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Delays continue over signing of Guyana-EU trade agreement to combat illegal logging

The rainforests of Guyana. Photo by Loriski via Wikimedia Commons

The rainforests of Guyana. Photo by Loriski via Wikimedia Commons

  • Part of the process involves setting up a Voluntary Partnership Agreement, or VPA – a trade agreement between the EU and a timber-producing country to ensure legal sourcing.
  • Negotiations, which take place under the auspices of the EU’s Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT), are expected to continue for much of 2017.
  • Delays with VPA’s are not unheard of, but a new deadline on the Guyana trade agreement has been pushed back to the end of 2017.

GEORGETOWN, Guyana – Guyana’s plan to sign a trade agreement with the European Union by the end of 2016 to combat illegal logging has been delayed again.

At the fourth Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) negotiation session of the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) agreement held in March 2016, Guyana had said it remained committed to signing the VPA by the end of 2016. A VPA is a legal trade agreement between the EU and an external timber-producing country meant to ensure the legal sourcing of timber and timber products exported to the EU.

However, Kenny David, head of the EU FLEGT Secretariat at the Guyana Forestry Commission (GFC), said in an interview that the deadline has been pushed back to the end of 2017 because it was recognized as too ambitious.

“Both parties agreed that to ensure the credibility of the VPA, the timeline had to be adjusted,” David wrote in an email. “After the last round of consultations, which concluded in August, there were some concerns raised by key stakeholders groups, which needed to be addressed.”

Those key stakeholders include loggers, logging associations, Amerindian villages and communities, sawmillers, timber exporters and government agencies, and others.

David, who is also assistant commissioner of forests for Guyana, has been involved with the negotiation process since the beginning. He said that Guyana and the EU are still working toward their ultimate goal.

This is the second time the timeline for signing the agreement has been pushed back. When Guyana began the process in March 2012, the negotiations joint roadmap anticipated ratification in 2015.

Ongoing process

A National Technical Working Group (NTWG) – a multi-stakeholder group comprising representatives from the private sector, indigenous organizations and government departments – was developed to represent Guyana in the VPA process.

Guyana and the EU have developed a draft agreement with 10 annexes that include things like the products covered by the agreement, the Legality Definition (LD) for what constitutes legal forest operations, the procedure for verifying compliance, and the requirements to obtain a FLEGT license, among others.

“The NTWG has held discussions on comments which have been received from the most recent consultations, which were held in August 2016,” David said. “These comments, from both local and international stakeholders, will result in some changes to these Annexes.”

These changes were incorporated into updated versions of the Annexes that were released on Guyana’s FLEGT website on Jan. 20, 2016. They include minor edits to some Annexes for grammar and clarity, and significant changes to others, including the Guyana Timber Legality Assurance System (GTLAS), which is the procedure to verify legal compliance through the harvesting, transportation, processing and trade of the wood.

A comparison between the GTLAS of March 26, 2016 and Jan. 20, 2017 shows that the newer version, added several sections including a breakdown of the enhancements to the existing system to comply with the VPA and definitions of legality and legal timber, among others.

The newest Annexes also extend the VPA to an additional product: shingles, meaning the VPA will now cover the trade of timber products in seven commodity areas.

Guyana will now field test the system and report back on the results, before the final agreement with the EU can be signed. The testing is expected to begin in the second quarter of the year, according to David.

What is FLEGT?

The EU’s FLEGT Action Plan was created in 2003 because of growing concern over the illegal logging of forests, particularly in the tropics. It aims to increase sustainable forest management. Guyana is one of nine countries that are currently in the FLEGT negotiation process, which uses a licensing system to ensure timber going to the EU has been harvested and exported in accordance with local laws. Six countries have signed a VPA and are working on systems to meet the requirements.

A jaguar (Panthera onca), one of the many animals found in Guyana's forests that are protected through sustainable logging. Photo by Pascal Blachier via Wikimedia Commons
A jaguar (Panthera onca), one of the many animals found in Guyana’s forests that are protected through sustainable logging. Photo by Pascal Blachier via Wikimedia Commons

According to the EU FLEGT website, the EU’s strategy involves entering into a bilateral trade agreement between the EU and a timber-exporting country, through a voluntary process whereby “the timber-producing country develops systems to verify that its timber exports are legal, and the EU agrees to accept only licensed imports from that country.”

Guyana is building on existing systems to ensure the VPA is easily implementable and achievable, according to David, but the VPA is helping the country to continually seek to improve its systems of tracking and tracing timber.

After the initial agreement is signed, it goes back to the governments of both parties for official ratification. Then the VPA moves on to the implementation stage, with the issuance of FLEGT licenses.

Once the VPA is officially rolled out, it becomes legally binding on both sides.

According to a GFC report in 2013, entitled “Roadmap for Guyana – EU FLEGT VPA Process,” the World Bank estimates that the net loss to developing countries caused by illegal logging is $15 billion a year.

“Thereby denying developing countries revenues that could be used to improve the livelihoods of its people,” the report states.

