June: 6th negotiation and agreement in principle on VPA
Deforestation has been mainly driven by conversion of forest to agriculture, some of which has been illegal. Most industrial production of timber is destined for the export market. The EU is a major market for Ivorian wood processing exports, on average accounting for almost half of formal wood exports from the country.
Côte d’Ivoire’s current annual domestic timber consumption is estimated at around 1.9 M m3 (3.9 M m3 RWE), representing 80% of the estimated total timber production and 73% of which is sourced from informal timber production. Exports to overseas markets and exports overland to regional markets each represent an estimated 10% of total timber production.
Implementation of the VPA will not only ensure that exports to the EU are verified as legal but will also ensure legality of timber trade towards other export markets as well as domestically. This will require formalising currently mainly informal (and therefore unregulated and/or illegal) timber trade flows, representing a significant change in how the forest sector operates.
A Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) is a legally binding trade agreement between the EU and a timber-exporting country outside the EU. A VPA aims to ensure that all timber and timber products destined for the EU market from a partner country comply with the laws of that country.
In addition to promoting trade in legal timber, VPAs address the causes of illegality by improving forest governance and law enforcement. A major strength of VPAs is that they look beyond trade to consider development and environmental issues.
Stakeholders including Government, the private sector, civil society and traditional chiefs develop VPAs through a participatory process. A VPA is therefore a vehicle for addressing the needs of different stakeholders and for including many people who now have a much stronger voice in decision-making.
VPAs are a key component of the EU Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan of 2003. Côte d’Ivoire is one of 15 countries that are negotiating or implementing VPAs with the EU.
In countries where VPAs have already been signed, key elements include:
Once a VPA is fully operational, a VPA partner country will issue verified legal timber products with FLEGT licences. The advantage of this is that FLEGT-licensed products automatically meet the requirements of the EU Timber Regulation (EUTR), which prohibits EU operators from placing illegally harvested timber and timber products on the EU market.
The EUTR entered into force in 2013. It requires EU operators to perform due diligence checks to ensure the timber products they place on the EU market are legal. FLEGT-licensed timber meets the due diligence requirements under the EUTR.
A VPA partner country can only issue FLEGT licences through a timber legality assurance system that the EU and the partner country have agreed on, developed and tested. Before a country can begin FLEGT licensing, the EU and the partner country must confirm that the country’s timber legality assurance system works as described in the VPA. Confirmation by the two parties means that the system is robust and will issue FLEGT licences only to legal timber products.
While FLEGT licensing is an important goal, it is not the end point of a VPA process. Governance, legislative and policy reforms, impact monitoring, improvements to the timber legality assurance system and other activities continue.
Through progress on VPAs, the EU Timber Regulation and dialogues with other important timber markets including China, the EU and the VPA partner countries are contributing to a growing global movement to address trade in illegal timber and timber products. The United States and Australia also prohibit the placing of illegal timber on their markets. The process to achieve FLEGT licences may therefore help VPA partner countries such as Côte d’Ivoire meet the legality requirements of markets beyond the EU.
Stakeholders in Government, the private sector and civil society develop VPAs through a participatory process.
Côte d’Ivoire and the EU have agreed in principle on a VPA through a cooperative process based on the shared goals of fostering good forest governance and addressing illegality.
Côte d’Ivoire and the EU began negotiating the VPA in February 2013. Between 2015 and 2019, negotiations slowed down to await legal reforms, and resumed after a joint evaluation of the process and the adoption of a new forest code in 2019.
On the 1st of June 2022 Côte d’Ivoire and the EU communicated their agreement in principle on the VPA. A number of implementing texts to the 2019 forest code are expected to be passed mid-2022, which will allow completion of the technical annexes to the agreement and progress towards initialling and signature of the agreement.
The negotiations involve representatives of Ivoirian civil society organisations, private sector, Government ministries and agencies, and traditional chiefs. Through wide participation, the process aims to foster significant national ownership, stakeholder engagement and a broad consensus that will allow effective VPA implementation.
One important characteristic of the EU-Côte d’Ivoire VPA negotiations is the more pronounced consideration of gender. More specifically, gender has been included in the definition of the legality of the VPA, which identifies the aspects of a country’s law that must be met to ensure timber is legal.
Following the conclusion of negotiations, Côte d’Ivoire and the EU will sign and ratify the VPA and its commitments will become legally binding. A Côte d’Ivoire-EU joint body will oversee the implementation of the VPA and respond to concerns as they arise. VPA implementation is therefore designed to improve as it proceeds.
Côte d’Ivoire has already taken steps to implement legal and governance reforms identified by stakeholders through the VPA negotiation process. These reforms will continue throughout the implementation of the agreement.
In order to verify legality as required by the VPA, Côte d’Ivoire will build on existing national initiatives to develop a robust timber legality assurance system. Côte d’Ivoire will also use this system to ensure the legality of timber trade on its domestic markets and to other export markets.
