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The dynamics of VPA processes

A Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) process comprises several processes that overlap and interact. These processes reflect political and other dynamics in the EU, in the timber-exporting partner country and in bilateral negotiations.

VPA processes are, therefore, complex, potentially lengthy and prone to shifts in power relations, such as those created by national elections. No single individual or institution controls VPA processes. Rather, VPA processes are driven by partnerships as stakeholders come together to identify solutions to problems. Formal and informal structures support these processes.

Viewpoint. John Hudson on what is exciting about VPAs

"One of the most exciting things for me has been that this isn't government; this isn't activist NGOs; it isn't the private sector. It's all of them together making common cause and I think the success that's happened so far is a consequence of that, of those different people coming together. And they didn't come together naturally. It took time. And there are still tensions of course, different motives, but a far greater appreciation of common interests than there used to be."

John Hudson, former senior forestry advisor at the UK Department for International Development / Source: EU FLEGT Facility interview 2014

VPA dynamics in a timber-exporting country

The dynamics that affect a VPA process in a timber-exporting country reflect the national political context, the priorities of stakeholders, and relations within and among groups of stakeholders.

Relations within and among stakeholder groups

Differences in priorities among stakeholder groups affect perceptions of a VPA and whether or not a country enters into negotiations (see box ‘Differing aspirations may affect how stakeholders view a potential VPA'). For instance:

  • Governments may perceive a VPA as a tool to support law enforcement, increase tax revenue from the forest sector or ensure the sustainability of forestry
  • Timber exporters may see a VPA as a means to expand their market, or eliminate unfair competition from cheap illegal wood
  • Civil society organisations may see a VPA as a tool for achieving governance reforms or environmental goals

Different priorities can make it difficult for stakeholder groups to find common ground, at least initially. A history of weak and unequal relations among groups, particularly between civil society organisations and both government and the private sector, can further hinder progress. In most cases, however, VPA processes have rebalanced power dynamics and fostered a culture of constructive engagement among major stakeholder groups.

A key challenge for each stakeholder group is to get other groups to understand its perspective and that it does not pose a threat. Understanding each other's perspectives enables stakeholder groups to identify ways to compromise and to foster changes that bring benefits to all. Persistence, open dialogue and willingness to compromise are key.

Priorities can also vary within stakeholder groups. In the private sector, for instance, small operators have different needs to large companies. Among civil society organisations, some focus on specific topics that a VPA could affect, such as human rights, poverty or biodiversity, but others do not.

National negotiations, both within and among stakeholder groups, determine a country's position in the bilateral VPA negotiations with the EU. Stakeholders identify common interests and reach agreement about what they want a VPA to achieve through these national processes.

Differing aspirations may affect how stakeholders view a potential VPA

Stakeholder priorities differ both among and within government, the private sector and civil society stakeholder groups. Ministries of finance and forestry may for instance disagree about what a VPA can offer. The following are some of the things members of each broad group may aspire to:


Private sector

Civil society

  • Realise full economic value of the forest resource
  • Raise funds for national coffers
  • Stem loss of revenue from illegal logging
  • Support and/or finance reform of the forest sector
  • Reinforce forest management objectives
  • Formalise/legalise informal sector
  • Expand domestic market
  • Improve country image and sector credibility
  • Advance forest sector reform agenda
  • Secure and expand markets
  • Level the playing field by reducing unfair competition from illegal logging
  • Enable small-scale operators to compete with big companies
  • Clarify requirements and control procedures to reduce corruption
  • Reduce costs
  • Increase efficiency
  • Address costs imposed by conflict with communities
  • Become ‘legal', as many small-scale operators have unclear legal status
  • Ensure voice and participation
  • Clarify and/or strengthen community rights
  • Clarify and/or strengthen the rights of indigenous peoples
  • Enforce existing legislation
  • Clarify user rights and operators' responsibility to communities
  • Collect and redistribute forestry related fees to communities
  • Ensure accountability and transparency in decision making (land-use allocation)
  • Ensure access to information, forests and sawmills, to enable scrutiny of the sector

Shifting dynamics

The dynamics of a VPA process can shift when bilateral negotiations end and a timber-exporting country begins to develop and implement the agreed systems. A VPA has significant implications for the private sector. This means engagement with the private sector tends to deepen.

