On 18 November, a significant milestone was reached in the fight to protect Vietnam’s forests.
The EU and Vietnam agreed ‘in principle’ on a Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) , establishing a legal framework promoting legal logging, ensuring that the nation’s forests are managed in line with social and environmental laws and that timber products from Vietnam are verifiably legal.
It was commendable that Vietnam was interested in negotiating an agreement to address forest governance and illegal logging in the first place; and it is to be applauded that the Vietnamese government then went on, after initial resistance, to seek the views of civil society organisations (CSOs). Their aim was to ensure that what was being negotiated had the buy-in of from those who have a major stake in the agreement – Vietnamese forest communities whose livelihoods depend on forests.
Late breakthroughs and unanswered questions
In many respects this is an important landmark: an agreement designed to ensure that exports of timber products from Vietnam will be from verified legal sources. Fern welcomes some of the reported late breakthroughs which cleared the way to the agreement: that the country where timber is harvested is included in the agreement’s legality definition; that the Timber Legality Assurance System (TLAS) covers all exports from Vietnam; and that the mandate for the ‘independent’ evaluator includes receiving inputs from various stakeholders. Yet unanswered questions remain about how the VPA will work in practice and deliver its social and environmental goals.
There has been an official commitment that the system being established will be robust, credible, include effective mechanisms to detect violations and ensure law enforcement, and ‘involve all stakeholders’. Despite this, CSOs do not yet have an informed position on the agreement because, unlike other VPA negotiations, there has been only late and limited sharing of the VPA texts with some important stakeholders.
CSOs were only given a selection of the annexes – and a key one, detailing what information should be made public was not among them. Other problems included that the annexes were only shared on the 21 October; versions were solely in Vietnamese; and electronic copies were not available, making it impossible for key independent Vietnamese interest groups to receive, analyse and react to the texts. This lowers the standards set by other VPAs, both in terms of process and in terms of the agreement’s ability to effectively tackle illegal logging and its associated trade.
The risk is that it sends the wrong message to other countries negotiating a VPA, and upsets those who have reached agreements through more inclusive processes.
Genuinely independent monitoring?
The question of what obligation the Vietnamese authorities have to respond to complaints about violations is particularly concerning.
Without guarantees from monitors who are genuinely independent of government, the fear is that the VPA could merely be a licence to lend legitimacy to business as usual. Fern’s partner, the chair of the Vietnamese CSO network, stated in a recent meeting with EU Commissioner Karmenu Vella that 90 per cent of the approximately 1.4 million concerned households are unable to comply with timber legality criteria, and so it would be better to have thousands of eyes in communities helping to monitor, rather than just relying on technology, and government approved monitors.
In contrast to other countries where VPAs have been negotiated, political space in Vietnam is extremely restricted. Although there have been invitations to CSOs to express their views, and some interest in the research they have undertaken about the potential impact of a VPA on the livelihoods of vulnerable communities, Vietnamese negotiators have not seemed comfortable with opinions that veer from a carefully controlled script. It is hard to see how this will change during implementation. After all, if there has been little enthusiasm for giving a formal role to non-government stakeholders during negotiations, why would this change in the implementation phase?
A long way to go
The EU has admitted that the VPA is not ready to be implemented. There are significant capacity constraints, and an important element of the TLAS is a risk-based approach, legislation for which has still to be developed. Verification of imported timber relies on traders’ self-declarations to demonstrate due diligence, and a system that focuses on border controls with only optional checks thereafter leaves room for scepticism.
Issues such as the complaint mechanism and obligation to react, cross-border monitoring, and what information should be made public need to be addressed before the VPA can be implemented.