FLEGT advances accountability in the Ivoirian forest sector
Six years have now passed since the end of civil conflict that destabilised Côte d’Ivoire for years. In this period, the country has made great strides towards improved governance and accountability. It held free and fair elections, adopted a new constitution making government structures more representative, and undertook institutional reforms. Rule of law, however, is still not completely institutionalised across the country.
In Côte d’Ivoire, carrying out the letter of the law is complicated by the fact that the regulatory and procedural details necessary for application are often absent. It is not uncommon that administrative procedures are not formally established and written down, not to mention made public. This gap in the legal framework gives civil servants wide discretion, leading to an uneven implementation of the law. It reduces accountability and, depending on the nature of the gap, it can even lead to abuse. It also forces users to travel to the economic capital Abidjan to ask the public administration for clarification and information for every step in administrative processes.
‘At certain periods of the year, there is a long line of people in front of the office of the Director for timber management and industry, people who need information about the procedures to access forest resources,’ explains Rodrigue Ngonzo, the Facilitator for the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) process in Côte d’Ivoire. These people have to bear the costs of travelling to Abidjan and staying in the city for a few days.
According to Virginie Vergnes, head of the sustainable forest programme of the Wild Chimpanzee Foundation, the presence of regulatory and administrative instruments for implementing laws is very inconsistent in Côte d’Ivoire. In fact, while a new Forest Code was passed in 2014, the regulatory instruments needed to implement it are still to be adopted. In this context, recent efforts by the forest authorities in Côte d’Ivoire to develop nine administrative procedures related to the management of forest activities are an important exception.
The development of these procedures represents an important step towards accountability. Once they are made public, they will inform stakeholders of the rights and responsibilities in the process of obtaining or renewing resource rights like forest concessions and forest permits. They also outline the conditions for harvesting timber, selling timber products and resolving related conflicts. Their upcoming publication will help advance Côte d’Ivoire’s efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal 16, which relates to strong institutions; in particular target 16.10 to ensure public access to information, and target 16.6 to develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels.
Côte d'Ivoire's rainforest. Credit: BBC
The adoption and publication of forest management procedures will also be a big time-saver, explains Rodrigue Ngonzo: ‘Civil servants will no longer need to explain over and over the same things to citizens, who will be able to access the information from the website of the Forest Ministry’.
So if procedures are not systematically developed and promulgated in Côte d’Ivoire, what made the forest administration take such initiative for the management of forest resources?
The answer is the FLEGT process that aims to prevent the import of illegal timber into the European Union (EU) and to improve the supply of legal timber. A key component of FLEGT is the negotiation of a trade agreement between partner countries and the EU to address illegal logging, improve forest governance and promote trade in legal timber products. Côte d’Ivoire and the EU have been collaborating on the development of the elements for a Voluntary Partnership Agreement (or VPA), and the process has been linked with a number of significant governance reform activities in the sector.
At the heart of each VPA is a timber legality assurance system, which verifies that wood products conform to national laws. It was through the VPA process and discussions on the development of the Ivorian legality verification system that the Ivoirian VPA technical secretariat identified the need to formally adopt procedures and developed a list of priorities. The nine priority procedures were documented and validated at a May 2017 workshop involving the private sector. They will be made public once validated by the Forest Minister.
Before this step, there were no written procedures for all of the critical steps in acquiring and maintaining forest resource rights. Rodrigue Ngonzo stresses that ‘at the most, there was a list of documents for the applicant to submit. However, a simple list of documents is only one element of a procedure, which also details which authority is to act, how and when, and possibly how much it costs.’
The development of these forest procedures also stands out for the participatory process that underpinned their development. Cheick Tidiane Sylla, the Ivorian Focal Point for the FLEGT VPA, explains that ‘the forest ministry collaborated with other ministries and worked together with representatives from industry, civil society and traditional chiefs.’
Although the development of these forest management procedures may sound like a technicality, Cheick Tidiane Sylla outlines various reasons why it constitutes ‘an important step on the road to improved good forest governance.’ Once formalised, the procedures will not only save users and the public administration time and money, they will also contribute to clearly identify the roles and responsibilities of the various actors involved. They will help establish a transparent framework for the exchanges among all forest stakeholders and lay the ground for the traceability of taxes levied on forest activities, thereby enhancing the accountability of forest authorities.
Timber for export in Côte d'Ivoire. Credit: EU FLEGT Facility
Both civil society and the private sector concur on the importance of the adoption of written procedures. For Virginie Vergnes, who carries out independent observation projects, having ‘clear, written procedures is essential as it enables us to identify cases of non-compliance.’ For Boubacar Ben Salah, president of the timber producers and industry trade union in Côte d’Ivoire, ‘if the procedures are known by all, it is a token of transparency, forest operators will not be cheated.’
Writing procedures down also ensures they are regularly updated. As Sylla points out, ‘documenting procedures enables to revise and update them in the future.’ Virginie Vergnes notes that their revision will be necessary when the regulations to implement the 2014 Forest Code are adopted, to ensure the procedures and the regulations are consistent.
This governance improvement has even extended to the whole Water and Forest Ministry. Rodrigue Ngonzo explains that the Water and Forest Minister has set the goal of documenting the procedures related to all of the Ministry’s activities, not only those related to FLEGT VPA.
Having the procedures in written form is also the first step to their digitisation, a process that is also currently underway. The Minister of Water and Forestry committed his Ministry to automating the procedures so that applications could be submitted and managed online, and to set-up a forest data management system. For Boubacar Ben Salah, making the system digital is ‘essential to ensure its efficiency and transparency.’ In its 2017 World Development Report on governance and the law, the World Bank recognises that digitisation is ‘particularly promising’ to combat corruption as it contributes to transparency and the rationalisation of fiscal management on the government side, and empowers citizens on the society side.
In a country where less than three million hectares of forests remain of the original 16 million, efforts to enhance the governance of the forest sector are welcome. Without written rules setting out how the administration will carry out the law, society cannot hold the public authorities accountable. While welcoming the development of these written procedures, Virginie Vergnes stresses the need for ‘authorities to make them public and disseminate them.’