Civil society sharing lessons on participation and forest governance

When civil society organisations in Indonesia began proposing ways to end illegal logging, they knew they had a mountain to climb. In 2002, some 80 percent of logging there was illegally. Corruption and conflict were widespread. Trust was lacking.

Emelia Arthur in Nfante, Ghana, discussing forest degradation by Clare Brogan

By 2016, however, Indonesia had largely brought its forest sector under control. It now verifies the legality of timber produced in or imported into Indonesia, and requires legality licences for all timber exports. Nongovernmental organisations have a formal role as independent observers of the timber legality assurance system. The transformation would have been impossible without civil society groups participating at every stage of a lengthy and at times intensely political process.

As Mike Jeffree reports in the European Timber Trade Federation newsletter, these groups are now sharing lessons from their hard-won gains with counterparts in other countries – from Ghana to Myanmar. Meanwhile, recent research in four African countries and in Laos points to ways to further improve civil society’s participation in decisions about forest governance. 

Leading the way

Indonesia’s national timber legality assurance system forms the centrepiece of a Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) between Indonesia and the EU. The VPA aims to improve forest governance and promote trade in verified legal (FLEGT-licensed) timber products. As with the development of the national system, Indonesian civil society groups played a key role in the VPA negotiations and implementation. They continue to do so, now that Indonesia has begun issuing FLEGT licenses.

Mardi Minangsari was involved from the start, both as a representative of the national NGO Telapak and later the Environmental Investigation Agency and as a key figure in JPIK, the Independent Forest Monitoring Network. She told Mike Jeffree that Indonesia’s CSOs had to be committed, persuasive and persistent. “Government and business may not have encouraged engagement,” she says. “But as we talked and involved more stakeholders, they became increasingly receptive and today listen to our concerns and appreciate our input.”

Indonesia is one of 15 countries that are implementing or negotiating VPAs, but it is the first to issue FLEGT licences. Elsewhere, momentum is building. The quality of participation by civil society appears to correlate strongly with progress. In all countries where a VPA has been concluded, the multistakeholder steering committees guiding negotiations reached decisions mostly by consensus. In all cases, stakeholder groups and their constituents supported the result.

The EU advocates for such participation in VPA processes as it increases fairness and transparency. It bring local insights, needs and concerns to the negotiating table. And it helps ensure that decisions are reached after careful deliberation among all involved stakeholders. The idea is that if decisions are nationally-owned and reflect a consensus among stakeholders, then implementation is more likely to succeed. The involvement of civil society alongside government and the private sector brings credibility to a VPA’s timber legality assurance system and eventual FLEGT licensing. 


Interview with Mardi Minangsari, former representative of the national NGO Telapak and later the Environmental Investigation Agency and as a key figure in JPIK, the Independent Forest Monitoring Network. FLEGT Week 2013.


No recipe

Research published in 2017 showed that civil society groups in Cameroon, Ghana, Liberia and the Republic of the Congo are increasingly participating in national VPA processes — and more so than in processes related to REDD+ (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation).

The study — by Poshendra Satyal of the University of East Anglia, UK — says VPAs have important lessons for other processes such as REDD+, because they are designed to be inclusive and participatory, and because they build capacity for continued participation.

Through their participation in VPA processes, civil society groups in Ghana and Indonesia have successfully lobbied the government to make information about the forest sector publicly available. In Liberia, they have used the VPA process to get the government to pay communities a share of logging fees they are owed, and to block the fraudulent issuance of logging permits.

While participation is a key ingredient of reform, there is no fixed recipe for success. Nonetheless, as a briefing by the EU FLEGT Facility shows, VPA processes have provided many lessons. The briefing highlights ways to identify stakeholders, and get them interested in the process and organised for effective participation. It provides guidance on how to establish effective multistakeholder processes and ensure strong links between civil society platforms and the official negotiations, through effective representation.

