Licensing a huge milestone, says Vella

In this exclusive interview with the ETTF Newsletter, EC Environmental Commissioner Karmenu Vella describes the EU FLEGT Action Plan as making a major contribution to improving forest governance and combatting illegal wood worldwide, not least through the support of the EU timber trade. Indonesia's issue of the first ever FLEGT licences, he says, will be a further key moment in this effort.

ETTF: How important will the issue of the first FLEGT licences by Indonesia be, both for EU-Indonesian timber trade and the wider EU FLEGT Action Plan? 

Karmenu Vella: It is a huge milestone for both. Indonesia has demonstrated that it’s possible to bring complex supply chains under effective control and verify legality of timber products. The FLEGT licence is what connects two of the Action Plan’s demand and supply side measures; the EU Timber Regulation (EUTR) and Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs), as all timber and timber products with a FLEGT licence automatically comply with the EUTR. The ultimate proof of concept will come from market reaction to the availability of FLEGT-licensed timber. As a recent ITTO survey in Germany, Spain and UK showed, EU operators want FLEGT-licensed timber as it will reduce legality risk to zero and mean no additional checks under the EUTR need be performed. 

ETTF: What would you say to trade critics that licensed timber has taken too long to arrive in the EU? 

KV: VPAs are not quick fixes. They take the time needed to overcome longstanding governance challenges. To be credible and robust, they’re developed through multistakeholder processes that build national consensus about how to address issues that matter to different stakeholders. The time between signature and licensing can easily reach several years. However, this is used to develop ambitious verification systems and implement governance reforms in challenging environments. Although it has taken longer than expected for VPA partner countries to deliver FLEGT licensed timber, many other gains have already resulted from VPAs and underlying national processes. Governance changes are far reaching. They include better law enforcement, more effective regulation, greater accountability, stronger measures to tackle corruption and organised crime, unprecedented transparency and structures and processes to enable forest stakeholders to participate in decisions about forests. 

ETTF: What are European Commission (EC) plans to step up communication on the FLEGT initiative to support the firstlicensed timber ? 

KV: The EC has informed FLEGT Competent Authorities in all 28 member states when Indonesia will begin FLEGT licensing, so they can prepare for first licensed shipments later this year. We’re communicating directly with the private sector across the EU and have developed an online information point focused on FLEGT licences. We’re also planning to mark the arrival of the first licensed timber products in the EU with an event at the end of the year. 

ETTF: The EU trade sees uniformly strict enforcement of the EUTR as vital for incentivising demand for EUTR-exempt FLEGT licensed timber. How is the EC ensuring this? 

KV: The EC ensures the EUTR is implemented in full by member states through a number of measures to promote compliance. For example, by establishing a communication platform, developing guidance, promoting cooperation with third countries and encouraging sharing of experience and best practice between member states. Significant progress has been registered since 2014. Then there were 18 countries where compliance with formal EUTR requirements remained in development. Today all EUTR Competent Authorities are performing checks and taking action when faced with EUTR breaches. 

ETTF: Will the first FLEGT-licensed timber coming to market incentivise other VPA countries to complete the process? 

KV: Even before the start of Indonesia's FLEGT-licensing, we’ve seen accelerating progress in several countries implementing or negotiating VPAs. Ghana, in particular, is at an advanced stage of implementation and likely to be the next country to begin FLEGT licensing. If the market responds positively to FLEGT-licensed timber from Indonesia, I imagine that others will want to advance towards full implementation of their VPAs. 

ETTF: How do you respond to European Court of Auditors comments that FLEGT supplier country support from the EU must improve? 

KV: We’re considering, with Member States and all concerned stakeholders, the most appropriate measures to improve the overall effectiveness of Action Plan implementation. This is done in parallel with work towards a more coherent EU international forest approach to combat deforestation and forest degradation. A feasibility study of policy options to step up action in these areas is expected to be completed by the end of 2016. 

ETTF: The Auditors also suggested focusing the FLEGT initiative on fewer countries more likely to complete the VPA process sooner. Is this the plan ? 

KV: The fifteen countries negotiating or implementing VPAs provide 80% of EU tropical timber imports. The Commission has allocated resources to a relatively large number, partly related to the number where illegal logging prevails and which have expressed interest in FLEGT VPAs, and as a measure of the general interest in the FLEGT initiative. We are exploring ways to find the right balance between achieving broad coverage, responding to countries’ interest and managing limited resources. 

ETTF: Are there plans to promote FLEGT licensing as evidence of timber legality to other markets with timber legality requirements ? 

KV: The Commission, with member states, co-operate and share information with counterparts in other major timber markets, such as Australia, China, Japan and the US. The EU has, for instance, political and technical dialogue with China under FLEGT through the Bilateral Coordination Mechanism on Forest Law Enforcement and Governance. In this context, the value of FLEGT licensing as evidence of timber legality is already promoted. We’re also supportive of Indonesia’s efforts to demonstrate the value of its timber legality assurance system to markets outside the EU, including China. 

ETTF: The UK has been an important supporter and driver of the FLEGT initiative and EUTR. Will this continue post-Brexit ? 

KV: The UK remains an EU member state and integral part of the FLEGT initiative. The terms of its engagement with FLEGT post-Brexit will be determined by negotiations following its triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. The UK Ambassador to Indonesia stated in July that the UK remains fully committed to implementing the EU FLEGT Action Plan and to Indonesia’s multi-stakeholder forestry program. UK business and civil society have also expressed commitment to FLEGT and the EU Timber Regulation. 

ETTF: How do you see the FLEGT initiative going forward ? 

KV: While focusing primarily on legality, the EU FLEGT Action recognises that the EU’s wider objective is to encourage sustainable forest management. Legality provides the foundation for this. Addressing governance and law enforcement challenges in timber producer countries is a pre-requisite to promoting sustainable forest management on a national scale. VPAs signed to date have included requirements that species and harvesting quotas are followed; that annual operational plans and forest management plans guide production; and that environmental impact assessments have been completed. VPA countries have also used the process to start discussing reforms related to customary rights and community forests and recognition of local communities is a principle of sustainable forest management. 

ETTF: And what would you say about the FLEGT contribution of the EU private sector? 

KV: I’d like thank your readers and other stakeholders for their important role in keeping illegal timber out of the EU market. The independent evaluation of the EU FLEGT Action Plan earlier this year concluded that FLEGT is a relevant and innovative response to the challenge of illegal logging and that it has led to major improvements in forest governance worldwide and reduced imports of illegal timber in the EU. Strong private sector support for FLEGT, the EUTR and FLEGTlicensed products has been vital to the success of the EU FLEGT Action Plan and responsible operators and traders in EU member states are at the forefront of a growing global movement to end illegal logging.