Lessons and inspiration from Indonesia’s FLEGT experience

Indonesia was not the only one to celebrate its FLEGT licensing launch last year. Other tropical timber exporters engaged in the FLEGT VPA process en route to licensing welcomed the news too. They see Indonesia’s success not just as inspirational, but providing lessons from which they can learn. Mike Jeffree reports

VPA Indonesia by Multistakeholder Forestry Programme Indonesia, MFP3

“Indonesia doesn’t see FLEGT licensing as something to keep to itself, for its exclusive benefit. We will willingly and actively share our experience and expertise in the EU FLEGT VPA process with other countries.”

So said Dr Rizal Sukma, Indonesia’s ambassador to the UK. He was speaking at a quayside event to welcome some of the of the first Indonesian timber products into the country to be licensed under the EU Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade (FLEGT) initiative, so rendering them exempt further due diligence under the anti-illegality EU Timber Regulation.

That was January 2017. Since then other supplier countries at various stages of the EU FLEGT Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) process have picked up on Indonesia’s offer. They’re capitalising on its openness and, they say, benefiting from the lessons it learned as it progressed through its VPA.

No one pretends that implementing a VPA and verifying timber legality will ever be less than challenging. From start of negotiations to FLEGT licensing took Indonesia nine years. But having pioneered a path, it’s now seen by a growing section of VPA countries as providing a template that can help them through the process more easily and perhaps quicker.

The Indonesians’ success is also seen as a morale booster to spur other countries to progress their VPAs.

Last September Guyana held a FLEGT process experience-sharing workshop in Georgetown, bringing together public and private sector and NGO and community representatives from ten VPA countries. It was just after Indonesia and the EU had declared the former would start FLEGT licensing and Guyana-EU FLEGT facilitator Alhassan Attah said the impact of the announcement on the event was clear.

“The Indonesians sent a presentation and their FLEGT licensing news was one of the event highlights,” he said. “While it took them time to get there, they’ve shown that it is possible. By sharing their experiences, and those of Ghana too, which is also at an advanced VPA implementation stage, we can avoid pitfalls they encountered and hopefully ensure a shorter implementation period.”

While Ghana is making good progress towards FLEGT Licensing itself, it can also still benefit from Indonesia’s example, according to Forestry Commission Timber Validation Department Director Chris Beeko.

“We’re looking at activities that enabled the Indonesians to achieve a number of milestones in the process,” he said.

Dr Phuc Xuan To, a senior policy analyst with Forest Trends in Vietnam, which concluded VPA negotiations with the EU in May, emphasised that his country was largely a timber processor rather than a producer like Indonesia, so parallels were more limited.

“But our government can learn important lessons from the Indonesian experience in terms of a VPA’s scope and how implementation methods must fit a country’s situation,” he said.

Liberia signed and ratified its FLEGT VPA even before Indonesia, so has particular reason to study the latter’s strategies and ‘how it got to FLEGT licensing first’, said Harrison Karnwea, Liberian Forestry Development Authority Managing Director until March 2017.

“We can learn from looking at the constraints and challenges Indonesia faced and how it overcame them,” he said in an earlier interview. “Previously some people asked if it would ever be possible for a country to issue FLEGT licences. Now they have the answer. Indonesia’s success has reawakened confidence that it’s achievable and practical.”

Dr Phuc said Vietnam could draw on Indonesia’s VPA expertise in two specific areas.

“The first is how they established third-party verification and monitoring of their FLEGT VPA framework, including their SVLK timber legality assurance system. The second is achieving comprehensive inclusion of local NGOs into FLEGT VPA negotiations. Space for their participation in policy making and implementation in Vietnam is still limited, so we should study Indonesia’s example.”

Mr Attah said Indonesia had also demonstrated that civil society engagement, particularly of indigenous groups, was “critical to promoting transparency in VPA implementation and achieving the good timber and forestry sector governance it demands, as well as market access [for licensed goods]”.

