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Briefing

Achieving zero-deforestation commitments

Lessons from FLEGT Voluntary Partnership Agreements

Public and private-sector zero-deforestation initiatives must address forest and land-use governance challenges, and build on ongoing governance reforms in commodity-producing countries. This paper extracts lessons from Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs) developed under the EU Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan, and underlines the importance of actions that go beyond supply chains.

Key messages

  • Lessons from FLEGT VPA experiences can assist efforts to define the enabling environment stakeholders need to put in place to make zero-deforestation production and related trade a reality.
  • VPA experiences show that market access and trade provide strong incentives for commodity producers to comply with demand-side requirements — including environmental, social and governance criteria — and can trigger forest and land-use governance reforms
  • Dialogue and cooperation among public and private stakeholders in commodity-producing countries is critical to foster mutual understanding, broad consensus and effective implementation of zero-deforestation commitments
  • It is necessary to define ‘zero-deforestation’ at the national or jurisdictional level and also to clarify legal and institutional frameworks, as they enable stakeholders to understand rights, responsibilities and obligations
  • Approaches that focus on compliance with existing legal frameworks at national or jurisdictional level, such as FLEGT VPAs or zero illegal deforestation approaches, respect commodity producing countries´ own forest and land-use decisions
  • Credible monitoring and reporting systems are needed, as transparency increases the accountability of public and private actors, limits opportunities for corruption, and helps markets understand supply chains and their impacts

1. Introduction

1.1. Forest and land-use governance are essential for meeting zero-deforestation commitments

Zero-deforestation commitments are emerging rapidly among private actors and governments increasingly aware about the environmental impact of producing and consuming commodities such as soy, palm oil, beef and cocoa. The rising demand for such commodities is a key driver that contributes to unsustainable land-use decisions and forest clearance. And many countries that produce such commodities are characterised by poor forest and land-use governance. This is often a result of entrenched problems such as weak institutional and legal frameworks, limited capacities of forest administrations, the informality of parts of the sector, a lack of transparency, and corruption. Thus, both supply and demand measures are needed to work towards zero-deforestation commodity production and related trade.

Recent research suggests that agricultural expansion causes up to 80% of deforestation worldwide and that much of this is illegal; almost half of all tropical deforestation between 2000 and 2012 was estimated to be due to illegal conversion for commercial agriculture.1 Addressing illegalities and improving land-use governance, in combination with clear legal frameworks and proper law enforcement, can thus significantly reduce deforestation in the tropics. A failure to address forest and land-use governance challenges could make public and private sector zero-deforestation initiatives futile.

The practicalities of addressing these challenges should not be underestimated. It will require consensus building, political support, multi-faceted coordination and capacity building. Moreover, it will require governments, businesses, communities and civil society to interact and work together in often entirely new ways.

Numerous initiatives aim to address forest and land-use governance challenges. It is essential to capitalise on those initiatives that are effectively bringing visibility, support and competence to forest and land-use governance. The EU, its Member States and timber-exporting partner countries have gathered valuable experience in this field, notably through the implementation of the EU FLEGT Action Plan — which an independent evaluation concluded had improved forest governance in all target countries. 2

Oil palm fruit, Indonesia

Oil palm fruit, Indonesia

Source: CIFOR

Oil palm fruit, Indonesia

Source: CIFOR

1.2. How the EU FLEGT Action Plan improves governance

The EU FLEGT Action Plan is an innovative means of using trade instruments to strengthen forest governance and bring illegal forestry and land-use activities under the rule of law. Its two key elements are the EU Timber Regulation and bilateral trade treaties called Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs) between the EU and timber-exporting countries.

Since 2013, the EU Timber Regulation has prohibited operators from placing illegal timber on the EU market and required them to use due diligence to ensure products are produced in accordance with the laws of the source country. On the supply side, VPAs support efforts by timber-exporting countries to combat illegal logging, ensure legal compliance at a national level and strengthen trade in legal timber with the EU.

