In 2013, the Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) between the government of the Republic of Congo and the European Union (EU) entered into force, with the aim of addressing problems related to forest governance and illegal logging. Ten years on, Christian Mounzéo of the Rencontre pour la Paix et les Droits de l'Homme (RPDH) outlines the state of implementation.
“Civil society had never been considered a full partner, but the VPA changed everything to do with forest governance. The fight against illegality, the rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities (IPLCs), transparency and participation are its cornerstones. Since its adoption, civil society has been able to express its views on the most important decisions at an early stage, thereby contributing as a genuine partner to development.
In this context of accessibility, a new tool has strengthened governance: Independent Forest Monitoring (IFM), which takes a detailed look at a range of data – comparing, for example, what a company is contracted to do, with the reality on the ground.
That civil society’s proposals have genuinely been taken into account is evident in the adoption of a progressive Forest Code that incorporates respect for the rights of IPLCs – consultation, Free, Prior and Informed Consent, and sharing the benefits of logging with communities – into a higher legal norm, where previously they had been scattered in decrees liable to change from one administration to the next. IFM has also taken its place in the revised Forest Code.
The VPA’s advances have increased civil society involvement in other initiatives; their contributions have thus been able to maintain climate ambition in the development of robust, revised Nationally Determined Contribution, as well as in validated REDD+ programmes.
But a chasm lies between these commitments and practice, and the challenges that remain cloud the horizon.
Legal reform has been slow in coming. The Forestry Code revision is a huge success, but it has taken a decade to consider the implementing decrees that will make the transparency code effective. We cannot afford such delays: each day that we wait carries a cost as each new problem that arises has a tangible impact on communities.
In practice, a number of issues remain unresolved, particularly when it comes to benefit-sharing. Deposits are not being made to the local development funds that should be financing local projects. Field visits show that very few projects exist; IPLCs still face difficulties accessing education; rivers and streams are polluted; soils and crops are contaminated...
When they try to complain, communities are confronted with complaint mechanisms that do not work, undermining any attempt to assert their rights, and we are called upon to support them within the framework of RPDH’s Legal Aid and Citizen Action (CAJAC).
These failings also mean a loss of income for state coffers: the government neither insists on replenishing development funds, nor even on collecting the monies it is owed. This raises the disturbing issues of corruption and impunity: there is little appetite to prosecute infringing companies; it is not uncommon to hear them say that they are accountable only to the head of state, and that they need not comply with applicable laws.
How can the EU boost governance?
Consistency and coherence: New EU initiatives need not be a sign of political fragmentation. The EU Regulation on deforestation-free products (EUDR) and the recent Forest Partnership signed between the EU and the Republic of Congo are both opportunities to capitalise on the achievements of the VPA, and to reap the benefits of the past 10 years.
The doors that have been opened for Congolese civil society must not shut now. The EU and the Republic of Congo have just signed a five-year plan (2023-27) for the VPA, yet civil society is still unaware of its content.
The VPA’s Joint Implementation Committee to be held in Brazzaville (23 and 27 November 2023) is an opportunity to truly take stock of the previous plan, and to create synergies between the VPA and new forestry and climate initiatives. We would like to emphasise the strategic need to strengthen these synergies, to ensure that they attain their objectives and prevent duplication of actions.
Strengthen the commitment on a practical level, starting with capacity-building and financial support for IFM. IFM is indispensable: it provides the formal data recognised by the government that is held up against findings on the ground. This data forms the basis of civil society’s advocacy activities; accountability and enforcement rely on these data.
Worryingly, IFM reports look the same year after year. Between the time of the first recommendations and the current ones, nothing has changed, or at least not much. The EU used to fund IFM, but no longer seems willing to continue, although the activity is crucial.
Confront impunity and corruption: Despite our ambition, we will not succeed in improving forest governance if corruption and impunity remain endemic, if not systemic.
At present, the more logging and timber production increase, the less revenue is generated. According to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, timber currently contributes less than five per cent of national income. How can that be? Civil society knows where it needs to take action – but it is demoralising to keeping making the same comments when, each time, less pressure is exerted regarding where the funds go.
There is a deep need for the government to mobilise with its EU partners, but it remains to be seen whether Europe has the appetite to pursue transparency and use the levers at its disposal to encourage the government to tackle impunity and corruption.
The VPA has had considerable success, has made impressive progress. Going forward, we must insist on practical implementation, so as not to allow discouragement to set in, and to lose momentum.”