“We can also see that private certification and a FLEGT VPA are mutually reinforcing,but, importantly at the same time, that timber legality assurance system development can be expensive; Guyana now estimates it will require US$10 million to achieve FLEGT licensing status.”

Indonesia had shown too that broad political consensus behind the VPA was vital. “Both government and opposition politicians must be engaged to ensure the process is not disturbed when governments change,” said Mr Attah.

Ghana noted that too. “Indonesia presented a picture of coordinated effort in all areas of policy making and implementation,” said Mr Beeko. “That’s a message we’ve clearly taken on board.”

Supplier countries also expect a commercial return on investment in a FLEGT VPA and feel Indonesia could help here too by establishing an EU market profile and foothold for FLEGT licensed goods.

“There are clear advantages in having ‘live’ Indonesian FLEGT licensed goods in the market,” said Mr Beeko. “Customer acceptance was previously unknown, but can now be explored. Facts can replace speculation.”

Mr Attah agreed. “Many countries negotiating VPAs will be keenly following how FLEGT licensing translates into higher exports and earnings for the Indonesians,” he said. “Their experience will demonstrate the market opportunities, but also the challenges for licensed products.”

Indonesia is also helping other VPA countries by welcoming their stakeholders on fact-finding missions to see its FLEGT licensing systems and structures first hand. Among others it has hosted groups from Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and, most recently, Ghana.

“So far all the trips have been supported by the donor community rather than government, but the Vietnamese authorities, NGOs and timber industry have made several visits to Indonesia to learn from its experience,” said Dr Phuc.

Others are now keen to follow suit, including Guyana and Liberia. “We intend to get our VPA technicians and other stakeholders to Indonesia to learn how their approach can be applied to our situation,” said Mr Karnwea.

Pending funding, the Republic of Congo also wants to take the opportunity, according to Alain Ossebi, Coordinator of the timber legality and traceability arm of its Forest Economy Inspection Unit.

“We’re going through a financial crisis currently, but we’re still ambitious to be among the first African countries to complete implementation of a VPA,” he said. “So any opportunities for our FLEGT technicians to exchange and compare experiences would be welcome.”

Some feel that Indonesia’s knowledge and best practice sharing is also helping cultivate a growing culture of exchange, cooperation and support among FLEGT VPA countries generally. They see it as mutually beneficial as the more countries that begin FLEGT licensing, the greater confidence customers will have in reliability of supply of licensed goods. Hence the greater commercial impetus they will gain in the market and the more successful VPAs will be in their core aim of combatting the illegal timber trade.

Mr Karnwea was among those at the Guyana workshop last year, describing the experience as ‘awesome’ and reporting a clear desire among delegates for more such events, even a ‘permanent forum’.

Mr Beeko took a similar line. “Ghana suggested a platform for dialogue among VPA countries would be useful at the start of our negotiations and we stand by that.”

Dr Phuc also favoured communication on a regional basis between VPA-engaged countries with ‘similar situations’, such as Thailand and Vietnam, Indonesia and Laos.

Guyana itself suggests annual exchanges, ‘especially now several countries are at VPA implementation stage’.

“The EU should encourage this and meetings should be held in VPA partner countries so participants can additionally undertake field visits to reinforce the learning experience,” said Mr Attah.

Judging by Dr Sukma’s quayside comments in January, this is something Indonesia would back too. “Illegal timber and the resulting forest loss is a global problem,” he said, “so we support FLEGT licensing going global too as a key part of the solution.” 


As mentioned in the above article, Ghana is also at an advanced VPA implementation stage. As such, it can learn from Indonesia’s experience in FLEGT licensing. In another article featured in the ETTF Newsletter (page 8), Forest Watch Ghana Coordinator Samuel Mawutor outlines the transformations undergone in Ghana´s forest sector as a result of the FLEGT-VPA process.