VPAs are market mechanisms that clarify and apply the country’s legal standards to the whole timber sector, and use trade as a lever to improve law enforcement and address forest governance challenges. They do this by opening up forest-sector decision-making to national stakeholders so that they can contribute to clarifying rights, laws and regulations; strengthening enforcement of forest, environment, social and trade regulations; and improving transparency, monitoring and accountability. VPAs prioritise consensus-building so that national government, private sector and civil society representatives agree on how to promote legal forestry activities that support economic, social and environmental goals.

At the heart of each VPA is a timber legality assurance system, which verifies that timber products are produced, transported, transformed and sold in conformity with national laws and hence meet the demand-side requirements of the EU Timber Regulation.

Table 1 compares the FLEGT approach and emerging zero-deforestation supply chain approaches. To be effective, efficient and sustainable, the implementation of zero-deforestation commitments in commodity-producing countries requires an approach that — like FLEGT VPAs — goes beyond the supply chains themselves. Indeed, reforms are also needed to ensure appropriate institutional and legal frameworks, to establish the right conditions for zero-deforestation production and to avoid ‘leakage’ (shifting deforestation to other actors, areas, commodities or markets). 

The FLEGT approach

Zero-deforestation supply chain approaches

Actors and factors driving approaches

  • Government efforts to devise a solution to improve forest governance and address illegality — e.g. through G8 and regional forest law enforcement and governance (FLEG) initiatives
  • Increased consumer awareness of the illegality of tropical deforestation
  • Private sector desire to eliminate unfair competition
  • Acknowledgement by consumer countries of their responsibility
  • Private sector responding to environmental campaigns, climate change and growing corporate social responsibility commitments
  • Growing public sector engagement as shown by New York (2014) and Amsterdam (2015) declarations

Mechanisms and nature of commitments

  • Demand side: EU Timber Regulation prohibits placement of illegally harvested timber products on the EU market; requires operator due diligence that affects entire supply chain
  • Supply side: VPAs between the EU and timber-exporting countries — implemented at national level — clarify legal frameworks, increase accountability and transparency, enforce and monitor legal framework compliance. Third party independent audits.
  • Voluntary commitments
  • Great variety in definitions, timelines, level of accountability and means of implementation — e.g. certification, individual company commitments or partnership approaches
  • Mostly supply-chain initiatives, though some initiatives couple supply-chain approaches with jurisdictional approaches

Focus

  • Production and trade of legal timber products; requirements differ between partner countries, depending on the national context, legal framework and stakeholder dynamic and priorities
  • Underlying forest governance issues prohibiting legal timber trade and production
  • Not directly concerned with deforestation or forest conversion unless raised by stakeholders
  • Reducing or eliminating deforestation from supply chains
  • Various definitions and approaches used —e.g. zero gross vs. net deforestation, zero-illegal deforestation, high conservation value and carbon stock approaches

Product scope

  • EU Timber Regulation covers a wide range of timber and timber products
  • VPAs cover four compulsory product types, and any other products the VPA country includes
  • The biggest global forest-risk commodities: palm oil, soy, cocoa, beef, pulp and paper

Geographical focus

  • 28 EU member states plus Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein enforce the EU Timber Regulation
  • 15 timber-exporting countries — as of mid-2017 — are negotiating or implementing a VPA: 8 in Africa, 5 in South-East Asia and 1 each in Central America and South America
  • In November 2016, Indonesia became the first VPA country to issue FLEGT licences
  • Some focus on producers of palm oil, pulp and paper, and timber products, etc., including Indonesia, Malaysia, Côte d'Ivoire; overlapping with VPA countries
  • Some focus on producers of soy and beef, including Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia; no VPA overlap
Ghanaian Forestry Commission officials demonstrate Wood Tracking System in Sefwi Wiawso

Ghanaian Forestry Commission officials demonstrate Wood Tracking System in Sefwi Wiawso

Source: EU FLEGT Facility

Ghanaian Forestry Commission officials demonstrate Wood Tracking System in Sefwi Wiawso

Source: EU FLEGT Facility

2. Lessons from VPAs that can strengthen implementation of public and private zero-deforestation commitments

2.1. Trade and market access can drive governance reforms

Consumer behaviour, company procurement and market regulation influence many aspects of commodity production and trade. Market access provides a strong incentive for commodity producers to comply with demand-side requirements, including environmental, social and governance criteria. For most VPA partner countries, access to the EU market was one of the main reasons for undertaking the VPA process.

