The hidden successes of EU’s legal timber action plan

In this special blog for the International Day of Forests, we take a look at the successes of a major European action plan to fight deforestation and illegal timber flows..


Rainforest in Indonesia (c) EIA

In 1999, deep in the frontier forests of Indonesia, EIA documented a war being waged. Precious ramin trees were being illegally felled and smuggled out of forests to be traded on lucrative foreign markets.

For too long, EIA documented the escalating plight of these forests as illegal timber all too frequently found its way into supply chains bound for the US and European Union (EU), saturating markets with products made with stolen timber. In the late ’90s, it was estimated that as much as 80 per cent of the timber coming out from Indonesia was illegal.

Lao logs owned by Vietnamese military company, Qui Nhon port, Vietnam, 2010 (c) EIA

Lao logs owned by Vietnamese military company, Qui Nhon port, Vietnam, 2010 (c) EIA

Fast-forward to 2003 and, after years of campaigning, the EU finally responded as a responsible consumer by taking the long-awaited step of acknowledging the serious issue of illegal logging and created the Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan. Built on a series of measures to prohibit illegal timber from entering the EU market, FLEGT was much more than a piece of legislation Rather, it was designed to address the root causes at the heart of illegal logging – the rampant corruption, poor governance, lack of transparency and much-needed accountability from those trusted with managing forests.

According to the World Bank, more than 600 million people are dependent on the forests from which this stolen timber originates yet indigenous communities living off the land and relying on forests find that their ancestral domains have been earmarked for logging concessions and plantations, seeing their livelihoods, quite literally, cut down.

With FLEGT, we thought we had some solutions. We did have solutions.


Raft of illegal logs being transported in Indonesia, 2001 (c) EIA

Key to the FLEGT Action Plan are Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs), bilateral trade deals negotiated between a timber producer country and the EU to ensure only legal timber finds its way onto the EU market.

Under a VPA, producer countries must develop a system tracing the full extent of timber supply chains; if the chain is transparent and demonstrates the timber has been sourced legally, it can be shipped with a FLEGT license. To date, no country has yet reached this stage in the process but both Indonesia and Ghana are increasingly close to finalising a system.

This is an ambitious plan that requires a complete overhaul of an entire market sector, and not just for trade to the EU. The legality system applies to both the domestic markets and for exports to non-EU markets.

Determining legality can be a very complex matter. Take the scenario of a logging company rewarded with official permits to log on a particular concession. From the outset this seems legal; there is paperwork with relevant signatures from the relevant ministries. But what does ‘legal’ mean when the company has been granted the permits through kick-backs and bribery? What if the permits are for land inhabited by forest communities for hundreds of years and the government has zero inclination to demonstrate their tenure?

Last year was a big one for forests. The new Sustainable Development Goals passed through the UN General Assembly made the link between environmental security and development even clearer to policy-makers. But we’ve reached a point where it’s necessary to defend the only mechanism we have and, following an evaluation, FLEGT is currently under intense scrutiny.

The European Commission has spent a lot of resources on making this plan work and has invariably had to ask a lot questions. Has FLEGT been value for money? What impact has it had? What do we have to show for it? In response, the naysayers have raised their hands to criticise and question FLEGT’s value: “Where are the licenses?” they cry! “Over 10 years and still no licenses!”

Villagers circle a tree in the threatened Aru islands, Indonesia (c) Forest Watch Indonesia

Villagers circle a tree in the threatened Aru islands, Indonesia (c) Forest Watch Indonesia

Even the momentous occasion of receiving FLEGT-licensed timber in the EU will not be enough to claim FLEGT has been massive success. Overhauling governance systems takes time. Making sustained and meaningful change takes time. Yes, resources, both financial and human, have been invested in FLEGT over the years. But surely, to secure the livelihoods of 600 million people, to change the way governments function, to stamp out the corruption associated with forests and other natural resources while enhancing transparency and reducing poverty, guaranteeing community rights and securing land tenure – surely, those funds have been worth it?

In asking these essential questions, there’s a risk of overlooking this entire evaluation exercise as a mere box-ticking procedure. Rather, we should capitalise on the FLEGT evaluation as an opportunity to look afresh at illegal logging. Herein lies an opportunity through which we can demonstrate that successes have been achieved – successes which, granted, aren’t as tangible as certificates and licenses but are nonetheless there, improving forest governance, transparency and accountability.

The beauty of FLEGT is that it demands a multi-stakeholder process, bringing together the voices of forest communities and civil society with government and trade. To understand the value of FLEGT, we should be looking at how far we’ve come, not focusing on the lack of licenses so far.

At the same time, going beyond the FLEGT evaluation and its conclusions, we are faced with arguably one of the biggest opportunities to date to re-focus the EU battle against illegal logging.

Today in the forests of Indonesia a different war is being waged – one between companies and those communities seeing their land snatched and converted for agriculture. What’s essential now is to keep the debate, and FLEGT, relevant to those relying on their forests to live.