewhere.
CSOs were startled that the “FLEGT fitness check” appeared to weigh only the trade aspects of FLEGT-VPAs, using a simplified, binary “licence/no licence” criterion that does not reflect years of deep-rooted achievements including significant legal reform. Ghanaian CSOs credit FLEGT’s promise of “green lane” access to the EU market for licensed timber products with bringing the private sector to the table, and the process of working toward those licences with transformative change in the country’s forest sector.
“The private sector were excited because the due diligence costs a lot,” explains Obed Owusu-Addai, of EcoCare Ghana “Offering licences has worked magic: it was unheard of for private sector and civil society to agree on community rights, or issues of social responsibility, but that is where we have arrived. Today many companies seek CSO support to ensure that they are doing the right thing.”
FLEGT has opened space in decision-making for civil society and communities by insisting in practice on transparency, access to information and accountability in the management of timber resources; before, these existed on paper only. FLEGT’s stakeholder processes helped shape Ghana’s 2012 Forest and Wildlife Policy, which entrenches community rights (tree tenure, benefit-sharing, access to information, participation). But changes are not limited to legislative reform. Thanks to the systems established as part of the VPA process, civil society has been able to detect and stop illegal timber harvesting – such as the illegal rosewood harvesting under salvage permits detected in 2018. Civil society action, strengthened under FLEGT, also led to a 640% increase in the logging tax revenues received by the government and communities, through an upward review of stumpage fees charged on logging.
To lose interest in FLEGT now is especially unfortunate, as an administrative obstruction has recently shifted. For years, Ghana has been on the brink of issuing licences, but the Minister for lands and natural resources deadlocked the process, insisting on administrative hoops not required by law for conversion of extant leases. By contrast, his replacement is motivated; he has been receiving briefings for several months and is reported to be eager to move FLEGT licensing forward.
With this break in the clouds, CSOs agree that outstanding licensing issues can be rapidly resolved. “The technical system is ready. The joint assessment’s final recommendations are feasible, and we are pushing for ratification of the conversion of extant leases,” explains Albert Katako, of Civic Response. “Now the politicians, Ghanaian and EU, must sit down to agree a timeline − not long, just three or four months – to implement the recommendations and fix a date for issuance and export of FLEGT licence timber.” To remove the possibility of licences, it is feared, will drive the private sector back to destructive old habits, searching for new markets with little concern for legality and community rights.
CSOs are disappointed also that the EU does not appear to consider where it could increase motivation − encouraging Member State competent authorities to consider that FLEGT licences are proof of sustainability in their public procurement policies, for example. The Joint Monitoring and Review Mechanism (JMRM) meetings that once drove the process have dropped off in recent years – the last JMRM was held in May 2019.
While it is just one faction within the Commission making these proposals, their public statements pose a concrete threat to the EU’s credibility. CSOs are clear that people in many timber-producing countries have been watching FLEGT, so to abandon it now-- as Ghana’s hopes to issue licences are renewed and when Honduras has just signed a VPA in good faith-- to jump to a new system, will cause widespread disillusion.
A 23 March 2021 dialogue with the Commission, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and CSOs did not calm fears. Some Commission representatives seemed to consider sustainability separately from legality, whereas partners in timber-producing countries see legality as a much-needed foundation for sustainability, one that certification cannot deliver. The point of elaborating watered-down forest partnerships was also received warily, as FLEGT trade agreements are already strong, detailed and legally binding.
Owusu-Addai sums it up, echoing a statement recently produced by a coalition of Ghanaian CSOs: “We must simply analyse the bottlenecks and find more targeted solutions. Is the VPA perfect? No. It faces challenges, but these do not warrant scrapping FLEGT.”