The European Commission has said, it is considering getting rid of the FLEGT licenses that at the end of the Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) process would help reward the eradication of illegal logging with EU market access.

This was after the release of the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Fitness Check report commissioned to evaluate the functioning of the FLEGT Regulation and European Union Timber Regulation (EUTR).

The Forest FLEGT process is overhauling forest governance in timber-producing countries with an approach that gives voices to populations used to being unheard, and that secures the rights of those most affected by forest destruction. At the same time, it provides significant trade incentives to governments and the private sector through the promise of “green lane” access to EU markets.

The FLEGT Regulation was entered into force in 2005 and to date, seven countries have ratified Partnership Agreements with the EU (Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Ghana, Indonesia, Liberia, the Republic of the Congo and Vietnam). The EU has also concluded negotiations and initialled Partnership Agreements with two countries (Honduras and Guyana). Negotiations are ongoing with six other countries (Côte d'Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Laos, Thailand and Malaysia). To date, only the Partnership Agreement with Indonesia is fully operational; Indonesia started issuing FLEGT licenses on 15 November 2016, with Ghana failing to meet the deadline in February this year.

According to Civil Society Organisations in VPA partner countries, they have received the report with alarm, and a sense of betrayal because, years of good faith efforts could be abandoned.

“No one ever mistook the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade Voluntary Partnership Agreement (FLEGT VPA) programme for a sprint. It is a marathon that, for more than a decade, has been tackling illegality, poor governance and corruption in the forest sector”, the CSOs participants said.

The participants said, dropping VPAs would likely increase pressure on forests from illegal logging and reverse governance gains, adding, it would also send the wrong signal to EU partners ahead of the Conference of Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP15) and the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), and undermine the EU’s commitments under the European Green Deal.

The participants from the EU, the Americas, Asia, and Africa expressed their displeasure at a virtual informal dialogue with the Commission and the European Parliament on 23 March 2021. It was hosted by the Member of European Parliament (MEP) Michèle Rivasi, in collaboration with Fern and other EU and international NGOs.

Reacting to the initial findings of the Fitness Check, participants warned that, the methodology and very limited inputs from partner countries and all stakeholders affected the final results. They urged the EU to address the obstacles preventing VPAs from being effectively implemented in a more targeted manner, rather than relaxing or abandoning the innovative scheme.

They said, despite bumpy progress and cyclical fatigue, concerned stakeholders, governments, private sector, and civil society − still agree on the FLEGT Action Plan’s broad aims and objectives.

“Instead of lowering the bar with less robust measures, which will undermine its credibility, the Commission should improve enforcement, firstly by intervening more proactively via diplomatic channels to place pressure on producer countries to resolve the political issues that are slowing licenses being finalised. Secondly, they should strengthen the EUTR’s enforcement, so that illegal timber stops getting into the EU”, they said.

The participants added “Ultimately, the Fitness Check should be a wake-up call, underlining that the EU cannot show ‘selective’ environmental leadership during hard times. Stopping the illegal timber trade and fixing governance problems does not happen overnight. It requires collaborating with partner countries and other international actors to address gaps and coordinate efforts”.

Mr John Allotey, CEO Forestry Commission Ghana
About the Fitness Check

The fitness check is to evaluate the functioning of the FLEGT Regulation and EUTR, the two key legal instruments of the FLEGT Action Plan. The fitness check is therefore to look at the effectiveness, efficiency, coherence, relevance and EU added value of both regulations in contributing to the fight against illegal logging globally. It also includes the implementing regulations of both instruments as well as the delegated regulation on Monitoring Organisations and cover all Member States and relevant third countries.

In as far as they are related to and influence the scope and interpretation of these regulations, policy areas like customs, trade in species of wild fauna and flora, protection of habitats and wild birds, access to environmental information, and data protection will be taken into account. Ultimately the fitness check is to help assess whether the instruments are fit for purpose or need to be revised as well as addressing the coherence between the instruments and provide a very valuable input for the assessment of potential additional demand side measures

By Awudu Salami Sulemana Yoda