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How a VPA can increase participation

Why participation matters

Participation means that people engage with policy processes that may affect them. There are degrees of participation, ranging from simply being told about a policy process to having a say and being able to influence outcomes. One way to visualise this is as a ladder, where each rung represents a greater degree of participation than the rung below.

Figure 9. The ‘ladder of participation'. Adapted from Arnstein, S.R. 1969. A ladder of citizen participation. Journal of the American Institute of Planners 35: 216–224.

Participation is an important aspect of good forest governance because it enables stakeholders to influence decision-making processes that affect them. Participation also brings benefits to decision-making processes by making them more likely to reach practical, equitable and credible decisions that reflect a broad consensus among stakeholders.

Participation may also reduce conflict and build trust among stakeholder groups. By improving relations between stakeholder groups that previously have had poor relations, participation may promote greater equity in policymaking.

However, prior to Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) negotiations, stakeholder participation in decision making in timber-exporting countries was rare. In particular, communities owning and using forest resources for their livelihoods were excluded from decision making about forests.

How VPAs increase participation

VPA processes are unprecedented in the level of stakeholder participation and influence. VPA processes foster participation both in the VPA process itself and as a result of the commitments the parties make in a VPA's text and annexes.

VPAs are the first trade agreements developed through inclusive multistakeholder processes that have had impacts on decision making in the forest sector. In many timber-exporting countries that have entered VPA negotiations, there has never before been such an inclusive, participatory process.

The EU advocates broad stakeholder participation in negotiating and implementing a VPA in order to ensure an agreement is credible. In addition, VPAs are different from other projects that involve stakeholder participation because of their longevity, their coverage of national policy and international trade, and the high level of political engagement.

The space that a VPA process creates for multistakeholder participation can become more secure over time. If stakeholders bring information and value to the process, governments increasingly see them as partners. Initially, however, each major stakeholder group faces challenges:

  • A VPA process affects and involves different ministries with different agendas and coordination among these ministries is not easy
  • Private-sector stakeholders tend not to be well organised and do not always see the business value in committing to the lengthy meetings that a VPA process involves
  • Civil society groups may struggle to represent their diverse interests and are often perceived by governments and private sector to be problematic

Participation in the pre-negotiation phase of a VPA process

Before a timber-exporting country enters into VPA negotiations with the EU, it has to ensure that there is a consensus of support among stakeholders for a VPA process. To reach consensus among stakeholders it is essential that stakeholders are informed. This means stakeholders need to understand what a VPA could do for them and how it could serve their interests, as well as what a VPA is likely to require of them.

Government agencies, civil society organisations or organised stakeholder groups, such as timber trade associations, may lead efforts to engage and inform stakeholders. EU institutions and other international organisations often provide support for such activities. Support can take the form of workshops, public meetings and outreach via the media. Stakeholder mapping exercises can also strengthen participation (see box ‘Stakeholder mapping').

Stakeholder mapping

Stakeholder mapping is a tool that can help identify who may be affected or who may affect a policy or process. Those affected may include representatives of government ministries and departments, large and small private-sector stakeholders across the supply chain, civil society organisations, indigenous peoples and communities.

Mapping exercises may involve desk-based studies, visits and discussions with groups directly or indirectly affected by the forest sector. A mapping exercise may also include meetings at which stakeholders discuss and check the results. In a VPA process, governments and stakeholder groups often use a mapping exercise to help identify stakeholders and stakeholder groups that should participate and the support they may need to enable them to engage.

Stakeholder mapping can promote inclusive participatory VPA processes. However, stakeholder mapping can also close space for participation if, for instance:

  • It is not comprehensive, leaving out important stakeholders
  • Governments manage the exercise in a ‘top-down' way rather than working with stakeholder groups that do their own mapping
  • Governments consider the mapping exercise as fixed and final, rather than as an iterative process

Participation in the negotiation phase of a VPA process

Stakeholder involvement in VPA negotiations means that the EU and the partner country can develop an agreement that has broad support. Such broad support facilitates effective implementation.

In the negotiation phase of VPA processes to date, most governments have developed a participatory consultation process that involves stakeholders a VPA could affect, stakeholders who will implement it and stakeholders who have an interest in it. While the responsibility for organising a consultation process lies with the government of the partner country, each stakeholder group is responsible for organising consultation within its group.

Stakeholder mapping exercises can help broaden participation to ensure that all relevant stakeholders participate (see box ‘Stakeholder mapping'). Experience shows that the more interactive the dialogue, the more solutions it generates and the less time it takes for stakeholders to reach consensus on issues. Stakeholder participation, therefore, strengthens the practicality and credibility of a VPA, ensures country ownership and drives improvements in governance.

VPA negotiations create several opportunities to foster participation. Discussions around the legality definition, for example, bring diverse interests to the table. As a VPA text and annexes take shape, they can incorporate commitments to continue participation in the implementation phase.

Governments can find it a challenge, however, to set up multistakeholder structures and processes that enable stakeholders to share their views.

