From 27 - 28 April 2017, the Lao PDR experienced its first face-to-face negotiation toward a Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA), a trade deal with the EU that aims to ensure that wood being sold in the EU is demonstrably legally sourced and that a sustainable timber trade supports, rather than harms, forest-dependent communities.
Such trade deals must be negotiated in a fully participatory, transparent process among social and environmental NGOs, community representatives, the timber industry and the government. When discussions started in 2012, most people believed it would be impossible to pursue this process in Laos because local Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and communities had no opportunity to participate freely and independently in the decision-making, or to voice opinions that differed from the government line without risking serious personal danger.
The situation seems to have evolved for the better. In May 2016, the Lao Government issued a Prime Minister Order to address illegal logging and improve domestic timber business operations. Analysis of Vietnamese customs data shows that exports of round wood from Laos to Vietnam dropped significantly, which, for some observers, clearly indicates some commitment on the part of Lao top leadership to fight illegal logging. Lao CSOs are becoming more organised and comfortable with the process, even if there is still a long way to go to improve capacity and ensure a safe environment.
It is therefore crucial that the European Commission keeps the momentum by sending a strong signal of its engagement to Lao stakeholders. It is encouraging that, during negotiations, the Commission acknowledged the participation of Lao CSOs and insisted on communities’ involvement in impact assessments of logging activities as well as in complaint and grievance mechanisms.
In the European Council’s June 2016 conclusions, EU Member States stressed that VPAs have proved to be a valuable instrument in promoting and improving forest governance, especially through the establishment of effective multi-stakeholder processes, policy reforms and increased transparency. Laos civil society hopes that, during future negotiations in Laos, sensitive issues such as the rights of forest peoples, and particularly rights of access and use of natural resources and land, will be addressed.
Photo: Laos - Bolaven Plateau - Logging
Credit: Adam Jones - https://www.flickr.com/photos/adam_jones