In Vietnam, for example, the timber industry provides more than 300 000 jobs and supports 3 400 enterprises. In 2016, Vietnam exported timber and timber products worth USD 736 million to the EU. Vietnam, as primarily a wood-processing country, is a global market player that sources timber products from over 80 countries and exports to all major economies. The government’s objectives of expanding exports to the EU, increasing access to other markets such as the US and Japan, and avoiding the decline of the industry due to international competition led it to formally enter the VPA process in 2010.

The entry into force of the EU Timber Regulation in 2013, which required timber and wood exported from Vietnam to the EU to come from legal sources, brought more reasons for Vietnam to advance the process with the EU. In November 2016, Vietnam and the EU reached agreement in principle on the VPA and they formally concluded negotiations in May 2017. They expect to sign the VPA in 2017, ahead of its ratification and entry into force.

The commitments and reforms Vietnam will undertake to implement the VPA include increased monitoring of legal compliance, the establishment of complaints mechanisms and independent evaluations, as well as commitments to involve stakeholders in VPA implementation, and on disclosure of information. Moreover, specific EU market requirements, reinforced by increased private sector awareness and the need to act on global sustainability objectives, will necessarily have effects upstream in Vietnam´s 80 supplier countries. Vietnam will require proof that the timber and timber products it imports, for processing and export to the EU and other markets, are legal.

As the example of Vietnam shows, the EU FLEGT Action Plan uses the leverage of EU market access and trade to promote supply-side action and reforms on legal timber production in producing/exporting countries. The EU FLEGT Action Plan is based on the understanding that both demand and supply side measures are needed to achieve the transformation required to address major environmental and governance challenges, and that efforts are required throughout and beyond the whole value chain. Moreover, a trade focus brings a wider range of actors together than would otherwise have been involved in land-use decisions.

2.2. Realising commitments requires action to clarify definitions and legal frameworks

As the number of public and private actors announcing zero-deforestation commitments increases so does the number of forest and deforestation definitions. Stakeholders therefore need to clarify definitions and standards at jurisdictional level to understand where and how to source products according to the country’s laws, local priorities, risks and governance challenges.

All VPAs involve work to improve legal and institutional clarity. VPAs have revealed that, in many countries, overlapping or even conflicting legislation underpins the forest sector, or that there are so many different laws, it is difficult to understand what is legally required. For example, in Indonesia, VPA stakeholders clarified the legislative framework for legal timber, reviewing some 900 different laws, and suggesting reforms and simplification so it was clear what was legally required.. The multi-stakeholder approach of the VPA process provided opportunities to identify imprecise and inconsistent legal requirements and/or institutional arrangements and to reach a consensus about how to address these concerns.

This collective action triggered a major reform of the legal framework, increasing independent oversight of the entire forest sector by professional audit companies and civil society. In addition to improving legal clarity, stakeholders also used the VPA process as an opportunity to improve institutional clarity and clarify roles and responsibilities, thereby improving the accountability of public and private actors in the forest and land-use sector.

These experiences show that if governments and local stakeholders want to turn zero-deforestation commitments into action, they must proactively clarify what zero-deforestation commodity production means in their jurisdiction, as it will enable stakeholders to understand their rights, responsibilities and obligations. Clarifying definitions and legal frameworks and interpreting global standards in the context of local socio-political circumstances creates a key opportunity for national stakeholders to engage, and work out the criteria for legal, zero-deforestation commodity production in their jurisdictions through a participatory process.

Bringing a wide range of stakeholders together to discuss the complexity of the legal framework and lack of enforcement in the forest and land use sectors is challenging, but increases public awareness, strengthens institutions and raises the quality and credibility of policy reforms. Approaches that focus on compliance with existing legal frameworks at national or jurisdictional level, such as VPAs or zero illegal deforesation approaches, respect commodity-producing countries' own forest and land-use decisions.

