Policy wonks, experts, campaigners and other stakeholders met in Brussels this week to discuss progress under the European Union’s Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action plan.
Yet the effectiveness of the FLEGT action plan should be judged by the impact it has far away from the meeting rooms, in the forests it is designed to protect.
Almost half of Cameroon is forested – approximately 20 million hectares in total. Naturally with such resources available, commercial logging is commonplace and permitted under a variety of legal titles. Naturally again with such abundant forests, illegal activities have also long been commonplace including timber harvesting, tax evasion, infringement of the rights of forest communities and political and administrative corruption.
The European Union (EU), which imports timber from Cameroon and other tropical countries, has attempted to tackle illegal logging right where it occurs by signing Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs) with exporting countries, including a VPA with the government of Cameroon in May 2010. This agreement entered into force in December 2011. Like all VPAs, the agreement is called “voluntary” because countries voluntarily choose to sign an agreement with the EU. Once signed, it is of cause binding to both parties, like any formal agreement between states. Sadly, many Cameroonian officials seemingly fail to grasp this.
The purpose of the VPA is to improve forest governance and ensure that wood imported into the EU complies with the legal requirements of the partner country. Under the agreement, exporting countries will develop a system to check the legality of their timber, while the EU supports partner countries – financially and with expertise – to establish or improve their verification and governance systems.
The question today is whether or not there has been an improvement in forest governance and, consequently, a reduction of illegal logging e.g. in Cameroon? The answer is a resounding NO.
In a recent report the reputable British think tank Chatham House, found that “illegal logging in Cameroon and the response to this issue suggest that progress has stalled since 2010″. The criticism goes further: “The reform of the legislative framework for the forest sector is yet to be completed, the principle of transparency is yet to be broadly accepted within the government, enforcement is weak, corruption still remains widespread and the political will needed to drive change is felt to be lacking”.
All of these deficiencies were supposed to be addressed by the VPA, yet the effects of illegal logging are still very visible and spreading throughout the forestry sector.
Sadly, corruption systems are well established and embedded in the governance system. It will take more than a VPA to tackle the level of corruption in a country that has been so consistently prominent on the corruption index of Transparency International; and it is likely to take more than a VPA with the EU to eradicate illegal logging in Cameroon.
In May 2014, Greenpeace Africa published the report “Licence to Launder” that revealed how US palm oil company Herakles Farms was, via the front company Uniprovince and with the knowledge of some Cameroonian authorities, commercialising timber even though much of it had been felled illegally using a permit obtained without following due process of the law. Greenpeace subsequently informed the relevant prosecutors in Yaoundé, Douala and Buea, but is yet to receive a response.
Currently, the VPA also fails to adequately address the problem of “conversion timber” (wood that is cut during clearance for projects such as seaport construction, road construction, hydro-electric dams or agro industrial plantations). Recent research has found that a great portion of tropical timber found on the international market comes from illegal forest conversion operations. This was also raised as a problem during the meetings in Brussels this week.
The EU and the Cameroon government must address this issue by explicitly covering conversion timber as part of the implementation process of the VPA.
Effective implementation of the VPA process is sluggish at best, and stalling in the case of Cameroon. This is in no small parts due to the lack of commitment and deficiencies in governance on the part of the Cameroon government. Faced with these deficiencies and a failing system, the EU must recognise these shortcomings and shoulder its responsibility as a partner in the deal: Cameroon must be put under more pressure to honour its commitments, and until implementation improves, timber from Cameroon is a high risk import good, requiring rigorous checks to verify legality.
Ultimately, the EU and its member states have promised its citizens to fight illegal logging and prevent illegal timber from entering the EU market, regardless of its source.
Eric Ini is a forests campaigner with Greenpeace Africa based in Yaoundé, Cameroon.
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