I have just returned from a two-week policy tour of Europe, visiting decision makers working on the EU Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan in Belgium, Germany, France and the Netherlands. I was hoping to whip up interest in and support for FLEGT Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs) by showing Member States the successes and impacts that the Ghana VPA is already having. I also wanted to raise the challenges that civil society are having with the process. Together with my colleagues from Liberia and Cameroon, we also sought to highlight the fact that FLEGT is a transformational approach to developmental aid, which may be slow but could have far-reaching effects.
We engaged with competent authorities for the EU Timber Regulation, government officials working on FLEGT, members of the Timber Trade Federation and people working to use forests to help mitigate climate change. We were bringing messages for them, but they taught us a lot too. There was also a strong shared understanding of our collective responsibility for dealing with the drivers of deforestation and in particular illegal logging. Addressing the trade in illegal timber requires high-level political commitment between governments and the private sector, and a stronger push from civil society in both the EU and timber producer countries.
As the tour continued I was sad to find that enthusiasm for VPAs and interest in illegal logging was low despite the recent positive feedback from the FLEGT evaluation and the European Council. The issue seems to be that they measure the success or failure of VPAs according to the availability of FLEGT Licenses. This is over-simplification of a complex process which ignores the incremental but important progress that VPAs keep delivering.
Does the fact that only Indonesia has FLEGT licensed timber mean that efforts by civil society in Ghana, Liberia, Cameroon and other countries is not relevant? Is it not worth anything that we have managed to push back corruption; challenge crooked politicians and bureaucrats; work with industry to ensure they meet their social obligations; reform laws driving deforestation and illegal logging; deliver benefits due to the local forest communities at the front line against illegal logging; and democratise the political space for forest decision making?
I should not have been surprised to find the waning enthusiasm as political will is also low in producer countries. It is one of the reasons for the slow pace of change in terms of improved capacity, development of the Legality Assurance Systems (LAS) and legal reform more widely. This needs to change and it is up to us, civil society, to take our advocacy a notch higher, to put systems back on the agenda and generate the pressure to get the LAS going.
Without civil society pressure Southern governments will not push forward the legal and policy reforms with the required speed, but they need to own the VPA process, as the long-term impact of a VPA is of greater benefit to producer countries than the EU.
So to move forward, the EU needs to show they are still supportive of FLEGT and civil society needs to convince their governments that VPAs need to be a priority. We need to re-examine our vision of the governance changes we want the VPA to deliver and define the steps to ensure that VPAs are nationally owned and working.