No one ever mistook the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade Voluntary Partnership Agreement (FLEGT VPA) programme for a sprint. It is a marathon that, for more than a decade, has been tackling illegality, poor governance and corruption in the forest sector. Yet after a FLEGT ‘Fitness Check’ – which few responded to, and those who did were mostly European (79 per cent) – the European Commission has said it is considering getting rid of the FLEGT licenses that – at the end of a VPA process – reward the eradication of illegal logging with EU market access. This has been heard by civil society in VPA partner countries with alarm, and a sense of betrayal that years of good faith efforts could be abandoned.
The FLEGT process is overhauling forest governance in timber-producing countries with an approach that gives voices to populations used to being unheard, and that secures the rights of those most affected by forest destruction. At the same time, it provides significant trade incentives to governments and the private sector through the promise of “green lane” access to EU markets. To build a more level playing field, VPAs’ insistence on stakeholder participation, transparency, and accountability − typically where such political traditions haven’t existed − has profoundly improved the governance landscape.
Dropping VPAs would likely increase pressure on forests from illegal logging and reverse governance gains. It would send the wrong signal to EU partners ahead of the Conference of Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP15) and the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), and undermine the EU’s commitments under the European Green Deal.
FLEGT VPAs must be maintained: This was the key message of NGOs from the EU, the Americas, Asia, and Africa at a virtual informal dialogue with the Commission and the European Parliament on 23 March 2021. MEP Michèle Rivasi hosted the event in collaboration with Fern and other EU and international NGOs. It enabled civil society representatives to exchange ideas about new policy initiatives for forests, and the progress and challenges in implementing FLEGT-VPAs.
Reacting to the initial findings of the Fitness Check, participants warned that the methodology and very limited inputs from partner countries and all stakeholders affected the final results. They urged the EU to address the obstacles preventing VPAs from being effectively implemented in a more targeted manner, rather than relaxing or abandoning the innovative scheme.
Despite bumpy progress and cyclical fatigue, concerned stakeholders − governments, private sector, and civil society − still agree on the FLEGT Action Plan’s broad aims and objectives. Instead of lowering the bar with less robust measures, which will undermine its credibility, the Commission should improve enforcement, firstly by intervening more proactively via diplomatic channels to place pressure on producer countries to resolve the political issues that are slowing licenses being finalised. Secondly, they should strengthen the EUTR’s enforcement, so that illegal timber stops getting into the EU.
Ultimately, the Fitness Check should be a wake-up call, underlining that the EU cannot show ‘selective’ environmental leadership during hard times. Stopping the illegal timber trade and fixing governance problems does not happen overnight. It requires collaborating with partner countries and other international actors to address gaps and coordinate efforts.