Abandoning the timber trade deal between the EU and Vietnam would derail the fight against illegal logging, says Perrine Fournier

On October 19, eight years of often intense negotiations between the European Union (EU) and Vietnam concluded with the signing of a trade deal designed to end the illegality that’s plagued Vietnam’s timber sector for years.

“Today marks the start of an important partnership through which the EU and Vietnam will work together to address illegal logging and its harmful effects,” said Federica Mogherini, the EU high representative for foreign affairs, sitting alongside her Vietnamese counterpart, Nguyen Xuan Cuong, the minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD).

Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs) are seen by many as a model for international efforts to end illegal logging, since they aim to tackle its roots causes, including corruption, failures of transparency and a lack of clarity over land tenure rights.

With deforestation and forest degradation at startling levels at times in Vietnam over recent decades, and a timber industry rife with illegality, the signing of the deal could be seen as a milestone worth celebrating.

Yet for many, it isn’t.

Logging truck

Ongoing illegal imports

To date, 210,000 people have signed a petition by German non-profit Rainforest Rescuecalling for the deal to be stopped. Their opposition centres around the illegal timber which continues to pass across the porous Cambodia-Vietnam border, enriching Cambodia’s ruling family, and leading to the razing of Cambodia’s forests.

Their concerns are valid and based on solid evidence. Nevertheless, they either misunderstand, or mistrust, the VPA’s potential to positively change Vietnam’s timber importers’ sourcing practices.

Fern and the Centre for Sustainable Rural Development (SRD) have analysed the EU-Vietnam timber deal, drawing on interviews with Vietnamese civil society members, external experts, Europeans and Vietnamese involved in the negotiations, as well as public domain sources.

Our analysis shows what the deal has achieved, the dangers in abandoning it, and the steps that must be taken as it moves into the critical implementation phase: that is, before so-called FLEGT licenses can be issued. Only then can Vietnam guarantee that timber it exports has been harvested, processed and exported legally.

While Vietnam’s timber sector still has far to travel on the road to legality, it is important to understand the distance it has come, and the context of the journey.

Vietnam factory

Since introducing a “socialist-oriented market economy” in the 1980s, Vietnam’s economic growth has been turbocharged: this exponential growth is mirrored in Vietnam’s forest economy and forest-based industries. Vietnam is “at the centre of the global timber products trade”: importing timber from some 80 countries, while also being the world’s fourth largest exporter of wood products.

Initiating good governance over this rapidly expanding timber industry, which is also incredibly diverse — ranging from households operations to major exporters — presents unique challenges.

These challenges are heightened by the constraints Vietnam’s civil society has historically operated under.

Vietnam group photo

Listening to civil society

At the heart of the VPA is the requirement that negotiations — and just as crucially, the deal’s implementation — involve a broad range of participants, including representatives from government, the private sector, civil society organisations (CSOs), as well as forest-dependent communities. In Vietnam’s case, CSOs were initially excluded from a formal seat in negotiations, and at times faced pressure from the government for speaking openly.

But as negotiations progressed, they played an important role in shaping the deal. Through extensive fieldwork, for instance, they have ensured that the views of poor communities and households across the country were heard by negotiators.

Vietnam logging

For the deal to succeed, democratic space for Vietnam’s civil society must continue to open, and they must be given the chance to scrutinise how the deal is implemented.

Another thorny issue is the development of Vietnam’s timber import legislation, which will make it mandatory for all importers — including high-risk countries which export to Vietnam such as Cambodia, Cameroon and Gabon — to ensure that their timber sources are legal.

After initially refusing to recognise the need for timber import controls, around three years ago the Vietnamese government shifted its position. When the VPA enters into force, probably next year, Vietnam will be under a legal obligation to implement such a regulation. Its credibility must be assured by an independent and multi-tiered assessment. In this way, it can help end the flow of illegal timber across Vietnam’s border, which has justifiably alarmed people around the world.

But their plea to stop the deal with the EU is not the answer. The deep structural changes that have finally begun to overhaul an industry disfigured for years by poor governance, was always going to be a long and tortuous process.

This process — which will culminate eventually in Vietnam’s timber exports being declared legal under the terms of the VPA — will take years of vigilance and commitment from all parties. There can be no turning back now.

The Long Road to Timber Legality: Taking stock of the EU-Vietnam VPA timber trade deal, is published by the Centre for Sustainable Rural Development (SRD), a leading Vietnamese NGO which supports rural communities, and Brussels-based forest and rights NGO, Fern.

This article is also available on Medium

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