Republic of Congo
The Republic of the Congo (Congo Brazzaville) signed a FLEGT-VPA with the European Union on 17 May 2010; this entered into force 1 March 2013. By signing the agreement, the Congolese government committed to ensure that its entire timber industry meets the legality and traceability requirements of the Legality Assurance System (LAS).
Forests cover about half of the country’s territory, and a majority of these have been allocated for timber production. Estimates suggest that in 2007, the informal forest sector generated about 7,400 direct jobs and 14,800 indirect jobs, making the forest sector the largest provider of employment outside the cities. Congolese forests are also of high social and cultural importance to the around 100,000 Baka Pygmies and other local Bantu communities who depend on this ecosystem for subsistence although this is not accounted for in the GDP as it does not make it into the formal economy.
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The country currently faces a critical financial and economic situation caused largely by the fall in oil prices, which constitute 80 per cent of state revenues. The Congolese Government managed to negotiate a restructuring of its huge debt to China (US$ 3.15 billion), making it eligible for assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). However members of the Publish What You Pay Coalition (PWYP) coalition, including Fern’s local partner Rencontre pour la Paix et les Droits de l’Homme (RPDH), denounced the opacity surrounding the deal with China, and question the outrageous level of state indebtedness – this, fewer than 10 years after Republic of Congo (RoC) benefitted from a reduction of its debt through the Heavily Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) programme.
Despite the difficult outlook, two important legal developments have marked the VPA process in the past months. First, the government finally signed the draft new Forest Code, by decision of the Council of Ministers, 27 February 2019. The Code now awaits formal parliamentary approval. The Plateforme pour la Gestion Durable des Forêts (PGDF), which led CSO contributions to the draft code, hope that their recommendations regarding proper integration of Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) for communities, stronger benefit-sharing mechanisms, a clearer legal basis for dealing with conversion timber, and a wider definition of community forestry will feature in the final version.
Next, the government also adopted the implementing decrees for the 2011 Law on Indigenous Peoples, which had been in the pipeline for several years. Fern’s local partner Observatoire congolais pour les droits de l’homme (OCDH) has been at the forefront of efforts to ensure that the decrees truly reflect Indigenous Peoples’ needs and offer greater protection for their customary rights over forests and traditional livelihoods. OCDH recently published a guide on FPIC to help government and company stakeholders better engage with Indigenous Peoples and communities. This message was loudly proclaimed at a meeting on land use reform ODCH hosted in December 2018: the new land law must not undermine gains and commitments made. On the contrary, it should strengthen local communities’ control over their ancestral lands, an important step to minimise land use conflict and ensure that the new land use plan (plan national d’affectation des terres) also works for communities.
Within the VPA context, adequate space is provided for CSO participation and information-sharing. Three representatives from the PGDF sit on the Joint Implementation Committee (JIC) and their contribution to the legal reform and independent forest monitoring is valued. However, this is not true in the broader context: recurring intimidation of human rights and governance advocates affects their work and fuels self-censorship. CSOs also struggle to play their advocacy role effectively; they must improve internal synergies and collaboration to increase accountability and ensure that the VPA brings greater benefits to communities.
Additionally, representatives from forest communities are still not represented directly on the VPA structures and their capacity to engage on forest governance processes is limited. During a tour organised by OCDH in March, communities from the Cuvette, Lékoumou and Sangha department stressed their need to have regular, direct dialogue with forest authorities and relevant government agencies so that their legitimate demands can be addressed. This is not yet the case. Little wonder then that community forestry, an important tool to strengthen livelihoods and secure land, is not yet a reality. The fact that the Conseil départemental de la Sangha recently approved the creation of pilot community forests in the IFO Ngombé concessions is a major step forward, and OCDH is supporting communities to submit a formal proposition to the Ministry for Forest Economy.
The JIC meets regularly and provides a platform for CSOs to share outcomes of the independent forest monitor’s activities. With support from Cameroonian experts, members of the PGDF are working to establish a standardised system for external forest monitors to assess how well companies are carrying out their social obligations.
Negotiations for the letter of intent Congo is expecting to sign with the Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI) are progressing. CSOs were consulted via an enlarged task force to ensure all thematic platforms were included. The draft letter includes important references to FLEGT, ending conversion, and rights. It should also embed clear references to and mechanisms for free and effective CSO participation, and milestones regarding forest sector transparency and reducing illegalities.
Forest revenue transparency continues to be problematic. CSOs are concerned with timber companies’ persistent refusal to publish payments made to the government. As a result, these companies are much more opaque than mining and oil companies, which at least regularly disclose financial information under the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). The data blackout sends a disastrous signal to investors and consumers, and undermines the capacity of the VPA to shed light on important information, which is both intended and mandated by the 2017 transparency code. The February 2019 EITI report failed again to include revenues from logging companies, with the exception of IFO. Civil society’s objective is that all companies report and provide audited, accurate and comprehensive information.
Last updated on July 2019.
A brief history of the VPA so far, from a civil society perspective.
Negotiations to conclude the Congo-EU VPA lasted less than one year (June 2008- May 2009), making it the fastest to date. Little was done in the form of informal pre-negotiations, although a workshop took place on December 2007 to establish the national plan for negotiations, and working groups to define the different sections of the agreement were already up and running three months later. The formal political and technical negotiation sessions were launched in June 2008 and progressed in a hasty pace until both parties signed the agreement on 9 May 2009.
After rapid negotiations, implementation of the VPA has been slow. Numerous related legal reforms have begun but not yet finished, and the governance reforms required under the VPA (which entered in to force in 2013) are largely stagnant. For instance adoption of the new Forestry Code is still pending, although at the most recent Joint Implementation Committee (JIC) in November the government reiterated its commitment to make progress on this.The Independent Auditor’s activities have commenced with an initial mandate of assessing how robust Congo’s VPA process is at this stage.
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