VPA processes show that governments are not necessarily opposed to civil society participating in decision-making processes, but that they tend not to be used to such approaches. It is essential therefore to develop trust, a common understanding of participation and clarity on the process. Stakeholders also need time, money and capacity in order to participate.


FLEGT voices: Vu Thi Bich Hop, Centre for Sustainable Rural Development, Vietnam​

Capacity matters

One country that is now walking this path is Laos, which began its VPA process in 2012. Research published this year by the University of Eastern Finland and the European Forest Institute, showed that in 2014 civil society stakeholders there had limited capacity, resources and opportunities to participate.

In 2015, the Prime Minister’s Office approved the VPA process and importantly provided for a full multistakeholder process that includes Lao non-profit associations and private sector representatives participating at all levels, alongside departments of relevant ministries. Twenty civil society groups in Laos now follow the VPA process, an increase from just four back in 2015.

“Civil society organisations have been invited by the government to participate in the VPA process but the complexity of the negotiation is difficult to follow, and the time commitment is high,” said Dr Chanthavy Vongkha of the Lao Wildlife Conservation Association, in December 2016. “We want to learn from neighbouring countries: how do their civil society organisations continue to participate in the process?”

Learning and sharing

A study tour of Indonesia for Lao civil society organisations is now being arranged. Indonesian civil society organisations have also liaised with or received visits from groups from China, Ghana, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. These exchanges focus on how to achieve stakeholder participation, define legality, ensure access to government information and monitor forests. The visitors learn how Indonesian civil society organisations mobilised, engaged with stakeholders and advocated their positions to the government.

Civil society groups also interact at periodic workshops on timber legality assurance in South-East Asia. The most recent event, in December 2016, provided a platform for Indonesia and civil society groups from the country to share their experiences. The workshop also triggered bi-lateral discussions between countries such as Laos and Myanmar.

Collaboration also takes places on a broader scale. In March 2017, civil society groups from Europe and ten of the countries involved in VPA processes published a joint briefing that highlighted how they value VPAs as means to improve forest governance. It said: “In particular, civil society organisations acknowledge that VPAs provide political space and structures that better enable them to be agents for change.”

Among other things, the briefing urges the EU, its member states and VPA countries to continue to support and enable meaningful participation of civil society actors in VPA processes and independent forest monitoring, through access to adequate resources and capacity building.

The Indonesian experience offers hard proof that participatory processes can yield significant results. Reflecting on more than a decade of involvement in Indonesia’s quest for legality assurance, Mardi Minangsari has advice for counterparts in other countries who are starting out.

“You must have a clear idea of what you want from the process and fight to be heard,” she told Mike Jeffree. “But in a multistakeholder process, without compromising your integrity and goals, you are also expected to negotiate and find common positions. First get the process moving. Then reinforce from there.” 

Read the original story on the EU FLEGT Facility website. 

More information

  • EU FLEGT Facility. 2014. Engaging civil society stakeholders in FLEGT Voluntary Partnership Agreement processes. Briefing. [Read online]
  • EU FLEGT Facility. 2015. VPA Unpacked — How a VPA can increase participation. [Read online]
  • FLEGT voices [Watch the videos]
  • European Timber Trade Federation. 2017. ETTF News – Winter-Spring 2017. [PDF]
  • Fern. 2016. Do FLEGT VPAs improve governance? Examining how FLEGT VPAs are changing the way forests are owned and managed [PDF]
  • Fern and partners. 2017. Making Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs) work for forests, people and the climate: Civil society recommendations on the future of VPAs. [PDF]
  • Mustalahti, I. et al. 2017. Resources and rules of the game: Participation of civil society in REDD+ and FLEGT‐VPA processes in Lao PDR. Forests 8: 50. DOI: 10.3390/f8020050 [Read online]
  • Satyal, P. 2017. Assessing civil society participation in REDD+ and FLEGT: Case study analysis of Cameroon, Ghana, Liberia and the Republic of Congo. DEV Reports and Policy Paper Series. The School of International Development, University of East Anglia, UK. [PDF]