FLEGT boosts civil society self-help

After playing a key role in implementing their country’s FLEGT Voluntary Partnership Agreement with the EU, Indonesian civil society groups are sharing experiences with counterparts in other countries engaged in the initiative.

Thai community group meeting by Warangkana Rattanarat

In early January, ships from Indonesia carrying the first ever cargoes of FLEGT-licensed, legally assured timber docked at Antwerp in Belgium and Tilbury in the UK. The occasion was greeted enthusiastically across the EU timber sector and garnered trade media coverage throughout Europe and Southeast Asia. 

At quayside welcome receptions, it was billed as a key moment in international timber legality. Speakers said it would boost Indonesia’s European exports and timber trading links, as FLEGT-licensed products are exempt from further EU Timber Regulation due diligence. It was presented as a further blow against illegal logging and trade, and a spur for other supplier countries to implement their Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs), so they too could issue FLEGT licences and reap the rewards. Indonesia, they said, had put down a serious marker. 

There was less comment in the trade press about the pivotal role played by civil society organisations (CSOs) in getting Indonesian and EU industry and authorities to this point; from NGOs and small timber and forest businesses and cooperatives, to local councils, community groups and indigenous peoples representatives. It is obligatory under a VPA for supplier countries to ensure wide-ranging engagement in setting the direction and strategies of timber and forestry industries. Stakeholders at all levels must also be empowered to influence national timber sector policy and, indeed, VPA negotiations.

As Indonesian CSOs found, this sometimes proved easier said than done. They had to overcome the inherent reluctance of some in business and government to view their role as anything but token. Ensuring grass roots involvement also demanded extensive outreach to tell people about their potential role and rights under the VPA. It was a huge undertaking, Mardi Minangsari, of the Environmental Investigation Agency and a key figure in CSO umbrella group JPIK (the Independent Forest Monitoring Network), said the Indonesian government was not initially proactive in involving CSOs.

“We had to drive the multi-stakeholder approach for the VPA from the start, and before that in Indonesia’s SVLK timber legality assurance system, which now underpins FLEGT licensing,” she said. In short, she added, Indonesia’s CSOs had to be hugely committed, persuasive and persistent. But the outcome is significantly increased transparency and much broader interest and participation in timber sector decision-making. “Government and business may not have encouraged engagement, but as we talked and involved more stakeholders, they became increasingly receptive and today listen to our concerns and appreciate our input.”

The CSOs also helped in political and technical aspects of Indonesia’s VPA implementation. “Our involvement lent credibility to the SVLK and FLEGT licensing,” said Ms Mardi. “And JPIK’s formally-acknowledged role as independent monitor has already led to reviews and operational improvements, almost annually.” Reading this, CSOs in other VPA countries might be daunted by the challenges ahead. But thanks to the Indonesians’ successful trail blazing, the good news is that they now have a model to follow.

Moreover, Indonesian CSOs are also keen to support counterparts elsewhere. The hoped for outcome is that, while VPA processes in other countries will be no less demanding, their CSOs should find them easier to navigate. Indonesian CSOs began connecting with stakeholder groups in other VPA countries on an ad hoc basis. Then exchange became more structured, with particularly strong and frequent connections with Ghana, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, but also liaison with Malaysia and other countries.

“We mostly communicate remotely, but CSOs in Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam have all visited Indonesia and we’ve been to Myanmar to share perspectives,” said Ms Mardi. How to achieve stakeholder involvement in VPA negotiations is a key topic of these conversations, as is how to access government information needed to monitor the forestry and timber sectors. Ghanaian CSOs, Ms Mardi said, have drawn on the Indonesian experience to develop proposals for their VPA’s ‘transparency annex’, while discussions with the Vietnamese have centred on monitoring the VPA timber legality assurance system. The Thais consulted on smallholder and community forest engagement, and preparing input for their timber legality definition.

The CSOs in these countries themselves take an equally positive view of what seems to be developing into an international VPA communications and support network. In 2016, Vietnam and the EU agreed in principle on the content of a VPA, which they expect to sign this year. This was something Vietnamese CSOs had urged for some time, said Tue Tran Ngoc, FLEGT Manager at the Vietnamese Centre for Sustainable Rural Development (SRD), with their efforts becoming increasingly coordinated since 2012, when they formed the Vietnamese NGO FLEGT Network (VNGO FLEGT).

This umbrella group has focused on the potential impact of a VPA on small and medium enterprises (SMEs), how to support forest-dependent communities through the process, and building stakeholder capacity for getting involved. It is also pressing for representation on the EU-Vietnam FLEGT Joint Implementation Committee and to become a FLEGT independent monitor. Against this background, Mr Tran Ngoc said insights from Indonesian CSOs have been particularly valuable.

“Advice on securing participation in VPA negotiations has been especially useful,” he said. “Currently there is no independent monitoring provision in the proposed EU-Vietnam VPA, so learning about how they achieved monitor status and the challenges of the role has been useful.”

Warangkana Rattanarat, Thailand Country Program Coordinator for the Center for People and Forests (RECOFTC), sees further obstacles ahead for her country in implementing their VPA. But there’s growing awareness of the incentives and CSOs are increasingly proactive in communication on the issues with public and private sectors. “We see FLEGT as an engine for forest reform and ensuring rights of small and marginalised stakeholders,” said Ms Rattanarat, “It should also deliver economic development. Demand for legal, sustainably sourced timber is increasing globally and a VPA would improve our market access, leading to better business and supply chain management.”

The Thais and Indonesians first exchanged on FLEGT at a VPA forum for ASEAN CSOs. This was followed by a fact-finding visit to Indonesia for meetings with smallholder organisations and NGOs, and ‘intensive discussions’ with other CSOs. “Some participants were sceptical on how a FLEGT VPA would benefit community groups, but the visit showed its potential to raise governance and industry standards, and how CSOs could facilitate SME and smallholder involvement,” said Ms Rattanarat. “Indonesia presented a vision of forest and trade governance that was transparent, accessible, decentralized and credible.”

Ms Mardi also sees value in CSO exchange with countries further back on the VPA trail “CSOs in Myanmar, which is now considering a VPA, have been particularly active liaising with us,” said Ms Mardi. “They’ve secured representation from the get-go in a multistakeholder interim legality assurance task force and are building independent monitoring capacity.”

According to Salai Cung Lian Thawng of Myanmar’s Pyoe Pin public/private sustainable development programme, not all its CSOs are yet convinced a VPA is the course to take. However, they still value Indonesian thoughts on improving forest governance and timber legality generally. “Our CSO consensus is that the fundamental goal is good forest governance and legal domestic and export timber trade,” said Mr Lian Thawng. “If the VPA gets us there, fine. If it doesn’t satisfy our needs, we’ll find another route. Either way, we can learn from Indonesia’s experience.”

The first link came when Indonesian CSOs visited Myanmar in 2012. “We held joint workshops and study tours,” said Mr Lian Thawng. “Now we connect around twice a year. Indonesia has some parallels with us on political issues and we learned how its CSOs mobilised, engaged with stakeholders and advocated to government, international NGOs and the EU. We have a long way to go to achieve sustainability, legality assurance and fair distribution, but we’re in a better situation than before. There is meaningful discussion among stakeholders and CSO-government engagement is improving.”

Ms Mardi now expects international CSO communication on FLEGT VPAs to increase. She is also encouraged by growing government and private sector exchange between countries on the topic. From the Indonesian experience, she also had further core advice for CSOs elsewhere on VPA engagement. “You must have a clear idea of what you want from the process and fight to be heard,” she said. “But in a multi-stakeholder 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.”

This story was first published in the European Timber Trade Federation newsletter