The VPA process in Laos (in formal negotiations since 2017) has moved forward significantly in the past six months, and stakeholders are continuing to work together closely.
The forests of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic cover about 40% of the country. It is a major exporter of timber to Vietnam. Land clearing during the conversion of natural forest areas to non-forest or plantation use is the main source of timber in Laos, in particular land clearing for large infrastructure projects. Most export timber goes to neighbouring Vietnam and Thailand, but some export timber goes to China as well. By entering into a VPA with the EU, Laos aims to improve opportunities for the Lao timber industry to access the EU market, diversify their timber products and increase revenue from timber exports.
Latest VPA update:
Laos and the EU just concluded their third round of VPA negotiations, which took place in Brussels from June 17 to 20.
In Laos, CSOs are not considered to be representatives of citizens’ interests; public participation in drafting policies and in decision-making does not exist. The establishment and formal registration of a Lao CSO is therefore a complex and necessarily political process that comes with many restrictions related to funding, approval of projects and permissible areas of activity. And although Lao CSOs may present carefully worded and nuanced criticisms of the Government of Laos’ governance style and development pathways, direct, public disapproval is not appropriate. CSOs are allowed to be independent organisations, but they are expected to support government development plans.
Lao CSOs that work on poverty reduction and rural development have long understood that forests are an integral part of rural villages’ community livelihoods. They also know that low participation and the lack of benefit-sharing reduces villagers’ opportunities to fully reap what should be their due. The VPA process offers the potential to address these issues and opens new spaces for multi-stakeholder engagement.
An early and promising signal from the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry’s Department of Forest Inspection (DOFI) came in 2015, when they issued a list of VPA stakeholders that included CSOs. This was followed by a document approving the formation of a permanent Lao CSO FLEGT Committee. With this opening, a small group of Lao CSOs researched how other countries’ CSOs had organised themselves and discussed options for Laos. They exchanged information with International NGOs (INGOs) that had helped other local CSOs in the VPA process and decided that an elected representative committee supported by a network would be most effective. Such a structure overcomes the initial difficulty of contacting, including and coordinating Laos CSOs from around the country and organising elections. The creation of a committee, secretariat and membership-based network was approved by the DOFI in 2015. Official government recognition of the Lao CSO FLEGT Committee and Network was an important milestone.
A second challenge confronting the CSO FLEGT Committee and Network was their lack of experience and capacity, but this has now improved. They have organised themselves into a group with a clear vision and mission and are now accepted by other stakeholders (government, private sector, villages) as legitimate and trusted participants, based on the skills and knowledge that they brought to the process.
Acceptance of CSOs as legitimate stakeholders has been an uphill battle. CSOs feel that the VPA stakeholder process is imbalanced: the Lao Government leads and CSOs and the private sector must follow. For instance, government approval was required for the first elected CSO FLEGT Committee in 2015, as well as the new Committee elected in 2018. The central government must be informed about all CSO FLEGT-related activities, and village-level activities require the participation of provincial or district officials. Donor projects for CSOs must also have government approval and are thus delayed by many months. Completed CSO activities must be reported back to the DOFI every two to three months, and engagement with media and external public communications must first be checked. Close monitoring of CSO activities demonstrates the government’s intention to maintain some control over how and what inputs CSOs offer to the VPA process.
In addition, coordination between the Lao CSOs and the FLEGT Standing Office (FSO) is not always efficient. For example, FSO invitations for meetings are sometimes sent late and meeting minutes are not shared. FLEGT documents (e.g., Timber Legality Definitions) are not always available in Lao language or posted publicly; a GIZ-supported website on the Laos-EU VPA process exists but is outdated and lacks many documents. .Internally, some network members who have collected useful field information have not transferred it to the CSO representatives who attend Technical Working Group meetings. Regardless of these shortcomings, as those involved have built trust and grown accustomed to a multi-stakeholder process, coordination has improved and reached a new level in the forest sector.
More information specifically about the EU-Laos VPA is available here.
Last updated in July 2019.
For the latest information about Laos, contact:
Association for Rural Mobilisation and Improvement (ARMI):
Amphone SOUVANNALATH: firstname.lastname@example.org
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