EU scheme to protect tropical forests should not be scrapped

Tuesday, 3 February 2015 09:54 GMT

A logger cuts through a tree in a forest at Abengourou, Ivory Coast, June 30, 2013. REUTERS/ Thierry Gouegnon

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European Union's action plan to stop illegal logging is the first to address the root causes, despite slow progress

Since 2003 the European Union has invested hundreds of millions of euros and a lot of political capital in an ambitious but little-publicised scheme to stop illegal logging.

The Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan is a range of measures to improve the way tropical forests are used and halt the trade in illegal timber – a trade which is worth as much as $15 billion a year, and which has a devastating impact on the environment and the 1.6 billion people who rely on forest resources for their livelihoods.

Ten years after it started, the FLEGT Action Plan is being reviewed, and critics say it should be scrapped. They point out that deforestation continues, that illegal timber is still entering the EU, and that no FLEGT licences – which guarantee the legality of timber exports – have even been issued.

Yet, while progress has sometimes been painfully slow, I believe that the FLEGT Action Plan remains the EU’s best-ever policy on tropical forests, since it’s the first scheme of its kind to address the root causes of illegal logging.

I learned the hard way that banning illegal timber without tackling its causes is like sweeping the homeless off the streets without giving them somewhere to live. The problem simply shifts elsewhere.

In the 1980s I was part of a campaign to stop timber from Sarawak Malaysia - a state with rampant illegal logging and widespread violations of human rights - from entering the Netherlands. Similar campaigns were ongoing in the UK, Belgium and Germany. We succeeded to some extent, and timber imports dropped significantly. But in truth, the campaign was a failure. Malaysia simply found other markets for its timber in China and Japan, and the violation of indigenous peoples’ rights and destruction continued.

Focusing solely on the legality of timber can also be a diversion for another reason: it can entrench injustices in the countries it’s coming from. For instance, when Suharto came to power in Indonesia he created a strong, centralised and military-dominated government. With one ruthless stroke of a pen, it changed the law so that community owned land was transferred into the hands of the state: suddenly people were squatters on their own land.

What makes the FLEGT Action Plan unique is that it addresses the universal causes of both legal and illegal forest destruction: corruption, power imbalances, and a lack of clarity over land tenure rights, principal among them.

This is done through trade agreements between the EU and timber producing countries, called Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs). They establish legal frameworks ensuring that forests are managed in line with social and environmental laws and that the people whose lives depend on them have a say in how they’re managed. The strength of these agreements is that they aren’t imposed from outside, but evolve within the timber-producing countries themselves through consultations involving civil society groups, forest community representatives, the timber industry and governments.

SUCCESSES IN LIBERIA, GHANA

So far, six countries have signed VPAs with the EU, and another nine are being negotiated. A measure of the rigour of the VPA process is that negotiations have mostly stalled in authoritarian countries, such as Gabon or Malaysia. Confronting issues around land tenure and who benefits from the countries’ natural resources have proved harder there, compared to more democratic countries, such as Ghana and Liberia, where VPA negotiations have run more smoothly.

Though a harder sell – and often less visible - than their supposed failings, VPAs have already had significant successes.

For example, in Liberia, whose government ratified the VPA in December 2013, a new policy has been adopted which will see roughly half the country’s land revert to community ownership when it becomes law, and concrete plans have been laid for developing community forestry, meaning  that logging – and the revenues from it – will be controlled by local people.

Liberian forest communities are also poised to receive a financial windfall from timber concession holders who are legally bound to pay them a percentage of their land rental fees – money which will help fund basic amenities in one of the poorest countries on earth.

Meanwhile in Ghana, the VPA has enabled local community groups to shut down major loopholes in the country’s forest laws which were allowing illegal logging via the backdoor. It’s also led to the adoption of a transparency list – which reveals who operates which logging concessions  – giving ordinary people access to vital information with which to hold their government to account.

Overall, in the countries where VPAs have been signed, civil society organisations have been strengthened. In Vietnam, for instance, where the voices of local NGOs have traditionally gone unheeded, they are now having a say in determining the country’s forest policy.

Ending the destruction of the planet’s forests means changing the balance of power in the countries where it’s happening, while increasing the demand for timber from responsibly managed forests in the countries importing it. Nobody - including those currently reviewing the FLEGT Action Plan - should underestimate the enormity of such a task, nor assume that any one policy is the silver bullet that will change everything.

But neither should they underestimate the real and positive changes the FLEGT process is bringing.

Saskia Ozinga is Campaign Co-ordinator of the social and environmental justice NGO FERN, which she co-founded in 1995, and which monitors the European Union’s involvement in forests. She is also the facilitator of the Forest Movement Europe (FME), a grouping of 45 NGOs from across Europe working on forest issues. She has authored or co-authored numerous books and reports on topics including forest policy, illegal timber and community rights.

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