Collective action in Thai Nguyen province, Vietnam

Collective action in Thai Nguyen province, Vietnam

Source: EU REDD Facility

Collective action in Thai Nguyen province, Vietnam

Source: EU REDD Facility

2.3. Underpinning accountability through transparency

A lack of information on the management of natural resources and commodity flows is one of the factors driving corruption, illegal activities and conflicts between communities and companies that produce timber and agricultural commodities. Even large corporations keen to meet zero-deforestation pledges appear often to lack information about their own complex supply chains. That applies particularly for commodities such as palm oil or beef that are produced by thousands of smallholders and reach consumer corporations through complex networks of suppliers and processors.

All VPAs include commitments to public disclosure of information. Liberia’s VPA, for example, defines the information to be published or made available on request under the Liberian Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. The open and participatory manner in which the VPA was developed, and the availability of the VPA institutions to provide the information that the government agreed to publish, have encouraged civil society organisations and local communities to push for accountability.

Implementation of the VPA has contributed to the public availability of the laws and regulations and strengthened public and private accountability, for instance in relation to benefit sharing arrangements with forest-dependent communities. Although it is too early to assess the VPA’s impact fully, civil society groups are satisfied that access to information from government and the private sector has improved. However, the implementation of the FOI Act has been disappointingly slow. Forest authorities are failing to publish reports either on penalties imposed and paid, or on volumes of confiscated timber sold.3

Various VPAs also recognise the role of independent monitoring, often led by civil society organisations, to provide ‘checks and balances’ on licensing and timber-tracking arrangements, and collect information in relation to verification of legality of forest operations. These activities and the information gathered allow stakeholders to participate in informed policy dialogue, and so increase accountability. The Republic of the Congo’s VPA gives a clear role for the pre-existing independent monitoring structure, and Cameroon’s VPA a more cursory one.The clearest recognition is in Indonesia’s VPA, where civil society plays a recognised role in monitoring the verification and assessment process. The Central African Republic’s VPA also has clear recognition for the role of civil society. 4

Recently, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of the Congo have each been exploring ways to expand independent monitoring beyond forest governance and the scope of VPAs to broader land use and deforestation issues. This is in order to collect information and assess forest-risk activities, and identify inconsistencies in land-use planning and land allocation in relation to agriculture and mining investments. 

Transparency matters because stakeholders need to be able to access information about laws, policies, decisions and business activities that affect them, so they can take part in national debates about land use and natural resource management. Moreover, transparency underpins the accountability of public and private actors, limits opportunities for corruption and helps markets to understand supply chains and their impacts. Public and private monitoring systems for timber and agricultural supply chains that allow for input from various actors and sources are becoming increasingly available. They foster transparency and contribute to prompting governments and private sector, in particular those with zero-deforestation commitments, to act more quickly and ensure their forest-risk exposure decreases over time.

However, transparency in the land-use sector remains a challenge. Private actors and governments have been slow in moving beyond commitments to actually making information available. Major efforts are still needed and further progress will depend on the implementation of key measures, such as information management systems and strategies for the publication and dissemination of information through different channels. A mind shift towards greater openness and information-sharing is also required within the forest administrations of most countries.

Community activist examining a logging site in Liberia

Community activist examining a logging site in Liberia

Local leaders claim their land was illegally given to logging companies.

Source: Travis Lupick

Community activist examining a logging site in Liberia

Local leaders claim their land was illegally given to logging companies.

Source: Travis Lupick

2.4. Overcoming implementation challenges through participation and early testing

Putting commitments for legal and sustainable commodity production and related trade into practice includes implementing systems and reforms, as well as rethinking entire commodity supply chains. As well as specifying these commitments in each jurisdiction, as discussed above, implementation may require significant changes to common practices. Governments and other stakeholders may face challenges in balancing actions to implement the technical and governance aspects of new commitments. Also, stakeholders often only realise the challenge of complying with legality and zero-deforestation requirements during implementation. Extensive dialogue and early testing of new approaches can increase understanding of the challenges and help stakeholders to find innovative solutions.

The EU advocates for representative participation by forest stakeholders in all VPA processes, which includes participating in early testing exercises that increasingly feature before negotiations conclude. In Honduras, for example, the participation of civil society, forest producer organisations and indigenous peoples in particular has contributed to a wider dissemination of forest related laws and regulations and has also strengthened the political process for the formal recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples to be consulted for and give their ‘free, prior and informed consent’.

