VPAs give communities a confident voice

FLEGT VPAs are not just about delivering legal timber to the EU, but ensuring greater stakeholder participation in timber sector decision-making in supplier countries to the benefit of ordinary people. Mike Jeffree reports on progress in Ghana, Guyana, Honduras, Indonesia, Liberia and Vietnam.

by MFP3

In many tropical wood-producing countries, governments and big business have historically divided forest and timber sector decision-making between them, leaving local communities and small business with minimal influence.

But today that’s changing in countries negotiating and implementing Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade Voluntary Partnership Agreements (FLEGT VPAs) with the EU. 

The FLEGT aspect the EU trade has perhaps focused on most is that, once supplier countries have implemented a VPA, they can issue FLEGT licences for timber exports to the EU. That exempts EU operators from potentially costly due diligence under the EU Timber Regulation, and, as the first country to issue licences, Indonesia is now anticipating the market benefits.

Less well known is that a core precondition of VPAs is the consensus-building behind the agreement itself, leading to greater stakeholder involvement in wider forest-sector decision-making.  There does not seem to be widespread awareness that this is impacting in some countries well before licensing starts.

Indonesia is naturally among the most advanced VPA countries in terms of broad stakeholder participation. Stakeholders there first drove development of the country’s SVLK timber legality assurance system, that later became the backbone of its VPA. Under the VPA process itself, engagement deepened, led principally by the JPIK Independent Forestry Industry Monitoring Network, a nationwide civil society umbrella group and now independent monitor of the SVLK.

“Firstly we were able to participate in VPA implementation and subsequently it enabled us to build stakeholder trust with government and industry and increased transparency for credible independent monitoring,” said JPIK member Mardi Minangsari of the Environmental Investigation Agency. “It’s been a tool for raising governance standards in the interests of ordinary people and facilitating input from communities and SMEs (small to medium sized businesses).”

The Indonesian government also actively encouraged SMEs and community forestry operations to engage under the VPA, according to Citra Hartati, researcher at the Indonesian Center for Environmental Law and a civil society representative on the VPA Joint Implementation Committee.

“For instance, it allowed them to gain SVLK-certification by using simplified and cost-saving Suppliers Declarations of Conformity when handling low-risk timber,” she said.

Consequently, she added, CSOs and SMEs have been encouraged to go for more.

“We’ve asked the Minister of Environment and Forestry to prioritise SME’s products among first FLEGT licensed shipments,” said Ms Hartati.

In Ghana too, stakeholder engagement dates back to before the VPA was signed, a key driver being Forest Watch Ghana, an alliance of civil society organisations (CSOs). “Our objectives were equity in access to forest resources between business and communities, participation in forest governance and more democratic processes,” said Forest Watch Ghana coordinator Sam Mawutor.

As in Indonesia, Ghana’s VPA has facilitated further progress in these areas and deepened stakeholder engagement. “Government—civil society relations were previously combative, but the FLEGT space gave us access to decision makers,” said Mr Mawutor. “It’s a platform for local representation to participate in rewriting timber and forest policy.”

Following talks with the authorities, Ghanaian CSOs share proposals with local communities, then feed their views back. “It’s a two-way process,” said Mr Mawutor.

He added that key interests for local people under the VPA are forest industry rights and benefits. “Securing land tenure rights has been particularly exciting, helping, for example, ensure fair compensation when government allocates harvesting in a community’s area.”

The VPA process has also been credited with shining a spotlight on the subject of millions of dollars of arrears in Social Responsibility Agreement (SRA) payments due from loggers to communities. The issue is not fully resolved, but an SRA database is in development to track payments.

“Ordinary citizens have also been bolder under the VPA in asserting [SRA] rights,” said Mr Mawutor. “One community insisted on checking a company complied with harvest allowances. Another blocked a logger working until they’d been investigated.”

Stakeholders are being introduced to Ghana’s electronic timber tracking system too, through development of a user-friendly public interface. They’re also involved in reform of the domestic timber market, which is also covered by the VPA and still comprises a large percentage of illegal wood. “This involves converting local illegal loggers to legitimate artisanal sawmillers,” said Mr Mawutor. “It could improve livelihoods for 700,000 people.”

One sign of change in the rights and role of stakeholders in Liberia’ s forest sector has come in the form of hard cash. As part of the National Reform Law, but with the evident influence of the VPA, around US$1 million from loggers’ rental fees has been disbursed in the last two years. Some has gone to fund training to facilitate local development projects and to enable community members to take part in forest decision-making and independent monitoring.  

