The EU’s Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan was introduced in 2003 in effort to stop the flow of illegally harvested timber into Europe.
The review of the plan, performed by the European Court of Auditors, found implementation lacking in most countries.
But some conservation organizations don’t agree with everything in the review, saying it didn’t consider all aspects of the plan and even contains faulty information.
With more than a decade behind it, the EU’s Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan has made slow and uneven progress in stopping the flow of illegally harvested wood from the tropics to Europe, according to the findings of a recent audit.
“[M]any countries have struggled to overcome the barriers to good governance,” reported the European Court of Auditors, an independent group based in Luxembourg charged with keeping an eye on the EU’s finances. “In the twelve years since the [European] Commission introduced the Action Plan, no partner country has fully approved (FLEGT) licensing.”
The EU introduced the FLEGT Action Plan in 2003 with the goal of addressing both sides of the economic equation that drives illegal logging: Prevent the illicit harvest of timber from supplying European markets by strengthening governance and introducing a licensing process, and curb the demand by getting European countries to adhere to the EU Timber Regulation – known by the acronym EUTR.
To date, both licensing in timber-producing countries and implementation of the EUTR in Europe have dragged, reported the authors, though they said in a press release summarizing the report that Indonesia and Ghana have “made good strides towards full licensing of their timber.”
However, in Europe, “Four countries (Greece, Hungary, Romania and Spain) have not yet fully implemented the EU Timber Regulation, which was introduced to prevent illegal timber entering the EU market,” said lead author Karel Pinxten in the release.
The European Court of Auditors told Mongabay that Pinxten was not available to comment on the findings in the report, which was released on October 22.
According to the text, the auditors’ goal was to assess the effectiveness of the FLEGT Action Plan. To investigate the forestry sector on the ground, they traveled to Cameroon and Indonesia. From their research, they concluded that the $300 million provided through FLEGT to 35 countries since 2003 might have gone further if it had targeted fewer countries.
“The overarching message that I get from the report is that there should have been more money spent, it should have been better supported, it should have been more focused, and it should have been linked in better with the EUTR improvements,” said Saskia Ozinga, campaigns coordinator and cofounder of the forest-centered NGO Fern. “If you see it in that way, we would broadly agree.”
However, Ozinga was concerned about the Court of Auditor’s indictments of FLEGT process, particularly the Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA). By signing a VPA, a country pledges to provide only legal timber to the EU.
“[T]he VPA’s main objective — the development of a timber-licensing scheme — is still far from being attained, mainly due to the failure of the project aiming to develop the timber tracking system,” the authors wrote.
But the VPA is not just about licensing timber, Ozinga told Mongabay in an interview. It’s also about improving forestry governance and encouraging a participatory process in an industry that is often crippled by corruption in developing countries, she said.
Mongabay obtained an as-yet unpublished assessment (in French) of the timber sector in Cameroon completed in August 2014 by independent investigators and funded by the EU. The thrust of this report was that none of the logging concessions in Cameroon, even the ones certified by the Forestry Stewardship Council, can be considered legal.
“It shows how incredibly difficult it will be to get anything like a FLEGT process leading to licenses in Cameroon and how far off we are,” Ozinga said of the unpublished study.
The authors of the study declined interview requests, and the European Delegation in Cameroon did not respond to several requests for comment.
Given the challenges facing forest governance in developing countries, Ozinga said she was surprised that the Court of Auditors didn’t highlight some of the improvements to how forests are governed under FLEGT.
In particular, Ozinga said the report didn’t take adequate stock of how the VPA process has helped shape the forest sector in Liberia, especially considering that they confined their in-person investigations to Cameroon and Indonesia.
“A lot of what they say about Liberia is really wrong,” she said.
Liberia signed a VPA in 2011, and organizations such as FERN and Monrovia-based Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) credit the VPA for providing communities and civil society with a voice in how their forests are managed.
Up through 2012, members of the Liberian government awarded dozens of private use permits to companies, which opponents charge happened without adequate consultation with or consideration for the communities that depend on these forests.
All told, these permits covered some 2 million hectares of forest, almost half of Liberia’s forests. But in 2012 the government found that all of the permits were illegal, and by 2014 it had cancelled them.
“It’s largely because of the VPA that those 2 million hectares of illegal permits were closed,” Ozinga said. In addition, eight former members of the government, including the past head of the Forestry Development Authority, were indicted and sent to jail.
“All the impacts that the VPA has had that dealt with that problem are omitted from the report, and I think that is totally misrepresenting the situation,” she added.
Silas Siakor, a campaigner with SDI in Liberia, said community participation is critical to solving the scourge of illegal logging.
As he sees it, the VPA provides the platform for that sort of engagement, and without it, they don’t have another option. “The VPA is the only vehicle we have at the moment,” he said.
Liberia has become a “trailblazer” in providing communities a say in how their forests are used, Siakor said. But without the support of the VPA, he said that “illegal logging will immediately intensify.”
“If we can be successful in working with communities, and develop community-owned enterprises, and turn forestry assets into economic benefits, that would be a very productive way of engaging with communities and ensuring that they also mobilize behind efforts to keep the forest standing,” Siakor said.
“I don’t care how much effort the Europeans or the Americans put into this,” he added. “It will at the end of the day depend on Liberians themselves to actually decide the direction they would like to take.”