In Ghana, Liberia and Central African Republic, benefits are starting to flow to forest communities for the first time
Over the past two decades, there have been numerous attempts to protect tropical forests and end the menace of illegal logging.
There have been private sector initiatives, such as the voluntary forest certification schemes aimed at ensuring that timber products carrying their logos come from responsibly managed forests. There have been pledges from the world’s most powerful nations – the Action Plan on illegal logging adopted by the G8 in 1998 and the New York Declaration on Forests in 2014, for instance. And there have been efforts to stamp out illegal forest destruction through legislation, including the Convention on Biological Diversity in 2002, and amendments to the United States’ Lacey Act in 2008.
To varying degrees, all have their merits. Yet all are fundamentally limited, because they cannot address the root causes of forest destruction: corruption, power imbalances and unjust or unclear land tenure rights.
One scheme however, has the means of doing precisely this - and the evidence shows that it’s working.
As the world’s largest trading bloc and the biggest single development aid donor, the EU has major influence on the world’s tropical forests, and in 2003 it launched its hugely ambitious Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan. This aspires not only to stop illegal timber entering the EU market, but to change how tropical forests are owned and managed, by using trade as leverage to include civil society and forest community members in formulating new, more just laws in timber-producing countries, and creating the conditions for those laws to be effectively and fairly enforced.
Today, 13 years after it began, and with much political and financial capital expended on it in that time, the European Commission (EC) publishes an independent review of FLEGT. In due course EC and EU Member States will decide on its future.
The review’s conclusions can be interpreted as reinforcing both the arguments of the scheme’s advocates as well those of its critics: on the one hand describing it as “fully relevant… innovative, comprehensive and future-proof”, while also maintaining that it has “not been implemented in a sufficiently balanced manner” and that its effectiveness varies widely.
The criticisms of the report, some valid, should be a catalyst for strengthening FLEGT, not an excuse for scaling it back, as it remains the EU’s best ever policy on tropical forests.
A key component of it is the Voluntary Partnerships Agreements (VPAs) trade deals the EU has signed with timber-producing countries. These enable forest communities to help shape forest laws in their own countries, meaning that those whose lives depend on forests have a say in how they’re run and managed: a highly effective way of keeping them standing, as a growing body of evidence shows.
Fern works in nine countries where VPAs have or are being introduced, and our own research shows that all the countries which have signed VPAs with the EU have seen clear reforms in their forest sectors.
In Ghana, Liberia and the Central African Republic, financial and other benefits are starting to flow to forest communities for the first time. In the latter, the courage and resilience of civil society groups is leading to the crafting of new, more just forest laws in country shattered by civil war.
In Malaysia, where VPA negotiations are proceeding, progress has proved slower. But the magnitude of attempting to end the destruction of the planet’s forests, and therefore change the balance of power in the countries where it’s happening, should not be underestimated.
The FLEGT Action Plan remains an indispensable tool for doing so. But it must be strengthened and improved to address new realities, such as the boom in so-called conversion timber. This is tropical timber which has been clear cut to make way for agriculture, and which is now estimated to constitute almost half of the tropical timber available on the international market.
In this time of austerity, cutting support for the fight against illegal logging might seem attractive to policymakers. To do so, however, would be calamitous.
Illegal logging drives climate change; it threatens the 1.6 billion people who rely on forests for their livelihoods; and it damages the economies of forested countries, which lose and estimated $10 billion annually in assets and revenue as a result of it. As such, the future of the world’s tropical forests is our future.
Lindsay Duffield is the forest governance communications co-ordinator at Fern.