F.L.E.G.T: Letter by letter
This section explores each of the letters in the FLEGT acronym: F for forest; L for law; E for enforcement; G for governance and T for trade. Each page provides background information, examples, story ideas and reporting tips.
There’s general agreement that what’s called “business as usual” in the forests and the timber trade will lead the world to a very bleak place. FLEGT challenges the “business as usual” mantra to achieve well-managed productive and healthy forests that benefit all. That means carbon stored on land and not in the atmosphere. It means fresh air and clean water. It also means functional and peaceful economies, fairer and more efficient laws, borders and trade routes, and consumers using their euros to do good in the world. Good forest governance is central to these goals.
Illegal logging is not just a technical matter. It’s a political problem. FLEGT recognises this, providing incentives for timber-exporting countries to open new and broader political space to improve transparency, accountability, participation, capacity and coordination. In short, good governance can keep illegal wood off the lorries and ships, and out of markets.
Improving forest governance is an explicit goal of the Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs) between the EU and tropical timber countries. Indeed, without this, it would be impossible for all stakeholders to endorse the VPA. For civil society stakeholders, the governance reforms explicit in a VPA can far outweigh the economic benefits.
For some countries, improved governance is an even bigger incentive than trade for entering into VPA negotiations. Take Honduras, which began VPA negotiations with the EU in January 2013. Rather than to improve market access, the main reason Honduras pursued a VPA has been to tackle poor forest governance, mainly corruption and conflict over land tenure.
The rest of this section describes how VPAs target four key aspects of good governance – transparency, accountability, capacity and participation, before providing some examples and reporting tips.
Transparency: Transparency, of course, is the very business of journalism. Traditionally, forest policy is carried out behind closed doors far from the forests and people who depend upon them. What consultations there were tended to be asymmetrical affairs. One side has all the information, maps and power; other players like community leaders and NGOs are effectively frozen out. FLEGT was designed to change this. Its measures include commitments by EU and VPA partner countries to publish information and independent scrutiny of timber legality assurance systems by auditors and others.
Transparency improves forest governance by making it harder to hide corruption. It also illuminates forest ownership and publicises the rights and responsibilities of various stakeholders. Transparency makes it easier for stakeholders to understand, implement and monitor a VPA. And by increasing the credibility of FLEGT licensing, transparency can build trust among EU importers and consumers. Read more about how VPAs improve transparency in VPA Unpacked.
Accountability: Impunity is a forest’s arch enemy. When loggers, forest officials and customs agents know they can get away with anything, illegal logging thrives and corruption spreads. For governments, companies and individuals to be accountable, they must do what they have promised to do. They must take responsibility for their actions and be prepared to answer to affected people. VPA processes can contribute to improved accountability through:
- Benefit sharing agreements included in the VPA text
- Clarity about what different aspects of legislation require
- Mechanisms to resolve complaints or conflicts, and sanctions against lawbreakers
- Better recognition of rights of communities that live in and near forest, such as tenure rights
- Clarity around roles and responsibilities to enforce the law
Holding the forestry sector accountable is obviously a hugely ambitious undertaking. Success will mean that forest resources are managed for the long term, tax coffers are filled rather than emptied, and communities have confidence that their grievances will be addressed. Checks and balances on state and corporate power are essential for healthy forests and legal timber trade. Read more about how VPAs improve accountability in VPA Unpacked.
Capacity: Without increased capacity – whether of governments, the private sector or civil society –good governance is not possible. VPA processes can identify and help build stakeholders ability to get involved in areas such as:
- Controlling supply chains
- Verifying the legality of timber
- Monitoring and punishing forest crimes
- Engaging with decision-making processes
- Complying with legal requirements and adapting business practices
- Communicating effectively
- Educating and raising awareness of a broad range of stakeholders, including rural and hard to reach constituencies
Read more about how VPAs help increase capacity in VPA Unpacked.
Participation: Often trade negotiations are carried out secretly by state officials, but VPAs are developed and implemented through inclusive processes that bring together representatives of governments, civil society and the private sector. In most VPA countries there has never been a more inclusive form of policymaking.
Through participation, important aspects of a VPA, such as the legality definition, timber legality assurance system or transparency commitments, can take all stakeholders’ concerns into account. This contributes to a sense of ownership, which is essential if proposed solutions are to work in practice.