Different countries have taken different approaches. In Vietnam, the government undertook extensive community consultations to gather concerns. In Liberia, communities were not only consulted but were also given seats on national negotiating structures. In Honduras, regional level multistakeholder platforms feed into national discussions.

Experience shows that it is important for stakeholder groups to select their own representatives. Representatives must be accountable to their constituencies. Stakeholder representatives need effective means of sharing information from negotiations with their constituencies and feeding the views of their constituencies into negotiations.

To enable stakeholders to participate, a VPA process must consider issues such as the time, skills, money and other resources stakeholders need to understand and engage with the process effectively. Stakeholder platforms may require support and investment in:

  • Educating and raising awareness among a broad range of stakeholders, including rural and hard-to-reach constituencies
  • Communicating technical and legal information to people with a wide range of languages, literacy and educational backgrounds

Some stakeholders are well organised and informed while others, such as communities and small- and medium-scale enterprises, are often not. A survey by Tropenbos International in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2014 found, for instance, that 90% of stakeholders had no information about the VPA negotiations underway. To address this, Tropenbos International organised training on issues concerning artisanal logging and the VPA for representatives of local governments, communities, artisanal loggers and civil society.

Participation in the implementation phase of a VPA process

It is as important for stakeholders to participate in the implementation phase of a VPA as it is for them to participate in the negotiation phase. Participation in the implementation phase means that rather than simply complying with the agreement, stakeholders have a say in how the agreement is implemented. By participating in the implementation phase, stakeholders keep informed of progress and can take part in some of the work to be done, improving the likelihood of success.

However, it is common for participation to wane as a VPA process shifts from negotiations to implementation. Participation may decline partly because the formation of a VPA joint implementation committee takes place only after both parties have ratified the agreement. Forming a joint implementation committee can take quite some time after negotiations end.

Also, bilateral meetings, which often mobilise stakeholders and structure activities in the VPA negotiation phase, are less frequent in the implementation phase. To help address the problem of delays in forming joint implementation committees, the EU and VPA partner country may create an interim joint implementation committee as soon as negotiations end. Interim committees mean that official meetings can continue to take place and mobilise stakeholders.

The text and annexes of VPAs vary in the degree to which they anchor ongoing stakeholder participation, but all refer to it. The level of detail does not limit the extent of participation and there is an expectation among stakeholders on both sides that participation will continue into the implementation phase.

Each VPA emphasises ongoing stakeholder participation in an article in the main text and provides further detail in its annexes, which describe the roles of stakeholders in overseeing and monitoring implementation. Roles may include participation in national implementation structures, in joint implementation committees, as sources of information for independent audits or as independent observers.

Each VPA states that the EU will hold regular consultations with stakeholders on the implementation of the VPA. Regular consultations fulfil EU obligations under the 1998 Aarhus Convention on access to information, public participation in decision making and access to justice in environmental matters.

Examples of participation in practice

In Ghana, civil society did not initially have representation on the national VPA steering committee. When civil society groups protested, the government created space for them on the committee. As the VPA process proceeded, civil society groups played important roles in drafting the legality definition, field testing Ghana's computerised wood-tracking system and in the legal reform process created by the VPA.

In Indonesia, stakeholder consultations are now standard for any changes to the timber legality assurance scheme. For instance, the latest revision of national regulations resulting from the VPA joint evaluation involved four regional consultations and a national consultation of 300 stakeholders. Following the consultations, a multistakeholder legal drafting committee completed the revision. Civil society organisations, government, the private sector and the auditors work together to improve the system. In 2014, Indonesian civil society groups mandated seven representatives to follow the VPA process for five years and defined ways for representatives to inform the wider network. In addition, one of the seven represents civil society on the VPA joint implementation committee.

In Liberia, nongovernmental organisations requested space for community representatives at the VPA negotiating table. The request resulted in seven seats for community representatives and four for nongovernmental organisations. The representatives developed systems for feeding back information to communities and for communities to feed information to negotiators.


Viewpoint. Obed Owusu-Addai on participation in Ghana's VPA process

"We are really now at the table with government and industry in the management of forests in Ghana, so FLEGT has been a wonderful opportunity for us in Ghana, especially from civil society point of view… in the very short term we are expecting that the system will become robust with a lot of civil society participation, not only civil society but even community participation in the management of the forest sector in Ghana, so we are really anticipating a lot of changes and we have started seeing some of it happening already and it looks good, the future looks very good."

Obed Owusu-Addai, Civic Response, host of Forest Watch Ghana / Source: EU FLEGT Facility interview 2014

More information

External links

Bollen, A. and Ozinga, S. 2013. Improving Forest Governance. A Comparison of FLEGT VPAs and Their Impact. FERN. 50pp. [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]

FERN et al. 2008. Consultation Requirements under FLEGT. LoggingOff Briefing note #1 [Download PDF]

Tropenbos International. 2014. FLEGT-VPA: 90% of stakeholders are not aware the process in Province Orientale, DR Congo [Read online]