In the Republic of the Congo (RoC), the forestry sector continues to face governance challenges. Authorities often struggle to enforce laws and sanction illegal logging practices, and corruption remains omnipresent. Civil society is deeply invested in initiatives to stop forest destruction and to halt infractions of forest regulations, including through Independent Forest Monitoring (IFM). This rapidly evolving tool is bringing a new level of clarity to goings-on in the forest sector.
But the doubts expressed by the European Commission regarding the future of Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade Voluntary Partnership Agreements (FLEGT VPAs) are causing great concern among civil society organizations (CSOs). They fear that, despite the progress that has been made, abandoning the VPAs by putting an arbitrary cut-off date on FLEGT licences would undermine the transparency and stakeholder participation efforts that allow IFM to exist. There is a real risk that hard-won progress in the fight against illegal logging will collapse.
In the RoC, as elsewhere (see CAR), three types of IFM activities are working in tandem.
IFM mandated by the state and included in the new Forest Code adopted in 2020, consists of an official agreement between the forestry administration and civil society through which the Cercle pour l’Appui à la Gestion Durable des Forêts (CAGDF) carries out joint inspection missions in the field. Beyond these missions, CAGDF has assisted forest authorities with invaluable technical support, tallying unpaid forest taxes and fines, thus boosting the collection of millions of euros in revenue owed to the state that would otherwise have fallen through the cracks. As is typical, however, mandated monitors are too few to cover the entire national territory.
Fortunately, non-mandated – ‘external’ – IFM is rapidly developing. Under the coordination of the Comptoir Juridique Junior (CJJ), a consortium of national organisations was created with the financial support of the Delegation of the EU in RoC. The consortium carries out autonomous IFM missions, submitting reports of illegalities observed to the Forest Administration afterward. Through an EU funded project, the consortium is setting up a national version of the Système Normalisé d’Observation Indépendante Externe (SNOIE) pioneered by Cameroonian organisation FODER to standardise the various external IFM methods; SNOIE-Cameroon’s reliability has been certified by the International Standardization Organization (ISO 9001:2015), a global first for an advocacy group.
Lilian Barros, of CJJ, explains that FODER is training eight Congolese CSOs in the distinct disciplines on which external IFM relies1. FODER is helping prepare the internal audit needed for certification of SNOIE-Congo under ISO 9001:2015.
CJJ works with local communities and Indigenous Peoples in the forested regions of Lékoumou and Likouala to set up a community watch system, helping them to identify forest infractions, use ForestLink technology to send alerts about suspected forest illegality and violations of rights in real time, and to mount legal action as needed.
“Even in its infancy, community watch is an important link in the IFM chain, and their efforts have already yielded results within the framework of other civil society projects including the Forest Governance, Markets and Climate project funded by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office,” says Nina Cynthia Kiyindou Yombo, of the Observatoire Congolais des Droits de l’Homme (OCDH). “A local community in the village of Missama, in the Lékoumou area, noted illegal logging by an agricultural company, denounced it to the forest administration, and seized the company’s equipment. The administration backed the community’s actions, seizing the fraudulently cut wood. The land administration cancelled the authorisation for express occupation of the public domain.”
In contrast to its Congo Basin neighbours, IFM in RoC has a strong legal foundation: it is integrated in the new Forest Code, a profound achievement. That alone does not provide complete protection, however: the decrees necessary to define the application of IFM are still being developed.
Putting it all at risk?
“IFM is possible thanks to the specific achievements of the VPA: the obligation of transparency through the list of information that must be made public, as well as participation and consideration of the rights of local and Indigenous communities – but also the structures that have been put in place to strengthen forest control,” says Kiyindou. “Broader regulatory reforms currently underway in RoC’s forest sector would also certainly suffer if the VPA were abandoned as proposed by the European Commission in its FLEGT Fitness Check.”
In addition to the profound changes in governance that it has set in motion, part of FLEGT’s power lies in its over-arching message. “In matters of enforcement and recognition of rights, the VPA is a model for other processes – for example the Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI), which placed participation and inclusion at the heart of its priorities. Stripping RoC of the VPA would be catastrophic for IFM, but also for all these efforts to see this symbolic reference fall,” she says.
Congolese civil society hope the Commission will ‘let the VPA live’, even if a new tool, distinct from FLEGT, could be designed to address issues that the VPA does not, such as climate change. That the Commission could consider throwing it all away because FLEGT licences have not yet been delivered appears unjustified. CSOs suggests another approach, “The absence of a FLEGT licence should not be a matter of contention, but should rather encourage stakeholders to rethink the process in order to remove the remaining obstacles.”
1 Namely, coordination (CJJ), independent monitoring (CIRECK, ACNL, EJID, CABS), verification of IFM (OCDH, FGDH), communication and lobbying (ODDHC)