A decade of ground-breaking EU action on deforestation

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Unless the EU and its member states renew their enthusiasm for enforcing the Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade programme, the value of the initiative may be greatly diminished, says Saskia Ozinga.

Saskia Ozinga is director of FERN, a non-governmental forestry organisation.

"Ten years ago the EU embarked on a radical experiment to tackle illegal logging and curb climate change by promoting a fundamental change in forest management. With implementation of the EU Timber Regulation just around the corner, it is time for a review of the progress made and stumbling blocks already encountered.

On 9 October representatives from timber-producing countries will come together with others from the international timber industry and the European Commission to share experiences of the EU's Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade programme, or FLEGT.

Since 2003 the programme has sought to broker legally binding bilateral trade agreements between timber-producing countries and the EU, with an emphasis on governance and legality.

Good forest governance

At the heart of FLEGT lies an assumption that involving civil society in negotiations will generate more robust bilateral agreements better suited to tackling illegal logging and improving forest governance.

In the Republic of Congo, a new indigenous peoples' law became a condition of signoff on the FLEGT agreement. In Liberia, community groups enjoyed unprecedented involvement in negotiations through direct representatives.

After Cameroon signed a FLEGT Voluntary Partnership Agreement in 2009, the local civil society group CED commented that "the level of civil society involvement had been unprecedented in the country and has lead to strong written commitments for reforms in the forest sector."

There are early indications that these improvements in governance really could begin to tackle illegal logging.

A study by the British think tank Chatham House estimated that a focus on illegal logging improved governance in Brazil, Cameroon and Indonesia over the last decade may have led to a saving of 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, for a fraction of the cost of many carbon reduction programmes.

Nonetheless reaching FLEGT agreements is a long and difficult process. Participants in negotiations in Gabon have described relations between different stakeholders as initially "tense and nasty," to the extent that "it was not even possible to meet."

It was only through protracted meetings to break down these old antagonisms that relations slowly improved and different interest groups were able to be heard. The situation is still far from perfect, but "at least now it is possible to talk."

The incentive for the timber-producing government in persevering with this challenging process comes from the promise of FLEGT licences, which allow easy access to the European markets once the timber regulation takes effect in March next year.

In theory, a FLEGT licence will give countries carte blanche to sell timber products in Europe, while those without the FLEGT licence will be subject to potential arduous and expensive checks to ensure legality of their products.

The dangers of distraction

Despite a strong early start, interest in FLEGT seems to be flagging. An increasing focus on forests as a subject for climate change mitigation (rather than resource and governance reform) has shifted attention to developing mechanisms to measure carbon emissions and financing incentives.

International climate initiatives (like REDD+) do acknowledge that good governance is vital to success, but the narrow focus on carbon accounting methods risks pushing the progress already made through FLEGT into the long grass.

As Chatham House commented, "it is essential that the climate change agenda for forests serves to reinforce the existing response to illegal logging and poor forest governance rather than distract from it."

The real impact of the FLEGT partnership agreements will only become clear once the deals are fully implemented and FLEGT licenses are available, and that may take another year or two. Unless the EU and its member states renew their enthusiasm for enforcing FLEGT, the value of the initiative may be greatly diminished.

It is still early days, but the contribution of FLEGT to reducing deforestation is more promising for the long term than any forest and climate initiative currently on the table.

It is therefore vital that the EU focuses on effectively implementing FLEGT agreements, to give this experiment in tackling deforestation by improving governance every chance of succeeding."

Subscribe to our newsletters