The Congolese forest, governance and timber trade: FLEGT
The countries of the European Union remain one of the main markets for tropical timber. In 2007, for example, 80% of timber officially exported by the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was for the European market. But European public opinion is concerned about the impact of its tropical timber consumption in the producer countries.
As a reaction to the illegal logging of forests, in May 2003 the European Commission adopted the FLEGT action plan to improve forestry governance and reinforce the legality of timber exploitation in producer countries.
FLEGT aims at improving Forest Law Enforcement and Governance by using Trade as a vehicle for change.
First and foremost, FLEGT is based on negotiation and concluding so-called Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPA) between producer countries and the EU. The purpose of such partnership agreements is to set up a joint verification system, which guarantees that all timber exported from the signatory producer country to the European markets is indeed legal and contributes to poverty reduction and the preservation of the environment.
How can you tell timber is legal or not?
First, you have to distinguish documented legality (certificates, permits, etc. that confirm that such and such aspect of legality is verified) and legality in the field (the fact that what the documents say corresponds to reality in the field). Not an easy task!
The problem is well known in DRC. Think, for instance, of the inscriptions “This parcel is not for sale”, which are very common on walls and fences of Kinshasa properties. They are there because official fraudulent documents that state the contrary are circulating, and could induce a potential buyer to buy a property, which, in reality, is not for sale. What is said on paper is not sufficient, especially in a country where the rule of law is only in the process of being re-established. You still have to check on site if things actually correspond to reality.
With respect to forestry, it is not because a rough timber float or a sawn lot sold in Kinshasa has the necessary documents that testify that the timber is extracted from authorized areas, respects the diameters and the volumes per species, and that the local populations approved the logging, that this is actually true. In artisanal timber exploitation, it is likely that it is not the case…
That is why the FLEGT action plan insists so strongly on adopting a legality verification system. In view of the partnership agreements, the elements of the legality that must absolutely be verified in the field (legality grid) as well as the procedures according to which the verification must be conducted (verification system) are determined through a participatory process.
How can DRC comply with the FLEGT procedure?
FLEGT is not just a declaration of intent that a country subscribes to to “do well” diplomatically; instead, it is a real commitment. It does indeed lead to a binding agreement between the producer country and the European Union. The request to open up negotiations is the choice of the producer country, which must only do so if it is itself convinced of the necessity to improve governance and to develop the legality of its forestry sector. Once the partnership agreement between DRC and the EU is signed, it will be impossible for Congolese timber to enter the European market without FLEGT authorization.
The Congolese government is motivated and expressed its interest in the FLEGT action plan in February 2008. Through the Belgian-Congolese expertise fund, Belgian cooperation made an expert available to the Ministry of the Environment to inform a maximum of stakeholders about the stakes involved in such an action plan and about its functioning. Indeed, if you want the forestry sector actors to take on responsibility and ownership of an improvement process for forestry governance, it is essential that their representatives be involved in the reflection as early as possible.
The DRC government is convinced that the FLEGT action plan can effectively support the functioning of the forest exploitation sector; in February 2010 it officially asked the European Commission to start negotiations in view of concluding a partnership agreement. These negotiations should start in the following months.
What advantages can DRC get from adherence to the FLEGT action plan?
If the forestry legal and regulatory framework is respected, the rights of local communities will also be respected, which should lead to a reduction of poverty in forest regions. So, the populations that live in logging areas must be the first beneficiaries of the action plan. And let us not forget the forestry business, which will be able to maintain or develop its export markets because its timber is legally recognized, and the Congolese state, which will increase its fiscal revenues, because industrial and artisanal loggers will pay their taxes.
Another advantage of FLEGT, and not among the least, is the strong signal that DRC is sending to the outside world. International concerns about climate change do indeed hold the promise of added value for well-managed tropical forests, which could soon translate into a new type of North-South financial transfer for the storage of additional carbon “captured” by these forests (REDD payments). In this perspective, the negotiation of a voluntary partnership agreement will unquestionably become an international asset for DRC.