However, new challenges often arise during implementation. Momentum may be lost or multistakeholder participation may weaken. In many VPA processes to date, for instance, civil society organisations have expended a great deal of energy in the negotiation phases. Energy levels have often fallen as the VPA process moved into the implementation phase. Experience shows, however, that progress is faster when all stakeholders share responsibility for implementing a VPA.

Governments, meanwhile, often focus on the trade aspects of a VPA rather than on underlying governance issues. They may consider VPA implementation as a development project rather than as an ongoing political process. The complexity of a VPA and the challenge of implementing VPA systems may create barriers to effective action. The implementation process may also suffer if stakeholders see a VPA as a solution to all of their problems.

Another risk to implementation is that a partner-country government may shift attention to other initiatives, such as REDD+ or legal reform agendas that have the potential to provide significant external funding and/or capture the political dialogue.

To overcome these challenges, governments can:

  • Make adjustments to stakeholder consultation mechanisms they used in the negotiation phase of the VPA process to incorporate the specific needs of the implementation phase
  • Re-establish and redefine the roles and responsibilities of stakeholder groups
  • Involve each stakeholder group in specific aspects of implementation
  • Ensure government agencies coordinate activities
  • Take a balanced approach to implementing VPA annexes, rather than prioritising technical aspects over governance reforms
  • Communicate progress effectively to all stakeholders

International influences on national processes and dynamics

International factors can influence VPA processes in timber-exporting countries. These factors include:

  • Changing consumer demand for wood and wood products
  • International market trends, such as increasing demand from non-EU markets, for example China, India and Nigeria
  • Pressure on countries to protect forests as part of global efforts to limit climate change
  • Reports from advocacy organisations about the social and environmental impacts of illegal logging

VPA dynamics in the European Union

The FLEGT Action Plan of 2003 is the EU response to growing concern about the harmful effects of illegal logging.

Pressure to act came from EU stakeholders, including civil society organisations, the private sector and some EU member states. Pressure also came from political dialogue in the G8 and regional meetings in Asia and Africa in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Stakeholder deliberations in the EU, combined with these political dialogues, resulted in the EU FLEGT Action Plan.

Under the EU FLEGT Action Plan, the EU and EU member states developed a framework for bilateral negotiations with timber-exporting countries. EU stakeholders articulated their expectations with regard to VPAs in discussions in EU member states and the European Parliament. These discussions informed the EU FLEGT Regulation of 2005 and instructions from the Council of the European Union to the European Commission guiding development of VPAs.

Briefing sessions, stakeholder visits and lobbying in the EU Parliament further incorporated EU stakeholder expectations into the VPA process. For instance, briefing sessions enabled EU stakeholders to articulate their concerns and expectations during initial VPA negotiations, particularly negotiations with Cameroon, Ghana, Indonesia and Malaysia.

During VPA negotiations, the European Commission keeps EU stakeholders informed of progress and invites EU member states to join the EU negotiating team. The dynamics shift when VPA negotiations conclude and the implementation phase begins. When this happens, the EC in Brussels passes responsibility for the VPA to the EU delegation in the partner country.

While the VPA partner country drives implementation, the EU and/or EU member states may provide support to upgrade systems and undertake reforms. The EU may encourage partner countries to link the VPA to broader political and development agendas and to ensure that stakeholders continue to participate in the implementation phase.

Throughout a VPA process, the EC faces scrutiny from EU stakeholders, including nongovernmental organisations, private sector groups and the European Parliament.

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