A decisive moment in the Honduran VPA process was the field-testing of elements of the timber legality assurance system, in October 2016. This was done in a participatory way: stakeholders went to the field together to test the applicability of the legality definition and the practicality of the verification methodology. This approach created transparency, awareness and common understanding among many stakeholders of how the system will work — as well as some of the main forest governance challenges in Honduras, such as: a general lack of capacity and resources; insufficient control and monitoring systems; unclear legislation, land tenure and access rights; burdensome bureaucracy; and weak inter-institutional and cross-sector coordination. The field testing provided stakeholders with a broader, more realistic view of the need for legal reforms, law enforcement, decentralisation and strengthening of relevant institutions, and effective cross-sector coordination.

Though implementing zero-deforestation commitments is challenging, stakeholder participation can help, by making decision-making processes more likely to reach practical, equitable and credible decisions that reflect a broad consensus among stakeholders. VPA experiences show that participation can also reduce conflict and build trust among stakeholder groups. They also suggest that early testing would help address challenges of implementing any mechanism that aims to result in zero-deforestation supply chains. Testing should be as participatory and as early as possible, in order to create a detailed and objective evidence base for the reform of forest and land-use governance systems and the implementation of zero-deforestation land-use strategies.

Field testing in October 2016, Honduras

Field testing in October 2016, Honduras

Source: EU FLEGT Facility

Field testing in October 2016, Honduras

Source: EU FLEGT Facility

3. Conclusions

Governments and companies that aim to implement zero-deforestation commitments face many challenges — in particular, poor forest and land-use governance in commodity-producing countries that drives unsustainable land-use decisions and forest clearance. Moves toward zero-deforestation commodity production should therefore not only increase transparency and accountability in complex company supply chains, but also overcome long-standing governance issues in the forest and land-use sector of producer countries. Learning from other commodity and trade approaches, such as FLEGT VPAs, can assist efforts to define elements of the enabling environment for zero-deforestation production and related trade.

Zero-deforestation commitments send strong signals to commodity markets, as commodities that do not meet the requirements are likely to suffer from reduced market access and increased difficulties in finding buyers. As demonstrated by VPA processes, market access and trade can incentivise land-use governance reforms. Dialogue and cooperation among public and private stakeholders is important to understand mutual interests and reach a broad consensus. To achieve zero deforestation commodity production in a given jurisdiction, it will be necessary to define ‘zero-deforestation’ and also clarify legal and institutional frameworks, as they enable stakeholders to understand rights, responsibilities and obligations.

Credible and transparent monitoring and reporting systems also need to be built, as transparency increases the accountability of public and private actors, limits opportunities for corruption, and helps markets to understand supply chains and their impacts. Jurisdictions working on these elements and successfully overcoming their forest and land-use governance challenges will be in the lead for securing new private zero-deforestation investments and reconciling economic development with sustainability.

Plantations in Côte d'Ivoire

Plantations in Côte d'Ivoire

Source: EU REDD Facility

Plantations in Côte d'Ivoire

Source: EU REDD Facility

References

  • 1 Including: Kissinger, G., Herold, M. & De Sy, V. 2012. Drivers of Deforestation and Forest Degradation: A Synthesis Report for REDD+ Policymakers. Lexeme Consulting, Vancouver Canada; and Lawson, S. 2014. Consumer Goods and Deforestation: An analysis of the extent and nature of illegality in forest conversion for agriculture and timber plantations. Forest Trends.
  • 2 TEREA et al. 2016. Evaluation of the EU FLEGT Action Plan. 2004-2014.
    https://ec.europa.eu/europeaid/evaluation-eu-flegt-action-plan-forest-law-enforcement-governance-and-trade-2004-2014_en
  • 3 Modified from: Fern. 2015. Seeing the Forests through the Trees: VPA-led transparency in five African countries.
  • 4 Brack, D. & Léger, C. 2013. Exploring credibility gaps in Voluntary Partnership Agreements. A review of independent monitoring initiatives and lessons to learn.