Vietnam’s Government issued the long-awaited Timber Legality Assurance System Decree (VNTLAS), implementing legality assurance aspects of the FLEGT Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) on 1 September 2020. The hope Vietnamese NGOs (VNGOs) may have felt has not been met.
The Decree focuses on administrative details and regulations for operators, but social and environmental protections, and civil society’s role in defending them, have dropped off the agenda. This will have far-reaching repercussions, and VNGOs are worried.
The VNTLAS’ scope is narrow. Verification of wood origin (Article 9), and the Organisation Classification System (OCS) apply only to exporters, although the system is supposed to support legality throughout the supply chain, including operators dealing in domestic and imported timber. The EU’s initial reaction focussed on this restriction, and raised it in a letter to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD, which oversees the Vietnam Forest Administration (VNFOREST).
VNGOs also raised concerns about other restrictions in the Decree − for instance its application to natural forests, but not plantations. VNGOs draw attention to shortcomings in the OCS’s classification of countries of origin and types of enterprises, which will be applied across Vietnam’s provinces: Many categories contain automatic ‘green lights’, or allow just a cursory sample check of timber and timber products, thus leaving an open door for corruption and interruptions in the chain of custody.
The independent evaluation of the legality system provided in the Decree (Article 22) also worries VNGOs. Criteria defining the organisations allowed to carry out evaluations are so limiting that VNGOs are excluded from the outset (e.g. referring to ISO 17021 quality standards for auditors, which no VNGO possesses). The Decree only refers to the involvement of government bodies, whether at provincial or national levels (CITES authorities, Customs officials, VNFOREST and MARD), casting doubt on the ‘independence’ of such “independent” assessments. Notably, EU Vietnam VPA Article 10 (Independent Evaluation) requires monitoring and evaluation to be carried out by bodies free of ‘conflicts of interest’ with, among others, regulatory authorities.
Broader impact monitoring of the VPA’s impacts on different groups has also been pared down. Article 23 lists several operations systems to be assessed (including ‘other areas to be decided by MARD’). No mention is made of impacts on local communities or ethnic minorities, despite the VPA’s references to minimising adverse effects on these (required by VPA Article 16, Social Safeguards). Civil society’s role in shielding such groups is not mentioned either.
In fact, the decree makes no reference to civil society: no space is provided for VNGOs to participate in the legality system, no role is acknowledged, no access is provided, no tasks are assigned.
The FLEGT VPA was intended to instil a culture of legality in the timber trade and improve forest governance, to encourage sustainability and protect populations affected by the timber trade, but chipping away at the pillars of forest governance – inclusive stakeholder engagement, transparency, access to information – represents a retreat. The VNTLAS does not currently meet FLEGT-VPA standards regarding participation, the interests of vulnerable populations and sustainability.
In a difficult setting, SRD and VNGOs continue working on forest governance and timber legality issues, such as transparency, gender, land rights and benefit-sharing mechanisms. Recently, SRD in collaboration with the VNGO-FLEGT network organised the third Multi-stakeholder Forum on Forest Governance and Sustainable Timber Trade (Hanoi, 21 October 2020) at which a representative from VNFOREST presented points of engagement for stakeholders. VNGOs continue to hope that the EU will request MARD to issue VNTLAS’s implementing policies and regulations before it can issue FLEGT licences, and will put its weight alongside them regarding stakeholder engagement.