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.
The export of illegal timber products has far-reaching consequences, destroying a country’s natural heritage, impoverishing communities, violating human rights and rewarding the corrupt and ruthless members of society. FLEGT has some hard legal “sticks” to encourage a move to illegality. These include:
- The EU Timber Regulation, in force since 2013, which ensures that no illegal timber or timber products can be sold in the European Union. See EU Timber Regulation.
- Trade agreements between the EU and timber-producing countries known as Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs). Through VPAs, each partner country develops a “timber legality assurance system” that can verify that timber products are legal and issue them with FLEGT licences. Once a timber-producing country is issuing FLEGT licences to timber and timber products the EU agrees to accept only FLEGT-licensed products from that country. See Voluntary Partnership Agreements.
But what does legal mean?
Defining legality is a core aspect of FLEGT Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs). One aim of VPA negotiations is for stakeholders to identify a subset of national laws that will level the playing field for legal operators, enable governments to manage forests sustainably and protect the rights of forest-dependent communities.
Negotiations around these agreements enable stakeholders from the government, private sector, civil society and indigenous peoples to agree a clear and credible definition of legality that is practical to enforce. This may require governments to adopt new laws or revise old ones. The VPA legality definition forms the basis of a country’s timber legality assurance system. See Voluntary Partnership Agreements.
Each VPA legality definition is based on the partner country’s own laws and regulations. This could include laws pertaining directly to timber harvesting or exporting, or laws to do with property rights, citizenship, access to information, environmental regulations, labour, taxes, trade or investment.
In some cases, an obvious obstacle is the sheer number of laws involved. FLEGT’s role can be to stimulate a streamlining process to rationalise legality as it applies to forests and timber. The classic case is Indonesia, where about 900 laws and regulations apply to the forest sector. A multistakeholder process was successful in identifying a subset of these laws and regulations and creating a set of five clear legality standards for different forest types.
In countries with long histories of corruption in the forest sector, legality is a huge challenge. On the other hand, the organization Fern argues that FLEGT has tried to tackle head on the difficult challenge of unpicking the complex web of corruption, mismanagement and poor laws which in many countries make it virtually impossible to produce timber in a way which is legal, sustainable and socially just. In this regard, Fern argues that “VPAs have made more progress than any other international instrument.”
Legal reform is inherently political, with winners and losers. The political tussle over forest governance and trade reform is often opaque and protracted, making this a real challenge for the journalist.
Know the law: The full texts of the EU Timber Regulation, EU FLEGT Regulation and each of the Voluntary Partnership Agreements ratified to date are available online here. Most VPAs also include an annex on public information that explains how anyone, including journalists, can access the texts of relevant national laws. Each VPA’s legality definition explains which laws and regulations timber and timber products must comply with in order to receive a FLEGT licence.
A lawyer can be a journalist’s best friend. Whenever a story enters the realm of law, complexity becomes a mighty challenge. But you’re a journalist. Who else in the world can get free legal advice? The public needs to know how its legal system works, in this case in the realm of forests and timber trade. Who’s going to explain it to them? Lawyers!? Which average person can understand their legalese and jargon? It’s for the journalist to translate that mess into common language. Having a small list of go-to legal experts is essential to help you understand the main issues and angles. But explaining that to the man or woman in the street is your job. One source that can help is ClientEarth, a nongovernmental organisation staffed by lawyers. It works to improve legal frameworks in both the EU and timber-exporting countries and has staff dedicated to FLEGT.
Forest law is a moving target. Study up and stay informed. The legality definition and legal assurance systems in most countries are in a state of flux, changing with time and negotiations, and subject to political interference and civil society critique. It’s important to do your homework on what’s been accomplished to date. But it’s also important to have sources to check in with, who can alert you to the inevitable changes, and challenges, as FLEGT-licensed timber begins to move.
Questions for journalists to consider
- Which laws and regulations does or will the VPA include?
- Who are the champions of these laws and regulations, and are they involved in the negotiations?
- Who are the main winners and losers? What do they gain or lose?
- Are there pre-existing reform processes underway that help or hinder the VPA?
- Often forest and related laws are sprawling and overlapping. What proposals have been offered to consolidate and streamline laws and regulations? Who are the proponents and opponents?
- Are more and new stakeholders involved in the VPA process? Is their place at the table an ample one? In other words, has the VPA process helped to open political space for diverse stakeholders?
- How do the reforms impact centralised decision making and the role of forest authorities?
- If people complain about the VPA increasing regulatory burdens, what is their argument and evidence? What are the counter-arguments of reform proponents?
- Does the reform process make land tenure more coherent and simplified? Who are the winners and losers? Are advocates for forest dwellers satisfied?
- How do the reforms impact laws and regulations that have been identified as contributing to corruption?
- Have the VPA negotiations explicitly addressed the rights of indigenous people and the principle of free, prior and informed consent?
Guyana Forestry Commission inspection
Credit: EU FLEGT Facility