Feja Lesniewska and I recently participated in a regional conference on forest governance, held in Accra, Ghana, focussing on lessons learned from the Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) process in West and Central African Countries. Both Feja and I presented papers, written for this meeting, which are included in a compendium of the meeting.
Organised by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the European Forest Institute and development consultants the IDL Group, this meeting brought together government, civil society, community and industry stakeholders involved in the negotiation and implementation of VPAs. With a particular focus on West and Central Africa, the aim was to create a platform to share the lessons learnt from engagement with VPAs to date.
The process of implementing VPAs has been more complex and demanding than many first anticipated – and the conference aimed to ensure the experiences of different stakeholders and countries are recognised and used to inform the development of VPAs now and in the future.
Emily talks to a workshop participant
The conference arguably did this and more. It drew participants from 14 different countries on four continents and included discussion of VPA processes directly, as well looking at issues related to VPAs in a broader context. For example, the role of independent monitoring in forestry and the implications of the soon-to-take-effect EU Timber Regulation.
To encourage dialogue between West and Central African countries, a key factor is language: recognising this, the conference was conducted in French and English, with sessions facilitated in both languages. This investment of time and attention was well spent – as well as enabling discussions involving countries in the region, it meant those present from countries further afield, including Malaysia, Vietnam and Guyana, could play an active role.
There was one notable absence – the relative under-representation of industry stakeholders from either the EU or VPA partner countries. The trade of timber is a central element of VPAs and the key focus of the EU Timber Regulation (EUTR), so it is a shame that more industry stakeholders were not present to contribute to and learn from discussions.
Two related points were clear throughout the conference: on the one hand, the context of each country – including relations between stakeholders and specifics of the ownership and use of forest lands – means that each has interests, issues and concerns in the VPA process that are very particular. However, at the same time, while nationally specific, there are strong overlaps in the issues that emerge – be they questions of land tenure, logging permits or the role of civil society and communities in the operation of VPA licensing systems. It is these overlaps that makes is so vital that lessons learned are shared.
There are also strong overlaps in the issues needing attention for the correct implementation of VPAs and the EUTR. The actors and institutions involved in each legal framework can learn from the experiences of the other, and this conference was a useful opportunity to help highlight these links.