Rights of workers, farmers and landowners as well as forest management requirements, tax obligations and the prohibition of child labour are among the legal requirements that will be verified by the legality assurance system.
Côte d’Ivoire will continue forest governance and legal reforms. Increasingly, the link is made between the FLEGT VPA process and initiatives to halt deforestation caused by commodity production (particularly cocoa).
The Côte d’Ivoire-EU VPA will also include commitments to improve transparency, accountability, legal frameworks and other aspects of governance.
Under the VPA, Côte d’Ivoire will commit to develop a system for assuring the legality of its timber. As in all VPAs, the timber legality assurance system must have the following five components:
The negotiation of VPAs is an inclusive process that requires effective participation of all relevant stakeholders. This multi-stakeholder approach can take time but increases national ownership and therefore results in more robust and credible solutions.
The timber legality assurance system that has been negotiated between Côte d’Ivoire and the EU builds on what has proven to work other VPA countries. The verification system included in the EU – Indonesia VPA has been of particular interest as Indonesia currently still is the only country issuing FLEGT licenses.
The approach for negotiating the verification system annex has been somewhat different in that for more than a year, Ivorian stakeholders did not work on a draft text but rather identified key questions that shape the verification system, examined other VPAs and agreed on the principles and architecture to be proposed for the UE-Côte d’Ivoire VPA. Only after having agreed on these principles and architecture, did the technical work on a draft text for the annex start. This allowed the annex containing the timber legality verification system to be concise, to the point and more understandable. In turn, this will contribute to the implementation of the VPA within realistic timeframes.
The VPA further includes a strong role for independent forest monitoring, recurrent independent audits and an independent joint evaluation ahead of the start of FLEGT licensing, all of which are designed to guarantee the credibility and effectiveness of the timber legality assurance system.
Forest governance in Côte d’Ivoire has already improved during negotiations. A legal reform of the forest sector has been carried out, including recognition of local community and farmers’ ownership rights. Independent forest monitoring by NGOs has been recognized by law while improved interinstitutional collaboration and multi-stakeholder stakeholder participation has been observed. During its implementation phase, the VPA will catalyse further improvement of forest governance. To that effect the current negotiated text of the VPA includes a list of policy and law reforms anticipated during implementation. Other annexes that are part of the VPA identify accompanying measures, provide for improved access to information and foresee a committee where the EU and Côte d’Ivoire will jointly oversee the implementation of the agreement. .
The level of stakeholder participation in the VPA process in Côte d’Ivoire is seen as an example. Representatives of the Government, civil society, the private sector and traditional chiefs actively participate in the negotiations. The VPA process is a vehicle for addressing the needs of a wide range of stakeholders and for including many people who now have a stronger voice in decision-making.
The VPA process is strengthening the capacity of Government, the private sector, civil society and communities to work together to address illegality in Côte d’Ivoire’s forest sector. During the recent negotiation sessions stakeholders expressed their appreciation for the open and participatory approach and emphasized how the VPA process offers an opportunity to deepen understanding of forest laws and legal timber trade. While the negotiations were ongoing, a number of initiatives supported by EU member states, particularly Germany, and by the EU-FAO FLEGT program have already started the work to identify and exclude illegal timber. Building on this, the implementation of the VPA will further enhance the capacity of Ivory Coast to combat illegal logging and improve the way forests are managed. .
One of the annexes that will be part of the EU-Côte d’Ivoire VPA provides for increased transparency and access to information. The annex is aligned with Ivorian law guaranteeing public access to information and includes an extensive list of documents that will be made available to to the public.
The development of the legality definition (one of the key parts of the timber legality assurance system included in the VPA) allowed stakeholders to identify legal gaps and areas in need of legal and policy reform. In that respect the VPA negotiations worked as a catalyst to the development and finalization of a new forest policy and accompanying strategy as well as to a review of the Forest Code and its implementing regulations. A notable part of this reform was the fundamental change of the legal regime for tree ownership outside of state forests. Trees and forests outside of state forests now belong to the (traditional) landowners and/or to the persons who planted the trees. This important change aims to encourage local communities and farmers to manage forests more sustainably and to incentivize tree planting in support to of the Ivorian goal of re-establishing 20% tree cover.
The negotiated annexes containing the legality definition and accompanying measures identify areas and support for a continuation of law reform during the implementation of the VPA. Among these areas the VPA will include the completion of the legal framework to formalize timber trade on the domestic market, completion of the procedures to identify the (traditional) owners of forest resources and the creation of an incentivizing framework for reforestation and small scale/community forestry.
In 2018, Côte d’Ivoire committed to taking measures to effectively integrate women into the management of the country’s forest resources. Since 2019, gender equality is explicitly included in the VPA negotiations, in line with Côte d’Ivoire’s and the EU’s commitments to integrate women in natural resources management.
For the first time, gender is explicitly included in the definition of the legality of a VPA, which identifies the legal conditions that must be met to ensure timber is legal. For example: the legal requirement for forestry companies to respect the right to maternity leave.