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Making ‘zero-deforestation’ commodity production and trade a reality

The major threat to tropical forests today comes not from loggers but from large-scale forest clearance to meet rising demand for agricultural commodities. Recognising this, governments and businesses around the world are increasingly pledging to eradicate deforestation from supply chains of such commodities.

But many commodity-producing countries are characterised by poor forest and land-use governance, and forest clearance for agriculture is often illegal. A failure to address forest and land-use governance challenges could therefore make public and private sector zero-deforestation initiatives futile.

A model for addressing these challenges already exists. Since 2003, the EU has been implementing its Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan to address illegal logging. Under the Action Plan, the EU and timber-exporting countries negotiate and implement trade deals called Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs) to improve forest governance and promote trade in verified legal timber products.

In a new paper from the EU FLEGT and REDD facilities, the authors argue that lessons from 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.

Indeed, experience shows that by linking reforms to trade and market access VPAs provide strong incentives for commodity producers to comply with demand-side requirements.

VPAs are unlike typical trade deals in that their content is agreed through a highly participatory process that involves representatives of government, the private sector, civil society and other stakeholder groups. Experience shows that the quality of participation in areas such as defining legality and testing verification mechanisms is a key contributor to successful VPA negotiation and implementation.

Dialogue and cooperation among public and private stakeholders in commodity-producing countries is therefore likely to be critical to foster mutual understanding, broad consensus and effective implementation of zero-deforestation commitments.

Cleared land for agriculture

Source: Ollivier Girard for CIFOR

VPA experiences also indicate that 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.

Another piece of the puzzle is information — about commodity flows, legal compliance, management regimes, etc. But for most supply chains this information is sorely lacking. This opacity is a big factor driving corruption, criminality and conflict between communities and companies.

VPAs address the need for greater transparency by committing partner countries to make public the information that stakeholders deem to be important. Implementation of these commitments has strengthened public and private accountability, for instance in relation to benefit sharing arrangements with forest-dependent communities and by enabling independent forest monitoring.

The authors of the new paper note that the practicalities of addressing deforestation in commodity supply chains should not be underestimated. “It will require consensus building, political support, multi-faceted coordination and capacity building,” they say. “Moreover, it will require governments, businesses, communities and civil society to interact and work together in often entirely new ways.”

VPAs, they say, offer important lessons for bringing stakeholders together and improving participation, transparency, accountability and legislative clarity.

Jurisdictions that do this 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.