This is just one sign of engagement gathering pace in the country, said Andrew Y.Y. Zeleman, National Facilitator for the National Union of Community Forestry Development Committees. “Under the VPA, the authorities also launched monthly multi-stakeholder monitoring committee meetings, involving CSOs, NGOs, community and private sector representatives and development partners,” he said. “Everyone gets to speak.”

Liberia’s Environmental Protection Agency is also undertaking ecological assessments with community residents in their areas, while bigger business too seems to have come to accept stakeholder input. The latter is attributed partly to companies finding local knowledge helpful, partly to the expectation that the VPA will bring them greater EU market access.

And progress continues, maintained Mr Zeleman, with further moves to enable local people to enter concession agreements with timber companies on community land.  

The country that most recently concluded VPA negotiations with the EU is Vietnam — in May 2017. During VPA discussions, the Vietnamese government did not seem initially proactive in involving stakeholders. There was also an early lack of interest at grassroots levels, while small businesses were concerned that the VPA would increase their costs.

The Vietnamese NGO FLEGT network, however, helped fill these gaps, through community consultations and baseline surveys on compliance with the VPA timber legality definition down to household level.

However, according to Tue Tran Ngoc, FLEGT Manager at the Vietnamese Centre For Sustainable Rural Development, the Vietnamese NGO FLEGT network helped fill communication gaps, via community consultation and surveys on compliance with the VPA timber legality definition down to household level.

“Where FLEGT pilots took place, there were also significant improvements in understanding, participation and transparency,” said Mr Tran.

Combined, he added, this activity brought the concerns of communities and local business to negotiating level and made the government more positive about wider engagement.

While some Vietnamese CSOs say government and industry are not yet active enough in bringing citizens into VPA discussions, the EU and Vietnam’s planned joint framework for implementation includes plans for stakeholder engagement.   

Early June, added Mr Tran, the Vietnam Forestry Administration of Forestry (VNFOREST) also held two VPA meetings underlining growing commitment to engagement. The first saw formation of the VPA Joint Preparation Committee, including government, industry associations, NGOs and CSOs.  The second focused on transparency, inviting stakeholders to list what information they required under the VPA.

“This was a good opportunity to indicate the information they needed from the authorities for effective engagement,” said Mr Tran.

In Guyana, local liaison is driven by the VPA National Technical Working Group, which helps raise community awareness, and private sector bodies, such as the Forest Producers Association.  

“We’ve also held seminars with representatives from other VPA countries too, where they’ve shared their stakeholder engagement processes,” said FLEGT facilitator Alhassan Attah.

In Honduras, civil society groups also form FLEGT communication channels between grassroots and authorities, said Douglas Membreño, of social and environmental issues specialists Democracy Without Borders.

“But for small businesses and communities, involvement in VPA negotiations via these agencies is still an achievement,” he said. “And government, EU and Honduran VPA negotiators are also taking account of recommendations from local stakeholder representatives for still greater inclusion.”

Mr Membreño now urges greater effort to use education for communication, perhaps through including VPA, forestry and wider environmental topics in school and college curriculums. “Education is a fundamental axis to generate real change,” he said. “We’ve seen small shifts in attitude on this at national level, but it requires more support from other authorities.”

According to Fausto Mejia, Coordinator of Honduras’s Independent Forest Monitor NGO, stakeholders now view the VPA as contributing to solutions in areas such as land-tenure, indigenous, economic and forest labour rights.

“There’s increasingly active involvement, with communities working via environmental and governance platforms and small businesses via unions and cooperatives,” he said. “Longer term, they see themselves as beneficiaries of the legal and ultimately sustainable forest management promised by the VPA and the job opportunities that delivers.”

What stakeholders in VPA countries would now like to see is greater awareness among the EU timber trade of the initiative’s wider positive impacts.  “These should be more publicised in Europe to stimulate backing for the initiative and market preference for FLEGT-licensed goods,” said Ms Hartati. “It’s also important to increase supplier countries’ confidence in VPAs.”

Some would also like to see the actual stakeholder engagement process under FLEGT VPAs go further faster. Overall, however, the message coming out of  VPA countries on the issue is positive.

“Communities started claiming forest, environment and economic rights years ago,” said Mr Mejia. “Now, increasing participation via VPAs is enabling protest to become proposals.”