Fern’s Congo Basin partners support the aims of the Regulation on deforestation-free products, but have serious reservations about its approach.
The Voluntary Partnerships Agreements (VPAs) that the EU signed with timber-producing countries were developed through dialogue and partnerships. Their legal frameworks evolved through consultations with civil society groups, forest community representatives, the timber industry and governments.
By contrast, the draft EU Regulation on deforestation-free products emerged through a unilateral process that was neither participatory nor transparent and which will essentially be imposed from outside.
This is the view of Fern’s partners in Central African Republic (CAR) - Observatoire de Gestion des Ressources Naturelles et de l'Environnement (OGRNE) and Gestion Durable des Ressources. Naturelles et de l'Environnement (GDRNE). It is a view that was echoed by environmental and Civil Society Organisations fighting to protect the Congo Basin rainforest and peoples’ rights in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) such as Cercle pour la Défense de l'Environnement (CEDEN) and Réseau Ressources Naturelles (RRN).
The EU may be serious about addressing the role its consumption plays in driving deforestation in tropical forests. It is an aim our CAR partners share. Yet for the Regulation to succeed, it must not disregard the VPA’s lessons, and ignore the benefits it has brought.
Instead, it must draw on the hard-earned experience of those who have fought to protect the Congo Basin rainforest: principally, this means having a real dialogue with the countries who will be affected by the Regulation, and the civil society groups, forest communities and other stakeholders within them. "It is the participatory and inclusive nature of the VPA that has optimised the positive results achieved in CAR," explains Stanislas of the Observatoire de Gestion des Ressources Naturelles et de l'Environnement (OGRNE).
Our partners also expressed specific concerns about the Regulation’s impact on smallholders, as well as national agricultural policies.
A key question is how compensation and subsidy measures will be determined for small-scale producers of the products covered by the Regulation, given the extra burden the Regulation is likely to impose on them?
A second vital question regarding smallholders concerns the risk ratings that producer countries will be assigned under the Regulation: with products from high-risk countries requiring a greater degree of checks by Competent Authorities, and companies needing to take more due diligence steps.
The risk level will also depend on the existence and application of an agreement between the producing country and the EU. Yet unless local populations, NGOs present in the producing countries and smallholders are involved in shaping these agreements, they could cause more harm than good.
In short, small-scale farmers – many of whom are already struggling to make ends meet - as well as producer countries themselves, must not face additional financial hardship because of the Regulation, and any extra burden it places on them, must be alleviated. Otherwise, there is a risk of reopening the door to illegal exploitation and corruption, meaning that all the efforts put into the Regulation will be in vain.
Keeping the VPA relevant
The VPAs remain a vital weapon in solving the climate crisis, especially in the Congo Basin rainforest, the planet’s so-called ‘second lung’. Combating deforestation, forest degradation and illegal logging in the Congo Basin is an important part of combatting climate change.
In 2021, civil society groups from around the world, including the Congo Basin, campaigned successfully to stop the EU from abandoning the Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Regulation and its accompanying VPAs. Having won this momentous victory, the challenge now is to keep FLEGT and the VPAs relevant and enhance their impact.
On December 10, 2021, the member organisations and associations of Fern’s CAR partner, the Platform for Sustainable Management of Natural Resources and the Environment (GDRNE), met to discuss how this can be done.
The main conclusions that emerged were that the CAR’s Government should do all within its power to revive the VPA/FLEGT process; that civil society should advocate for establishing a regional platform to monitor the VPA’s implementation; and that GDRNE’s European-based partners (including Fern) should continue supporting civil society organisations in the Congo Basin in the various processes related to forest and climate governance.
Some of these messages were echoed by 15 organisations working to protect forests and peoples’ rights, following a workshop in Kinshasa on December 21, 2021, held by the organisation the Cercle pour la Défense de l'Environnement (CEDEN).
The 15 organisations subsequently signed a statement calling on the EU to involve exporting countries as partners in the Regulation, rather than merely as suppliers.
Their statement also noted that “beyond the progress made, the stalling of the VPA negotiation process in the DRC has been accompanied by significant challenges, illustrated by the increase in illegal logging and timber trade, the repeated violation of the moratorium, the loss of significant financial inflows from the forestry sector, the loss of earnings for the Congolese economy, and the lethargy in the implementation of the sectoral policy reform, revealing a risk of deviations from related new EU policy directions.”
They also urged the EU to maintain the respect and confidence of partner governments already engaged in the FLEGT process.
The overarching messages from both CAR and DRC is that for the EU to help protect the Congo Basin, working in partnership is essential, and the EU should not abandon its existing tools to fight deforestation, such as the VPAs.