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How a VPA can increase transparency

Why transparency matters

Transparency in the forest sector matters because stakeholders need to be able to access information about laws, policies, procedures, decisions and business activities that affect them. Transparency is an important component of good forest governance because:

  • It underpins legality, accountability, legal clarity and participation
  • It reinforces credibility
  • It limits opportunities for corruption
  • It enables independent scrutiny of the sector
  • Markets increasingly need to understand supply chains and their impacts
  • It makes the rights and responsibilities of forest stakeholders clear

In contrast, a lack of transparency in a country's forest sector can undermine Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) commitments and can hide and even enable crime and corruption. A lack of transparency allows powerful individuals to profit illegally by allocating logging concessions to friends and relatives, and makes it possible for companies to harvest and sell timber without the relevant permits, fees or taxes.

A lack of transparency also means governments lose revenue and communities may lose control over their land. Without transparency, citizens also struggle to take part in making decisions about forest resources.

Transparency is often debated. Studies provide evidence of just how much conflict a lack of access to information can create among stakeholders. The VPA process minimises such conflicts and reduces the potential for conflict by making forest governance more transparent.

Viewpoint: Matthew Walley, representing forest communities in Liberia

"People feel cheated. We see log trucks leaving their forests, but despite our requests, no one tells us how much and what species, so how can we know we are being paid the correct amount for the timber?"

Source: Global Witness. 2012. African timber-exporting countries failing to meet access to information commitments. Press release. 9 October 2012 [Read online]


How a VPA can increase transparency

The text and annexes of a VPA, as well as the VPA process, can promote transparency in several ways.

Visibility. The VPA process itself is highly visible. It opens up and even exposes a country's forest sector to national and international scrutiny.

Stakeholder participation. The EU advocates broad stakeholder participation in negotiating and implementing a VPA. Broad participation creates transparency around important aspects of a VPA, such as the legality definition, other aspects of the timber legality assurance system and necessary legal reforms.

Transparency enables stakeholders to voice their opinions, debate issues, and influence a VPA text and annexes, and the VPA process itself. An article in the main text of each VPA reinforces the importance of stakeholder involvement during VPA implementation.

To date, all countries that have signed VPAs have included representatives of civil society and the private sector in national implementation structures and joint implementation committees.

Read more in the section of VPA Unpacked on How a VPA can increase participation.

Communication. Countries have approached communicating about the VPA process differently. Approaches include publishing policy briefs and summaries of negotiations, holding press conferences, setting up websites during VPA negotiations and publishing reports of the joint implementation committee. Read more in the section of VPA Unpacked on Communication in VPA processes.

Independent auditing. The independent audit is a compulsory component of a VPA timber legality assurance system. The audit contributes to transparency by reviewing and reporting on the timber legality assurance system. The auditor submits reports to the EU and VPA partner country (usually to the joint implementation committee) and produces a public report. Read more in the section of VPA Unpacked on independent audit.

VPA annex on public information. A VPA annex on public information identifies the documents and information that stakeholders think should be made publicly available to strengthen governance in the forest sector and to enable monitoring of the implementation of the VPA. Such information is critical to the work of independent observers. Some VPA partner countries have created websites to share information, for example Cameroon and the Republic of the Congo. Read more in the section of VPA Unpacked on the VPA annex on public information.

Institutional clarity. The VPA process clarifies who is responsible for what in a country's timber legality assurance system. Parties document responsibilities in the text and annexes of the agreement, and in the procedures that are developed later in the implementation phase. Clear responsibilities improve understanding of who is accountable for law enforcement and what stakeholders need to do to comply.

Legislative understanding. In many countries, stakeholders struggle to access texts of legislation, let alone understand legislative requirements. VPA discussions on a timber legality assurance system's legality definition encourage governments to put relevant legislation in the public domain for stakeholders to assess and discuss. In VPA processes to date, support programmes have focused on capacity and resources to help make legislation available and make legislative frameworks more transparent.

Challenges in implementing transparency commitments

Transparency makes it easier for stakeholders to understand, implement and monitor a VPA. Transparency also reinforces the credibility of FLEGT licensing among national stakeholders, and EU importers and consumers. However, most timber-exporting countries have not paid much attention to transparency in the past. Thus, it can take time for governments to implement their VPA transparency commitments.

Some countries need to develop systems and procedures to manage and share information. In some cases, information may already be in the public domain but may be difficult to find and share. In other cases, such as in Liberia, electronic versions of most laws do not exist and hard copies are rare.

Delays to VPA implementation may occur because governments tend to focus on technical aspects of implementation, such as the timber legality assurance system, rather than on governance reforms. Stakeholder engagement also tends to wane when negotiations end and implementation begins. Stakeholders either move on to other issues and/or are not proactive in finding ways to advance governance reforms.

Another challenge is that, in the short term, moves to increase transparency shed light on the forest sector and may expose a country to criticism. The paradox is that countries undertaking reforms are more exposed to criticism than countries that are not encouraging transparency. In the long term, however, countries that improve transparency can expect to gain because more and more markets demand information on how a country manages its forest sector.

Example: Information and accountability in Indonesia

The Indonesian Ministry of Forestry publishes a list of all companies legally verified under the timber legality assurance system on its website. Auditors and importers can use this list to check the validity of an export licence. The site has provision for submitting queries to the Licensing Information Unit, which stores information on each licence in a database. EU competent authorities can also interrogate the system and send queries to the unit. In future, competent authorities will have direct access to the information provided to the licensing authority for issuing a licence.