Participation may reduce conflict and build trust among stakeholder groups as they learn more about each other’s concerns and expectations. Equal participation makes it more likely that disparate groups will be willing and able to make compromises and reach a workable consensus that balances all interests. Read more about how VPAs help increase participation in VPA Unpacked.
In Honduras, the VPA process is seen as a way to address longstanding grievances of indigenous people. Several workshops have been held since 2014 about principles of Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), raising indigenous awareness of the concept and serving as a forum for the indigenous peoples to voice their expectations and concerns about the VPA. A communication campaign is taking place in Honduras under the slogan “Sin Derechos Indígenas y Gobernanza Forestal no hay AVA-FLEGT” (“without indigenous rights and forest governance there is no FLEGT-VPA”).
The NGO Fern analysed the VPA process in five African countries in 2015 in terms of transparency and reported that the processes “contributed to halting forest loss and increased rights of communities and indigenous peoples.” Examples included the suspension of private use permits in Liberia and the adoption of an indigenous people’s law in the Republic of the Congo. Moreover, Fern reports that governments “have started to make public important information about the forest sector through documentation centres, dedicated VPA websites and publications, or enabling access by demand.”
In Liberia, civil society groups used the VPA process to raise concerns about a sharp increase in allocations of ‘private-use permits’ to logging companies. Many of the permits appeared to be illegal, based on dubious paperwork and lacking the consent of communities the logging would affect. The government froze all existing private-use permits and imposed a moratorium on new ones. In time, several forestry officials would stand trial accused of corrupt practices that saw nearly 40 percent of Liberia’s forest allocated to loggers.
In Ghana, the FLEGT process triggered legal reforms in 2018 that require all companies acquiring any commercial logging permits to negotiate social responsibility agreements with adjacent communities. A FLEGT-funded project in Ghana is raising awareness among farmers of their rights to compensation and boosting their capacity to negotiate fair agreements.
Of course, much work is left to be done. In 2014, in the sprawling timber superpower of Indonesia, the Environmental Investigation Agency reported the story of a low-ranking police officer based in West Papua who was acquitted of money laundering, despite evidence showing US$127 million passed through his accounts. Some of the money was linked to shipments of timber ruled to have been illegal. He was found guilty of just one of the charges – illegal logging – and was sentenced to two years in prison and fined just US$4,000.
Watch the watchdogs. A key mechanism of good governance in the VPA process is independent monitoring, often by CSOs. The most likely points of controversy will arise here. Savvy journalists will stay tuned. For instance, in Indonesia in 2015, civil society groups took the Ministry of Environment and Forestry to court for refusing to release forest data – and won. This case was a serious obstacle in one of the first, and arguably most important, implementations of a VPA.
Bring the margins to the centre. A principal objective – and determinant of success – of FLEGT is making space at the negotiating table for marginalised people such as many forest-dependent communities and indigenous peoples. Representatives of these groups will have strong opinions on progress thus far. Fair and balanced coverage of forests, timber and FLEGT is coverage that gives voice to the marginalised. Fern, the Forest Peoples Programme, ClientEarth and the Centre for Environment and Development, have produced a useful guide that explains key aspects of law and land rights that are important for securing community ownership and control of land and resources. It explains how to identify and create opportunities for law reform and offers examples of reforms that have taken place in several African countries.
Covering the communications revolution. Technology is transforming how people receive their news, and even turning villagers into citizen journalists. For example, in Indonesia’s Kalimantan Province, journalist Harry Surjadi helped villagers use cell phones to fight land grabbing, illegal logging and illicit land clearing. Surjadi invented a computer system connected to the local TV station, RuaiTV. Farmers record violations and use their cell phones to send the information to an editor. Then the news items are sent to RuaiTV where they are displayed as news tickers. Surjadi also made it possible for cell phone owners in the villages to subscribe to the farmers’ news.
Sorting out legality issues. Maribe Mujinga Nsompo (left), Director of Control and Internal Audit for the Ministry of Environment, consults with Marie Chantal Pendoue (right), Director of Operations for SGS in DRC, over the details of legal and illegal timber shipments at the port of Kinkole, outside Kinshasa.
Credit: Flore de Preneuf, PROFOR