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EU and partner countries must protect gains in legal timber trade during COVID-19 (commentary)

Men pack logs onto the back of a truck, a common site throughout the furniture-making town of Jepara in Indonesia. Image courtesy of Deanna Ramsay/CIFOR

  • Paolo Omar Cerutti, a Senior Scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), argues maintaining global trust in the legality of timber exports is critical to secure investments and deliver on sustainability commitments.
  • Far from stimulating business, relaxing efforts aimed at guaranteeing timber legality would undermine the hard-earned trust of European investors and consumers who demand a more responsible use of resources.
  • This article is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

For the past 15 years, the European Union and tropical timber-producing countries have developed innovative collaboration mechanisms to fight illegal logging and timber trade, and to make sure wood imports into the EU are verified as coming from legal sources. The nature of the problem is complex to say the least, and solutions have to be negotiated, tested, verified, improved, and negotiated again as time goes by and political priorities change.

Among those who have followed the development of such collaborations since inception, most would agree that the line of progress has been bumpy at times, but nonetheless continuous.

Now, as the global economy grapples with the coronavirus pandemic, governments are being tempted to relent their efforts. This would be a mistake.

Far from stimulating business, relaxing efforts aimed at guaranteeing timber legality would undermine the hard-earned trust of European investors and consumers who demand a more responsible use of resources – a trend that will surely be reinforced with the implementation of the European Green Deal and the recently published EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030.

Recently, for instance, Indonesia first issued and later reconsidered a decision to eliminate certification requirements for wood exporters in an effort to reduce the economic impact of COVID-19. The country is the first EU partner to have fully met the standards for legal timber trade and, after years of collaborative work, that decision was – and still is – a scare.

Indonesia illustrates the importance and the fragility of global trust in the legality of timber exports. At the turn of the century, an estimated 70 percent of the archipelago’s wood production were illegally harvested, but now about half of its timber plantations and natural forest concessions are verified legal. Recent research suggests that at least part of that progress can be attributed to the country’s Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) negotiated and signed with the EU, and implemented as part of the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan, the EU strategy against illegal logging.

VPAs are not easy to broker or implement. But while they be can improved and their relevance must continuously be verified through constructive discussions between the EU and partner countries, they have also been shown to reinforce the countries’ pledges towards sustainable forest management and governance in the timber sector.

Just-released findings on the impact of these deals offer a unique opportunity to take stock of the progress so far and chart the way forward.

Research in Cameroon, Ghana and Indonesia, funded by the EU-FAO-FLEGT Program and undertaken by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and Analysis for Economic Decisions (ADE) shows that the VPA processes in these countries contributed to decreasing illegal logging rates, particularly illegal industrial timber destined for export markets.

VPAs also improved the implementation and verification of forest management plans; increased local communities and indigenous people’s participation in decision making; and encouraged small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to work in a more coordinated manner. More coherent, and better enforced, legal frameworks also resulted from VPAs’ negotiations and implementation, while civil society grew stronger and better able to hold governments to account.

See related: Investigation exposes European firms exploiting loophole to import Myanmar teak

Illegal logging is still rampant in Aceh’s forests and sometimes the perpetrators use weapons to fight back law enforcers. Image by Junaidi Hanafiah/Mongabay-Indonesia.

Progress has been made, but as usual in such complex endeavors, much potential remains untapped. For example, for the first time in decades, VPAs have brought SMEs and the broader informal timber sector, to the forefront of policy discussions, at times contributing to improved working conditions and increased transparency.

Yet most SMEs remain caged within regulatory systems which are not geared towards allowing their full potential: too complex, too expensive and cumbersome, and ultimately stifling innovation and increased value-addition, while largely unable to check SMEs’ environmental impacts. This is hugely important topic, and one on which FLEGT stakeholders must decide what could be done differently to increase the positive impact of VPAs, using the existing evidence to recalibrate strategies where needed.

Results also flag areas in need of strategic choices. The EU and partner countries must ponder whether resources should be used to capitalize on the largest improvement areas, or redirected to areas that are lagging behind (for example, the fight on corruption); how progress on a certain front can be maintained if funding is reduced (for example, support to CSOs and indigenous groups); and how countries in the same region can align their actions to avoid unfair competition among them. Partner countries must also start monitoring the impact of their own interventions as the basis for sound decision-making, one thing that is so far very much lacking.

For all of their shortcomings, VPAs have also helped timber-producing countries and companies build a reputation as reliable business partners and have inspired better governance in policy areas outside the forest sector. This is no small feat, as maintaining trust in the legality of tropical timber production and exports is a livelihood imperative as much as an environmental one – a must to preserve the forests of today and tomorrow.

See related: New evidence suggests Ivorian timber merits tougher EUTR due diligence

Banner image caption: Men pack logs onto the back of a truck, a common sight throughout the furniture-making town of Jepara, Indonesia. Image courtesy of Deanna Ramsay/CIFOR

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