- A core issue at this year’s conference was the FLEGT process.
- FLEGT (Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade) is the EU’s answer to fighting the global scourge of illegal logging.
- Collectively around the world, illegal logging is the highest-value environmental crime, at $51-$152 billion per year, according to a 2016 report by Interpol and the UNEP.
LONDON – A broad gathering of key players in the environmental sector came together last week in London for an international conference on illegal logging. The annual Chatham House conference on illegal logging was attended by over 250 global representatives from government, non-profit, the private sector, and the media.
According to Chatham House’s Alison Hoare, a senior research fellow on energy, environment and resources, attendance has grown steadily over the years.
“We held the first of these meetings in 2002, at the time when discussions were really gathering pace within Europe as to how best to tackle the trade in illegal timber,” Hoare said via email. She noted that the growing interest in illegal logging and how to counteract it has likely contributed to larger audiences at the forums. “Over the last 16 years, the conferences have grown in size – from events of about 50 people, whereas in recent years we have always been at capacity of 250 people.”
Hoare also credits greater global coordination in the fight against rampant illegal logging for the broad spectrum of attendees. Chatham House made significant efforts during the conference to facilitate sideline meetings, networking opportunities, and informal discussions.
There are few, if any, other similar opportunities for key players from such a variety of countries to come together.
During the forum, a high-profile position was given to a group of 10 civil society and government representatives from Mainland China to discuss illegal logging and how they are dealing with it domestically and internationally. According to Chatham House’s Illegal Logging Portal, China has long been one of the world’s largest importers, consumers and exporters of wood-based products. The portal notes that China is also a “major conduit for illegal timber.”
Collectively around the world, illegal logging is the highest-value environmental crime, at $51-$152 billion per year, according to a 2016 report by Interpol and the UNEP. That same report notes that overall, environmental crime is increasing at annual rate of 5-7 percent, which is 2-3 times the rate of the global economy. In addition to the devastating impact on the environment and biodiversity, illegal logging and forestry crime also contribute to billions in lost tax revenues for governments.
“As efforts to tackle illegal logging have spread around the world, this has also been reflected in the meetings,” Hoare said. “We have had increasingly diverse representation among our speakers and panelists.”
Some of the countries represented included the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Vietnam, Myanmar, Indonesia, Brazil, and numerous others.
A key issue covered during the course of the two-day gathering at Chatham House’s historic building in London was the FLEGT process. FLEGT (Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade) is part of the EU’s answer to illegal logging, and was established more than ten years ago. The purpose of the FLEGT process is to lessen the impact of illegal logging with sustainable and legal forest management. Better governance and trade promotion of legally produced timber are also key factors. Within that the Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) is a legally binding trade agreement between the European Union and a timber-producing country outside the EU.
The purpose of a VPA is to ensure that timber and timber products exported to the EU come from legal sources. The agreements also help timber-exporting countries stop illegal logging by improving regulation and governance of the forest sector.
The process doesn’t always meet with success, given the varying degrees of political and social stability in countries that might want to go through the process. Luca Perez, a leader on international forest issues with the European Commission, said during the opening session that there is always the risk of “leakage” into adjacent countries even with a VPA in place. Sometimes the process has multiple starts and stops over a period of time.
That doesn’t bode well for the end result.
“We cannot keep investing forever in processes that are not moving,” Perez said. He added that the process in each and every country needs to be examined on a case-by-case basis.
One of the countries that has made the most significant progress on FLEGT-VPA licensing is Vietnam, though they recently faced accusations of importing timber illegally from Cambodia from an EIA investigation and report.
Despite the unflattering picture the EIA report painted of corrupt officials in Vietnam taking kickbacks and bribes to import illegal timber, soon after its publication the VPA was initialed. The important step in the process came after 11 formal negotiation sessions, 19 joint expert meetings, and 30 video conferences. Vietnamese officials have vowed to investigate accusations of corruption vis-a-vis Cambodia.
The end result for Vietnam will be a national system that deals with all timber sources, all markets and all operations. Risk-based verification, the process used to determine the degree of risk that the source of timber is illegal, will also play a key role.
Speaking at last week’s event in London, Vũ Thi Bích Hop of the Centre for Sustainable Rural Development in Vietnam noted the importance of the broad involvement of people at every level for VPA-FLEGT licensing. That includes non-governmental monitoring mechanisms, which don’t currently exist in Vietnam.
She said that a major concern is whether micro and small enterprises and households are prepared for the impact of the VPA.
“We need civil society to be involved in the process,” Hop said.
Other featured presentations at the conference included the use of satellite technology as a tool to improve timber supply chain transparency and independent forest monitoring for company due diligence and enforcement needs.
Chatham House’s Hoare noted that the impact of these meetings can be difficult to gauge, but they feel that simply “providing a platform” is important.
“A format that we follow for many of the sessions is to have representatives from government, civil society and the private sector, and this provides an opportunity for them to give their particular views,” she said. This applies at an international level as government representatives and international NGOs, private sector and civil society come together at the event.
“Enabling participation in this way, and also providing an opportunity for the different stakeholders to interact in an informal setting during the two days, has been valuable in helping to build up understanding and trust between these different stakeholders.”
Banner image: Tarsier in the forest of North Sulawesi, Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
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