- The objective of the Congo-EU VPA is to provide a legislative framework; systems to tag and track timber and government and independent verification procedures to ensure that all timber exports from the Congo into the European market have been legally acquired, harvested, transported and exported.
- Congo and the EU have stated that they want the VPA to improve forest governance and to promote environmentally sound and socially just forest management. Achieving this goal will require good quality legal texts and effective civil society participation during the implementation of the agreement. Assuring that the VPA not only focuses on trade facilitation but also addresses the wider social and environmental issues of concern to forestry will also be essential.
- The VPA should lead to the passing of legal texts which promote and clarify local populations and indigenous peoples’ rights to the forests before the agreement is operational.
- The Legality Assurance System (LAS) will apply to all timber and timber products produced, processed, imported and in transit in the Congo.
- TheVPA does not only address timber exported to the EU: The legal framework, systems, controls and verification procedures outlined in the VPA will cover all timber and timber products in circulation in the Congo, whether it is destined to be sold in domestic or international markets.
- Wood of non-Congolese originin transit through Congo will not receive a FLEGT license and systems will be set up to ensure that it does not enter the Congolese supply chain.
- The VPA will have to ensure that a vast array of information is brought into the public domain.
- Independent monitoring of law enforcementwill continue and is expected to be carried out in the medium term through local civil society.
- Independent audits of the system are foreseen as a way to promote interactive monitoring and guarantee the credibility of the new control system.
- Civil societywill have a formal role in implementing and monitoring the implementation of the agreement.
- Full implementation of the agreement will only occur when systems are functional, at which point, only licensed legal wood will be exported from the Congo to the European market. The first FLEGT licenses, which will only be given to timber exported towards the EU, are expected to be issued in 2011.
How does the VPA deal with the rights of local communities
The involvement of local communities is particularly important in the Congo. They have been deprived from the economic benefits of commercial exploitation and, perhaps more importantly, seen their rights overturned in the battle to gain access to the resources. Perhaps as a result of the wealth of resources available, many communities rights of ownership have not being recognised. There is a lack of equity at both the social and the legal level which leads to a reduced ability to be involved at political forums. It is a positive step that the VPA includes provisions for both strengthening and protecting the rights of communities.
The rights of indigenous and local communities are taken into account in the legality grids. The agreement foresees the development of new legal texts to ensure, among others but not exhaustively, the promotion and respect of community rights, and the participation of civil society in forest management. A specific allusion to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) is made in the preamble of the agreement. Texts that the Congolese government has committed to develop include a law ensuring the promotion and respect of the rights of indigenous peoples.
In a context where ownership rights of communities are not recognised and where communities living in poverty feel the most negative climatic and environmental impacts of the over extraction of natural resources, it is important to consider the effects of agreements aiming to regulate trade in natural resources. Article 17 of the VPA focuses on social protection and highlights the importance of taking measures to minimise any negative effects that the VPA may have on communities: “the parties agree to develop a better understanding of the lifestyles of indigenous and local communities potentially affected… (and to) monitor the effects of this agreement on these communities, while taking reasonable steps to mitigate the negative effects.”
How private certification schemes fit under the FLEGT system
A major challenge for implementation of the VPA is how to ensure that FLEGT licenses and private and voluntary certification schemes complement and support rather than undermine each other. In the hope of lowering the burden on logging companies using private schemes to certify that their timber is legal and/or sustainable, the agreement foresees integrating them into the system after ensuring that they meet the criteria, indicators and verifiers of Congo’s legality definition. The IGEF will assess the criteria used by the body issuing certificates (the ‘certification body’) in order to determine whether it adequately matches the Congolese legality grid and whether its monitoring and audit systems are robust enough. If results are positive, the IGEF will approve the certification scheme and operators whose timber has been certified under the scheme will be granted an annual certificate of legality – provided that their audit reports do not indicate any major non compliance. This assessment will be carried out by the Ministry of Forest Economy before FLEGT licenses become operational, and assessment reports will be made public.
Although this procedure has the advantage of avoiding the requirement to verify legality twice, if the certification scheme does not have to ensure compliance as robustly as the FLEGT system, it may mean that producers aim to avoid the LAS system by going through private certification. An assessment report on private schemes will go some way to ensuring substandard schemes are not accepted. Participation of local civil society in the monitoring of the VPA will also help ensure coherence between FLEGT licensed timber and that which has been certified by private schemes. The timber from these operations will still be subject to checks along the supply chain through the traceability system which will apply to all operators. Its checks will include looking at where and how the tree is harvested, transported and processed.