EU trading scheme could be ‘game-changer’ for illegal logging


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A European Union timber trading scheme, due to launch in Ghana by the end of the year, could be a ‘game-changer’ in the fight against illegal deforestation worldwide, IBA Global Insight has learnt – though further reforms are said to be needed.

The Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs) require export countries to issue licences that guarantee the legality of timber entering the EU market. The permits will significantly assist European operators, which have been prohibited from placing illegally harvested timber on the EU market since the EU Timber Regulation (EUTR) came into effect in March 2013.

To date, six countries have ratified VPAs: Ghana, Indonesia, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Liberia and the Republic of the Congo. Whether the agreements are successful will have huge implications for the 20 countries across Africa, Southeast Asia and Central and South America currently in talks to join the scheme.

If effective, it is hoped similar frameworks could be established in the future for other commodities, such as beef, soy, palm oil and minerals.

‘This could be huge for the forestry sector,’ says Clare Brogan, Principal Consultant at international development consultancy theIDLgroup, who has been supporting Liberia and Ghana in their negotiations. ‘This could be a game changer […]. If you buy timber with these licences then you are automatically immune from prosecution and need not undertake any further due diligence. It’s a green channel into the EU.’

ClientEarth: Forest community rights in West Africa
(4:35) Film used with kind permission of ClientEarth.

The VPAs and EUTR are two parts of the EU Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan, launched in 2003. Ghana was the first to ratify a VPA, in March 2010, and is now competing with Indonesia to launch the first FLEGT permits, with a tentative deadline of December 2014.

In less than 50 years, Ghana’s primary rainforest has been reduced by 90 per cent, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. If current deforestation rates continue, the country’s forests could disappear in less than 25 years. Demand from the EU is a significant contributor to the country’s illegal logging industry, consuming 43 per cent of the total value of Ghanaian timber exports.

The VPAs require extensive public consultation, and it is hoped this will undermine the legacy of corruption and patronage that has long marred the forestry sector. ‘They provide an excellent opportunity to bring clarity and transparency into the arena,’ says Clement Kojo Akapame, law lecturer at the Ghana Institute of Management and Public Association and consultant with legal environmental NGO ClientEarth, which has provided legal advice on Ghanaian forest laws. ‘In the normal governance process there is no role for civil society, but under the VPA it has significant oversight responsibilities.’

‘This is a new type of trade agreement, in the sense that it’s a bilateral agreement between Ghana and the EU, but you also have civil society at the negotiating table,’ adds ClientEarth lawyer Jozef Weyns, a specialist in Ghanaian forestry projects. ‘This ensures there is broader ownership of what is agreed. So you are harnessing the power of trade to achieve other goals.’

Experts agree, however, that VPAs are no panacea for the timber industry. The definition of legality for permits is based on local laws, which in Ghana are vague, complex and often contradictory. As it stands, some of Ghana’s ‘legal’ permits have been exempted from the FLEGT scheme because of transparency concerns, creating a two-tier industry where legality for EU exports differs from that on the domestic market. According to NGO Global Witness, only two of six types of logging permits issued by the authorities ‘fall within the government's own definition of what is legal’.

‘If what we have been doing is not working then clearly something different and innovative like the VPA scheme should be tried and supported, if the outcomes are positive’

Glen McLeod
Principal, Glen McLeod Legal, Australia; Co-Chair, IBA Environment, Health & Safety Law Committee

However, Ghana has vowed to reform its laws and ultimately apply the same standards to the domestic market. Lawyers involved in negotiations believe this will act as a good example to other countries considering signing a VPA. ‘Ghana said during talks that they want to bring in the domestic market because they have a massive problem with illegal logging,’ says Brogan. ‘That was not in the original EU mandate, but it’s allowed the EU to start posing that question to others. Before, because of sovereignty issues, it would have been quite sensitive to place demands on domestic markets.’

Environment specialist Glen McLeod, Principal at Glen McLeod Legal, based in Australia, and Co-Chair of the IBA Environment, Health & Safety Law Committee, believes the VPAs are an ‘innovative’ idea with merit, which should be judged on their ultimate effectiveness. ‘If what we have been doing is not working then clearly something different and innovative like the VPA scheme should be tried and supported, if the outcomes are positive,’ he says. ‘Environmental law is inherently interdisciplinary and often needs cross-border measures like this to make a difference.'

Some are only tentatively optimistic, however. Charlie Bosworth, Chief Operating Officer at Miro Forestry, which operates sustainable forestry plantations in Ghana and Sierra Leone, believes VPAs ‘are a great step in the right direction’, but Ghana must go ‘much further to address its problems’, such as planting more trees and addressing domestic demand for charcoal.

‘Ghana’s timber industry is in serious decline due predominantly to the loss of raw material for its sawmills, and forest cover has literally been decimated,’ he says. ‘It badly needs sustainable sources of timber and wood fuel to take pressure off its remaining natural forests, which can only mean planted timber.’

Bosworth is far from alone in such concerns. But the hope is that a new forest plantation strategy currently working its way through parliament is a step in the right direction, while civil society holds the power to enforce real change. ‘If there is no political will, nothing will be achieved,’ says Akapame. ‘But with the backing of the EU, civil society is able to push the government into making commitments. That push will ensure the will is there.’ 

Rebecca Lowe is Senior Reporter at the International Bar Association and can be contacted at