Improving Forest Governance: A Comparison of FLEGT VPAs and their Impact
Voluntary Partnership Agreements – VPAs – are an innovative tool for improving forest governance. They are the central plank of the EU’s Action Plan to control illegal logging, adopted in 2003. Since then VPA negotiations have been concluded with six timberproducing countries: in chronological order, Ghana, the Republic of Congo, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Indonesia and Liberia. Six more VPAs are currently being negotiated.
The idea behind VPAs is fairly simple, but the VPA documents themselves are not an easy read. By describing the key elements of a VPA, and comparing the texts of the six agreements concluded to date, this report aims to clarify what VPAs are, how they work, and what the differences between them are.
The report begins by describing what prompted the development of the EU FLEGT Action Plan. International NGOs pushed for the design and process of VPAs to include a number of principles, and these have been largely respected. By examining the content of the six existing VPAs, the report moves on to identify differences and similarities between them. Analysis focuses on six key issues that NGOs in Europe and in VPA countries have identified as essential for improving governance in the forestry sector.
Every VPA concluded so far covers all exports (not just those to the EU), and all timber products that the country concerned currently exports. With the exception of the Central African Republic, all concluded VPAs also include the domestic market. This could have a large impact on local communities in these timber-producing countries.
All VPAs require substantive legal reforms. Reforms are required for the VPA to be implemented effectively, but most VPAs also include more far reaching reforms concerning recognition of customary rights, community forests and the domestic market. These reforms, along with an annex specifying which documents need to be made publicly available, and the required involvement of an independent auditor, could potentially make the VPA an effective tool for addressing the underlying causes of forest loss. Each concluded VPA also contains a mechanism for resolving disputes, and most of the agreements provide a clear role for civil society organisations in monitoring the implementation.
All the VPAs concluded to date have been negotiated in a multi-stakeholder process involving representatives from local human rights and environmental organisations, the private sector and government. This is the first time that legally binding trade agreements have been negotiated and agreed in such an inclusive, consensus-based process. The process has therefore been perceived as empowering local civil society actors.
The agreements are not identical. Each VPA is a tailor-made bilateral trade agreement, reflecting the particular challenges that each country faces and the priorities of the different stakeholder groups involved in the negotiation process. Although VPAs are trade agreements, both the negotiation process and the content of the agreement focus as much on issues of environment and development as on trade issues.
The final section of the report deals with challenges, particularly the question of effective implementation. Legality assurance systems (LAS) are not yet up and running for any of the concluded VPAs. In March 2013 the European Union Timber Regulation (EUTR) will come in to effect, making it a criminal offence to put illegally sourced timber on the EU market. If this legislation is not effective in reducing illegal timber imports, producer countries may lose interest in a VPA.
Another challenge comes from the way that the forestry sector is being marginalised by a growth of agriculture and mining activities. This will diminish the potential impact that VPAs can have on improving governance. This report therefore recommends researching the extent to which the VPA model can be used in other sectors. It also recommends research into whether the VPA multi-stakeholder consultation process can be used as an example for national discussions about land-use planning.The paper ends with recommendations for all those involved in the VPA process, including the need to focus on effective implementation and to expand the inclusive multi-stakeholder process to other commodities and processes..