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After eight years of negotiations, the VPA between Vietnam and the EU was signed on 19 October 2018 in Brussels. But civil society has been rightly concerned about such a deal being signed whilst Vietnam remains a regional hub for illegal timber.

Vietnam is the world’s fourth-largest exporter of wood products. Forests cover about 45 percent of Vietnam’s land area. 

There is a long tradition of small-scale timber processing operations in Vietnam, which is currently the largest timber processing hub in South East Asia. Tens of thousands of small household producers make a living turning wood from natural forests into household items, construction timber and other products for both domestic and international use. A majority of these producers only sell their products domestically. Mostly, the industry continues to rely on imports for about 80 percent of its timber, including from Cambodia, China, Laos, Malaysia and Thailand.

Photo by Filip Verbelen, Greenpeace

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As noted previously, the VPA was signed in October 2018; since then, further preparations for its implementation have been underway. As the process has moved from international negotiation to the practical realities of Vietnam’s obligations under the agreement, the focus has been on developing specific mechanisms for implementing and monitoring the VPA.

The key mechanism for engagement between the Vietnamese Government and other stakeholders is the Multi-stakeholder Core Group (MCG); its fifth meeting was held in March 2019. Participants represented a wide range of different interests: government departments, international donors and national CSOs. This was the first formalised meeting of these groups since the signing of the agreement, and therefore discussion centred largely on how the agreement would be put into place.

Currently, a key focus of the Vietnamese Forest Administration (VNFOREST) is on creating the legal framework for the implementation of the Vietnam Timber Legality Assurance System (VNTLAS). The cornerstone of this framework will be a specific decree issued by the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD) on VNTLAS. However, the deadline for this is quite challenging: the final decree must be submitted by December 2019. In late May, MARD released the document for a period of consultation and feedback. This provides an opportunity for CSOs to work with the government as well as other stakeholders, such as timber associations, and small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to help shape legislation and identify any areas that should be strengthened.

The challenge of such consultation periods is the relatively short timeframe. This one closes at the end of August, so VNGO-FLEGT and its CSOs must be ready to coordinate a broad-based consultation and to provide high-quality feedback quickly. Although suggestions are not binding on the government, these consultations do provide an excellent ‘entry point’ for those interested in the topic to provide input, and also shows the government’s inclination to engage with society on the topic.

A second major area of focus is the work to develop a framework for monitoring and evaluation of the VPA within Vietnam, which is somewhat in its infancy. An initial outline has been developed alongside terms of reference for the recruitment of consultants to take the work further. The framework will lay out the different areas that must be reviewed on an ongoing basis; the aim is to cover the various elements of VPA monitoring and evaluation and is broader and more ambitious in its scope than any previous work in Vietnam to tackle illegal logging.

The framework intends to set down in broad terms how stakeholders can avoid overlap and instead complement one another to ensure that the monitoring and evaluation is efficient and effective. It is hoped that mapping this out will improve understanding among parties. The framework’s initial outline has been developed and a variety of different groups, including CSO representatives, were consulted. However, the framework is now quite broad, and it is not possible to know what the eventual level of CSO involvement will be. It could allow for further CSO engagement in monitoring and evaluation, or it could present some obstacles.

In recent months, VNFOREST has secured over US$250,0000 in funding from the UN FAO to support a communication programme around VNTLAS. Rather than a general public awareness campaign, this is designed to help VNFOREST fulfil its VPA public disclosure requirements. At the launch workshop, VNFOREST focused on communications rather than public disclosure of data and information concerning, for example, illegally imported timber, illegal logging, deforestation and forest degradation. In April, VNFOREST, the FAO and the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO) organised a workshop in Danang to help build capacity with regard to forest statistics, which also helps to support public disclosure obligations.

CSOs are not recognised under Vietnamese law, and their participation in decision-making is limited. Non-profit organisations can register and operate under umbrella institutions such as the Vietnam Union for Science & Technology Associations. The VPA negotiation team did not have a CSO representative, although CSOs were invited to provide written comments on the legality definition and public information disclosure annexes that were then sent to the VPA Office.

Overall, because of the VPA and the EU’s mandatory requirements, a mechanism for CSO participation exists. Since the establishment of the MCG, stakeholders have a platform to prepare for VPA implementation. CSO participation has gradually improved through the new, more open MCG leadership since mid-2018. It is unclear how effective CSO participation will prove to be given strict controls from a high political level.

The VPA process between the EU and Vietnam has endured for almost nine years now. However, the decisions made over the remainder of 2019 are likely to shape the implementation of the Vietnamese VPA completely and may ultimately define the VPA’s long-term effects. CSOs will continue to seek to cooperate with the government to help shape policy, represent vulnerable groups within Vietnam and promote responsible forestry.

Last update on July 2019.

A brief history of VPA negotiation so far, from a civil society perspective.

The Government of Vietnam and the EU announced the start of formal VPA negotiations in 2010. In 2011, the government launched independent studies on the timber legality definition framework, domestic and imported timber flows, and stakeholder engagement.

The issue of how Vietnam’s VPA will deal with timber imported from neighbouring countries, particularly Laos, has become increasingly prominent in the negotiations, and was the subject of much discussion during the third negotiating session in November 2012. Vietnam is not currently able to demonstrate the legality of all of its timber imports. The EU was adamant during these discussions that unless the issue of imports was resolved, there would not be a VPA. At the fourth negotiating session, in October 2014, the Vietnamese government tabled a proposal for dealing with legality questions around im­ported timber. The proposal has not yet been made public.

Contact point

For the latest information about Vietnam, contact SRD: http://srd.org.vn/

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