Just as it appears that – for the European Union anyway – the thrill is gone from the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) plan to address illegal logging in timber-producing countries, the United States and Vietnam governments signed a new “Timber Agreement on Illegal Logging and Timber Trade” on 1 October 2021. This largely takes up commitments enshrined in the EU-Vietnam FLEGT Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA). Given that Vietnam exports about $7 billion (USD) of wood products to the US per year compared to about $1 billion (USD) to the EU, the US agreement will bolster the commitments in the VPA.
The doubts the EU Commission expressed about FLEGT’s overall ‘fitness’ (FW 264, FW 268) unleashed a wave of concern (FG 3, FG 4), and related correspondence about the possible abandoning of the colossal efforts in timber-producing countries to inject transparency, independent monitoring and participatory processes into the timber sector, while working to obtain eventual green-lane FLEGT licences to import timber into the EU. Even European Members of Parliament have expressed alarm that the Commission might consider revoking the FLEGT-VPAs, defending their “unhoped-for achievements” in battling corruption and attacking the underlying causes of deforestation.
Evidently the US government agrees.
As the resolution of an October 2020 investigation by the US Trade Representative into “Vietnam’s acts, policies, and practices related to the import and use of timber that is illegally harvested or traded”, the US-Vietnam agreement contains multiple commitments that build on VPA obligations, in addition to a specific reference to controls that are no less strict than those in the FLEGT licensing scheme (articles 9 and 14).
Among these are commitments to improve the Timber Legality Assurance System (TLAS) (article 6) at the heart of each VPA. Five of their core components are: the timber legality definition, supply chain control, verification of compliance, FLEGT licensing and independent audit. Another significant achievement that the VPA brings to the US-Vietnam agreement is collaboration with high-risk source countries (article 10) to improve customs enforcement at the border, and law enforcement. Verifying imported timber (article 12) was a major issue that took eight years to settle during the VPA negotiations: A red line for the EU was that Vietnam adopt a Timber Import Regulation requiring its importers to check timber legality in accordance with the legislation of the country of harvest, given that Vietnam imports timber from some 80 countries, including such high-risk ones as Cambodia, Cameroon, and Gabon.
The US-Vietnam agreement was negotiated and concluded in one year, a feat that would not have been possible without the groundwork laid by the VPA process. It underscores that the FLEGT VPAs have served as an important model for forest governance reforms and the legal timber trade, beyond its immediate objectives. (Vietnam does yet not issue FLEGT licences and is still pursuing reforms.)
Both this new accord and the EU-Vietnam VPA serve the same goal: to definitively rein in illegal logging, and require transparency in the forest sector. It would therefore be a pity for the EU to take a step back now, just as the means to implement and enforce forest governance obligations are about to be strengthened.