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Vietnam-EU legal timber agreement signed, but much work remains

FSC-certified timber logged from the Amazon by Swiss-based logging company Precious Woods. Photo by Greenpeace / Isabelle Rouvillois.

HO CHI MINH CITY — The European Union has signed an agreement to support Vietnam’s forest governance improvement goals, aimed at ensuring that the timber it imports from the Southeast Asian country is legally sourced.

The Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) on Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) was signed Oct. 19 in Brussels by Federica Mogherini, the EU high representative for foreign affairs, and Nguyen Xuan Cuong, Vietnam’s minister of agriculture.

The implementation of the VPA will involve multiple steps, according to Bruno Angelet, ambassador of the EU delegation to Vietnam.

“Currently timber and timber products exported to the EU from Vietnam are subject to the due diligence requirements of the EU Timber Regulation (EUTR), which prohibits placement of illegally harvested timber on the EU market,” Angelet wrote in an emailed response to Mongabay. “They [Vietnam] will remain under the EUTR regime even after the ratification of the FLEGT-VPA until such time that Vietnam develops and implements the Vietnam Timber Legality Assurance System (VNTLAS) foreseen in the VPA.”

Vietnam now has to draft legislation to establish the VNTLAS, after which it and the EU will set up a committee to monitor implementation of the VPA.

Phuc Xuan To, a program analyst with Forest Trends, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, said he was hopeful about the impact of the agreement, but cautioned that major challenges remained.

“Vietnam imports 4-5 million cubic meters [141 million to 177 million cubic feet] of timber from more than 100 countries every year, consisting of 150-170 different species of timber,” he said in an interview. Vietnam has banned domestic logging, and plantation-grown timber cannot meet current demand.

“Obviously some of the sources are high-risk,” Phuc said. “How will the Vietnamese government be able to control the legality of timber imported into the country? I’m not saying they won’t be able to do that, but implementing the VPA means they have to make sure that the mechanisms are established and in place to ensure that timber imports are legal.”

Piles of rosewood litter the ground in Đồng Kỳ, Vietnam late last year. Photo by Michael Tatarski for Mongabay.
Piles of rosewood litter the ground in Đồng Kỳ, Vietnam late last year. Photo by Michael Tatarski for Mongabay.

He said this would require massive investments of financial and human resources. “For example,” Phuc said, “how do you expect Customs officials who have nothing to do with timber to know that a species is not meant to be imported? Many species imported from Africa, for example, are not known by many people, including Customs officers.”

Another issue is Vietnam’s well-documented role in importing illegal timber, particularly from Cambodia, as recently reported by Mongabay. Much of this timber is destined for either the Chinese or domestic markets, but these sectors will also need to be cleaned up to meet the VPA’s requirements.

Asked about this, Angelet replied: “The EU takes the type of above-mentioned reports seriously and considers that [they] demonstrate the importance of good preparation for the implementation of this ambitious FLEGT-VPA, which aims at strengthening the cooperation between the EU and Vietnam in combatting illegal logging, improving forest governance and promoting trade in legally produced timber.”

He said they saw the FLEGT-VPA “as a part of the solution,” and would continue to monitor the situation and advise both countries.

Phuc said both the public and private sectors needed to raise awareness of the importance of clean timber.

“We have 94 million people in Vietnam and an expanding middle class, and there is a class consuming more timber products in the country,” he said. “Imagine if the message from VPA does not reach this kind of group — very few people in the country understand what FLEGT/VPA is.”

Forest Trends surveys have found that many companies providing timber to the domestic market don’t care whether timber is legal sourced or not. Previous Mongabay reporting has found that small-scale wood processors likely aren’t even capable of improving their standards. Taken together, this means Vietnam faces an uphill fight to meet the EU’s goals.

“I don’t think the Vietnamese government is not able to do that,” Phuc said, “but it’s a daunting task that will take a lot of time if they want to get it implemented in a successful way.”

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