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How a VPA promotes good forest governance

Forest governance encompasses decision-making processes and institutions at local, national, regional and global levels, such as:

  • Who decides what about forests
  • How they make decisions
  • How they implement and enforce policies, laws and rules
  • How they are held accountable

Forest governance matters because forests generate important state revenue. Forest governance is also important to local communities because it directly affects their livelihoods. Forest governance is important to regional and international communities because of the role of forests in carbon and water cycles. However, many countries manage forests mainly as state resources, granting rights to exploit them to private entities.

Decisions about the use and/or ownership of forests are often not transparent. People disagree about who should use and benefit from forests. Governance issues such as these lead to conflict over forest resources.

Weak governance in a country's forest sector can:

  • Unfairly benefit select or powerful groups
  • Harm weak or marginalised groups
  • Deplete natural resources by failing to manage them for the long term

Weak forest governance allows illegality to persist, which impedes national efforts to manage forests for sustainable development.

In contrast, when forest governance is good, transparency, accountability, participation and other traits (see box ‘What makes governance good?') support and reinforce each other. Good governance underpins legality in a country's forest sector. Recognising this, the EU Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan sees Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs) as tools to improve forest governance. Among other gains, VPAs agreed to date have:

  • Proved the most participatory decision-making processes ever to take place in partner-countries' forest sectors
  • Included major transparency commitments
  • Provided the much-needed legal and institutional clarity that underpins legality, law enforcement and accountability
  • Strengthened the capacity of national governments and stakeholders to deliberate on and develop shared solutions to illegal logging

Gains stem from parties' commitments in VPA texts and annexes, as well as through VPA processes. An analysis by David Booth and Sue Unsworth of what works in development cooperation, shows that VPAs have achieved governance gains because they have:

  • An iterative approach to problem solving
  • Invested in building relationships
  • Made efforts to broker common interests
  • A long-term commitment
  • Local leadership in addressing local issues
  • Leadership by people who understand the political context in which they operate

What makes VPAs particularly innovative with respect to governance reforms is that they avoid external pressure on a country to improve governance. Instead, national stakeholders and government, through a participatory process, decide the governance challenges to address and the standards to achieve.

Related sections of VPA Unpacked describe in detail how VPAs can improve different aspects of forest governance:

How a VPA can increase transparency

How a VPA can increase participation

How a VPA can increase legislative and institutional clarity

How a VPA can increase accountability

How a VPA can strengthen capacity

What makes governance good?

Coordination. Government departments communicate and coordinate to share information, inform each other and thus enhance overall enforcement of the sector.

Accountability. People take responsibility. Institutional responsibility is clear and articulated. Systems are overseen by independent checks. Governments address the concerns of civil society and people with grievances have access to redress and remedy.

Capacity. Stakeholders have the time, money, skills and knowledge they need to make and implement decisions. The ability to run systems that contribute to a well-managed forest sector is in place.

Clarity. The legislative landscape and institutional roles and responsibilities are clear to all stakeholders.

Credibility. Systems have broad stakeholder support and are open to independent monitoring and reporting.

Transparency. Governments and companies make information accessible to the public, and processes and decision making are open and inclusive.

Participation. Stakeholder representatives are able to take part in decision-making processes.

Law enforcement. Violations are addressed transparently.

Fairness. Policies and laws treat stakeholders equitably and include measures to mitigate negative impacts on poor people. Respect for the law is not a disadvantage.

Free, alert civil society. Citizens and the media are informed, aware and free to question governments and companies without fear of reprisals.


How VPA processes can address governance challenges

Even before a VPA is fully operational and FLEGT licensing is in place, a VPA process can promote better governance by revealing poor practices. Below are two examples.

Ghana. The usual way for loggers to obtain a timber utilisation contract is through a transparent competitive bidding process. Parliament must ratify the award of an allocation. However, one law allows the Ghana Forestry Commission to award a ‘special permit' at its discretion. During the VPA process to define legal timber, Ghanaian civil society organisations refused to include this ministerial route to allocating timber as a legal mechanism. Civil society organisations felt that ‘special permits' were inconsistent with competitive bidding and, therefore, undermined good governance.

After parties agreed the VPA, the minister continued to issue special permits. In 2013, civil society groups wrote to the joint implementation committee, the JMRM, flagging their concern. The EU raised this with the Ghanaian government, which initially reacted by saying that the special permits were not illegal. The EU indicated that none of the timber produced under special permits could obtain a FLEGT licence, as the definition of legality annexed to the VPA did not include this type of permit. Discussions then took place between the ministry and civil society representatives, with the result that the ministry at the time (2013) agreed that no further special permits would be issued.

Indonesia. The Indonesian Independent Forestry Monitoring Network (JPIK) consists of more than 60 organisations and more than 300 individuals. The network acts as an independent observer in the VPA, by monitoring the timber legality assurance system (called SVLK) and reporting forest crimes.

In 2014, JPIK published a report that found problems with:

  • Traceability of raw materials
  • Issuance of permits
  • Conflicts related to boundaries and tenure
  • Verification of the legality of timber produced by converting natural forests to other uses
  • Weak enforcement of the SVLK and the lack of sanctions for non-compliance by permit holders

JPIK noted that there has been no attempt to investigate some SVLK-certified companies involved in proven cases of corruption or known to have received illegal timber. JPIK says permit issuance procedures should be included in the legality standard to prevent issuance of certificates to problematic permit holders. JPIK also calls for greater transparency of data and information in the implementation of the SVLK, as well as improvements in filing and resolving complaints from stakeholders.

The 2014 revision of the SVLK took up some of JPIK's suggestions. The Indonesia-EU Action Plan on VPA Advancement, which the parties to the VPA agreed in January 2015, also takes up some suggestions.

More information

External links

Bodegom, A.J. et al. 2008.FLEGT beyond T: Exploring the meaning of governance concepts for the FLEGT process. Wageningen University. Netherlands. [Download PDF]

Booth, D. and Unsworth, S. 2014. Politically smart, locally led development. Overseas Development Institute. London, United Kingdom. [Download PDF]

Duffield, L. and Ozinga, S. 2014. Making Forestry Fairer. A Practical Guide for Civil Society Organisations Taking Part in VPA Negotiations. FERN. 68pp. [Download PDF]

Jeffree, M. 2014. FLEGT forest power to the people. Timber Trades Journal Online October 2014: 48–49.

JPIK. 2014. JPIK calls the government of Indonesia to improve the timber legality assurance system (SVLK). Press release. 24 November 2014. [Read online]

Meridian, A. et al. 2014. SVLK in the Eyes of the Monitor. Independent Monitoring and a Review of the Implementation of the Timber Legality Verification System 2011–2013. JPIK (Indonesia Independent Forestry Monitoring Network). [Download PDF]