Liberia’s current administration has, in recent years, shown little interest in building on the governance foundations laid by the EU-Liberia FLEGT-VPA processes. But instead of urging Liberia’s government to take responsibility and continue work toward issuing licences under the binding trade agreement, a few highly vocal elements within the European Commission appear to be throwing in the towel. This, after a FLEGT Fitness Check to which very few (175 people), mostly Europeans (79 per cent) responded.
When President George Weah took office in 2018 he had one − commendable − priority: lifting communities from poverty. But the administration’s preference for simplicity also translated into suspicion of technical expertise, including within the Forest Development Authority (FDA). Limited experience with the forest sector’s complex regulatory framework, and prioritisation of the President’s will, have resulted in stagnation. This has been compounded by pressure on the FDA’s managing director to deliver revenue (timber taxes, fines) badly needed by the government while its own budget is extremely restricted. Communities and civil society organisations (CSOs) consider FLEGT multistakeholder meetings crucial, but the director has not attended one since 2018, sending instead junior proxies with little power to take appropriate decisions on matters such as community complaints. Nor has the FDA allocated national funding for follow-up field visits (although some funding from Norway is available).
But the Ministry of Justice has stepped into the breach to ensure the continued functioning of the regulatory framework, and an issue of illegality is nearing a resolution that will affect the FDA’s management. Importantly also, to assist compliance, a FLEGT Joint Implementation Committee complaint mechanism was put in place in November 2020.
EU encouragement could help move things along, but a 23 March 2021 virtual exchange with the Commission and Members of the European Parliament left Liberian CSOs feeling abandoned. They were taken aback by the FLEGT Fitness Check’s “licence/no licence” benchmark, and its implied dismissal of FLEGT’s achievements to date.
Even if progress is limping at the moment, CSOs view the VPA as the pillar supporting a groundswell in forest governance. “Poor governance, transparency and accountability issues were the key problems to be resolved through FLEGT. In some ways, this is achieved. Community voices are heard louder only because of FLEGT − benefit distribution had resumed only because of FLEGT. Yes, short-term progress is slow, but FLEGT is a process, and governance gains are long-term,” says Jonathan Yiah, of the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) Liberia.
For CSOs, the conclusion that the VPA was not achieving sustainability did not follow logically. No system allowed for sustainable decisions before FLEGT, CSOs argue. FLEGT’s insistence on stakeholder- and especially community - involvement created the impetus for sustainability in Liberia.
Likewise, the idea of new forest partnerships, floated by parts of the Commission, caused consternation. “The EU is drifting toward another process, but cannot explain which key lessons will be applied, or how these partnerships would proceed differently,” a representative of the Foundation for Community Initiatives (FCI) says. “They would be working with Liberia’s government − which will eventually change – in the same difficult context, with the same communities, but without giving us the benefit of the legal framework FLEGT imposes. Without that, we will go back to square one.”
CSOs view a continued focus on legality as an essential foundation for sustainability. Liberia’s Land Rights Act recognises communities’ rights to their land, they point out, but practical details surrounding title, in whose name and how land is managed must be determined within a legal framework. The government’s commitment to forest community rights breaks down when competing interests appear. Sustainability cannot be achieved without the legal grounds to fight against unsustainable actions, CSOs explain.
In such instances, it helps to have FLEGT structures and processes in place, and the EU as a powerful outside ally. Communities’ disenchantment reflects on current progress by the Liberian government, not on FLEGT. They urge the EU to reinvigorate FLEGT, and to strengthen sustainability alongside legality, to make both work.