Guyana’s draft VPA requires forest sector operators (producers, processors and traders) to show compliance with a range of laws and regulations, including forest regulations, environmental protection laws, tax and employment laws, and regulations governing the traditional rights of Amerindian peoples, among others.

The VPA allows for different requirements to show compliance with the laws depending on the size and type of forest sector operator, such as a large international corporation or a local indigenous community.

Delays common in FLEGT negotiations

According to FLEGT facilitator Alhassan Attah, every VPA that has been concluded faced similar delays in their negotiation timelines as Guyana.

Attah, who is based in Guyana, acts as the neutral broker between the EU and the Government of Guyana in the negotiations. He also helps various stakeholders engage in the VPA process, by overseeing a grant program funded by the UK Department of International Development (DFID) and Government of Norway, and facilitated by the NTWG.

Before coming to Guyana, Attah led the FLEGT negotiation process in his native Ghana. He also worked for the United Nations as a Senior Trade Policy Adviser at the UN Forum on Forests Secretariat (UNFF).

Logging "bulletwood" in the Berbice River, Guyana in 2006. Photo by Jesse Knight via Wikimedia Commons
Logging “bulletwood” in the Berbice River, Guyana in 2006. Photo by Jesse Knight via Wikimedia Commons

“It has the same challenges,” he said. “Normally the negotiation periods are short, but in reality it takes a much longer period… So for me, it’s not very different from the other countries.”

He points to an example in an African country.

“If you look at Ghana, initially we thought we could do it in a year, the negotiations, and it took us from 2005 to 2008.” Indonesia also presented challenges: he said the process began in 2005 and was ratified in 2013.

In fact, in November 2015, an independent audit by the European Court of Auditors found in general progress on the FLEGT licencing scheme “has been very slow and many countries have struggled to overcome the barriers to good governance.”

Of the 15 countries that have entered into discussions since 2005, only Indonesia has officially started to ship wood under the FLEGT legality scheme. They made their first shipment in November 2016.

However, some conservation organizations have said that while the processes have been slow globally, they credit the participatory nature of the VPA for providing a roadmap for communities and civil society to be a true partner in managing their forests.

Attah said because the process is deliberative and there must be consensus among stakeholders, it can be hard to estimate accurately in the planning the amount of time you will require to address certain social or economic issues. The time between the negotiation, ratification and implementation stages can also take time, he added.

“In some countries it’s very short, like six months, three months,” he said. “In other countries, it takes two years; it takes three years. So depends on both the EU and the partner country – their readiness to ratify.”

But he added that he thinks Guyana’s process has gone fairly well. “There have been some challenges, but I think the NTWG is working towards addressing those challenges.”

Attah said he is hopeful that the initial agreement will be signed this year.

Addressing all stakeholder concerns

Michael Mc Garrell, GIS Specialist and forest policy officer with the Amerindian Peoples Association (APA), says that he thinks overall the VPA process has been beneficial.

“What the process has done is that it has opened up a space where stakeholders can talk with each other,” he said, adding that this hadn’t existed prior to the VPA process. “The FLEGT VPA process, we feel actually is a very good thing. We feel that what it has done in Guyana is that it has started to improve forest governance in that sense.”

He added that it has brought some key issues to light for more open discussion, but the Amerindian communities still have concerns about their land that they want addressed before the country formally signs on to the agreement.

“We want to see something concretely said that, ‘This is how we’re going to approach the land issues,’” he said, suggesting a protocol involving free, prior and informed consent (FPIC), as an example.

Mc Garrell explained that one of the main concerns is that many communities do not hold documentation giving them legal title to their lands, giving an example of two Amerindian communities along the Mazaruni River that fall within a number of forestry concessions: Tasarine and Kangaruma.

“They do not have legal title to their land, meaning that they don’t have documentation, which shows or says this legally belongs to them, but they have been living there for generations.”

He added that the process for Amerindian communities to legally get land in Guyana can take years, but getting forestry or mining concessions only takes a few weeks.

“Because of the laws of Guyana, whoever gets the paper first, basically owns the land,” Mc Garrell said. “That is where we have a lot of problems.”

Mc Garrell added that while Amerindian communities recognize that the FLEGT VPA process cannot resolve the land issues, they want to see a mechanism written into the document that agrees to address the issues within a certain time period.

In the most recent update released in January, the VPA recognizes that it is necessary to respect land rights in order to comply with legal origin of produce. It states, “FLEGT can be used as a platform for the discussion of land ownership issues related to indigenous communities.”

While the document does not include a specific timeline, it does recommend establishing a Multi-Stakeholder FLEGT Coordination Committee to facilitate the discussions. It also states the committee will partner with the Land Titling Project, in collaboration with the UNDP.

The NTWG does not expect there to be any major changes to the most recent version of Annexes, according to David, though there may still be slight adjustments to the text before it is finalized. Once it is finalized, field-testing will begin. After field-testing is complete, the fifth negotiation session between Guyana and the EU will take place.

Alex Abdelwahab is a Canadian freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker currently based in Guyana. You can find her on Twitter at @alexabdelwahab

Banner image: The rainforests of Guyana. Photo by Loriski via Wikimedia Commons

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