The EU was about to discard its best weapon in the fight against illegal logging. Then civil society groups around the world pushed back.
Earlier this year, the European Union seemed to be on the verge of abandoning the most innovative and ambitious attempt it has ever made to end illegal logging globally.
At the start of 2021, the European Commission carried out a ‘Fitness Check’ of the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Regulation: designed to improve how tropical forests are managed, and to halt the illegal timber trade. If this Regulation is successful, it could be a game changer as the illicit trade is worth between US$ 50 - $100 billion a year, and devastates the environment and the lives of many of the 1.6 billion people whose survival depends on forests.
The Fitness Check concluded that the FLEGT Regulation should be scaled back, along with the Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) trade deals which are part of it, and which the EU has signed with many timber producing countries.
What’s more, the Commission suggested scrapping FLEGT licenses, which guarantee that timber has been harvested, processed and exported legally, and give timber exporters favourable access to the EU market.
There was dismay among NGOs working around the world to protect forests and the rights of their inhabitants. More than 40 of them signed a statement expressing alarm at the proposal, and the colossal setback it represented to the fight against illegal timber.
Their sentiments were echoed by politicians in timber producing countries, including Rosalie Matondo, the Minister for Forest Economy for the Republic of Congo, which signed a VPA with the EU in 2010. Matondo highlighted that the EU would be making a unilateral decision about a jointly agreed trade deal, writing: “Our FLEGT-VPA was an agreement based on equal consultations between two parties. Both should have a say in decisions which alter its basis.”
On November 17 the Commission made a major announcement about a proposed Regulation on deforestation-free products, using the opportunity to also step away from plans to scrap crucial elements of the FLEGT programme.
This may have been a result of the NGO backlash to the Commission’s proposal, internal political manoeuvres, or a combination of pressures, but it is good news, and echoes the positive findings of the Commission’s 2016 independent evaluation of FLEGT, and a 2020 study from the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). Both demonstrated that VPAs have made significant contributions to sustainable forest management and forest conditions, as well as improved governance, law enforcement and compliance.
So why – given the weight of evidence – did it ever consider scrapping them?
It is now coming to light that the ‘fitness check’ wasn’t consultative enough as it failed to fully canvas the views of governments and civil society in VPA countries. The body of research it relied on was incomplete (ignoring various other authoritative studies as well as CIFOR’s). Its methodology was weak in various ways, including over representing EU views over those from other countries. It also omitted key details about the benefits and opportunities of FLEGT and VPAs, and their effectiveness in curtailing illegal logging.
FLEGT Regulation – working in tandem with the Regulation on deforestation-free products
Improving forest governance is a pre-condition to tackling deforestation at source. In this sense, the FLEGT Regulation – whose central aim is to improve governance – is a crucial ‘sister’ to the new regulation that focuses on commodity-driven deforestation and forest degradation. In particular, the VPAs between the EU and third countries form a basis for increased collaboration.
The FLEGT Regulation understood that while the EU can send a market signal, the hard work of protecting tropical forests has to happen in country, and have buy-in from all stakeholders. When devising agreements to tackle deforestation, the EU should therefore build on the truly innovative tools it pioneered more than a decade ago, using the inclusive and deliberative approach that is at their core.