March 2021 has come and gone, and yet Ghana has not been able to issue a single Forest Law Environment Governance Trade (FLEGT) or Timber Legality License. As at November last year, and in accordance with its timetable, there was high optimism at the Forestry Commission (FC) that, by March this year, Ghana will be ready to issue FLEGT licenses.
But the country’s inability to meet her own deadline of issuing FLEGT licenses by March 2021 is no news. By the end of December last year, which was another missed deadline, the forestry sector’s major stakeholders including the Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources, the FC, the Timber Industry and civil society, knew that the March deadline would be missed.
This knowledge followed the sharing of the final report of an independent assessment of Ghana’s Timber Legality Assurance System (GhLAS), a key element in the Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) on FLEGT between Ghana and the EU. The assessment concluded that the system was not ready for the issuance of FLEGT licenses.
This conclusion was based on major gaps identified including the long-standing issue of conversion of extant leases to Timber Utilisation Contracts (TUCs), which requires Parliamentary approval to happen as well as the absence of, or outdated Forest Management Plans. The inability to effectively resolve non-compliances in the timber supply chain, was also identified as a gap.
Consequently, the assessment recommended that Ghana implements corrective actions to address the issues before the FLEGT licensing scheme can be launched. Thus, to ensure that this decade old process gets to its final phase – issuing FLEGT licenses – Ghana has some serious homework to do.
The FC has to convert extant leases and permits to TUCs; prepare Forest Management Plans for all active timber production forest reserves; and implement effective regulatory controls and inspections to ensure that timber from non-compliant sources is not allowed to enter the supply chain otherwise known as the Ghana Wood Tracking System.
Additionally, the FC has to implement effective corrective measures for non-compliance detected by the Timber Validation Department (TVD), the Independent Monitor or other bodies. The FC has to ensure that FLEGT licenses and export permits are not issued to an exporter and its timber consignment that are associated with non-compliances with the GhLAS requirements.
Moreover, the FC has to update procedures and manuals, and make the guidelines for operators publicly available and disclose necessary information on the system implementation.
Indications are that the FC is already attending to these activities. While, the current Minister of Lands and Natural Resources, Samuel Abu Jinapor has made a commitment to expedite action on the leases that are ready to be sent to Parliament for ratification. And civil society is monitoring the process.
The next piece of news in the saga of the issuance of FLEGT licenses in Ghana jolted stakeholders. Apparently unknown to them, the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Environment (DG ENVI) conducted a fitness check public consultation. The online exercise took place in 2020.
According to the official website of the European Union (EU), the European Commission carried out the fitness check to evaluate the functioning of both the EU Timber Regulations (EUTR) and the FLEGT Regulation.
Introduced in 2010, the EUTR was aimed at reducing illegal logging by prohibiting EU operators from placing illegally harvested timber and derived timber products on the EU market. It required that EU operators who place timber and timber products on the EU market for the first time to exercise due diligence. To further establish this system, the FLEGT Regulation was introduced in 2005, as a supply side measure and a licensing scheme for imports of timber from non-EU countries with which the EU has concluded Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs).
The fitness check looked at the effectiveness, efficiency, coherence, relevance and EU added value of both regulations in contributing to the fight against illegal logging. The purpose was to gather the views of the concerned public and relevant stakeholders to help inform the Commission whether the EUTR and the FLEGT Regulation are fit for purpose.
Among the interim findings of the fitness check, was the fact that FLEGT Regulation has had positive results in stakeholders’ participation and governance. However, there is no evidence that VPAs have contributed to reducing illegal logging in the partner countries and the consumption of illegally harvested wood in the EU, according to the report.
It also found out that FLEGT has been a very slow and very costly process, noting that following 20 years of negotiations, only one country out of 15 has an operating licensing system in place.
Ghana’s civil society sources say they are aware that based on these interim findings, a section of the bureaucrats at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Environment, has initiated moves to revoke the FLEGT-VPA process in consideration for other alternative support mechanisms such as Forest Partnerships in the future.
This got the attention of Ghana’s civil society, who are unhappy about the conduct of the fitness check as it depicts “…disrespect for the tenets of international agreements and best practices,” since Ghanaian stakeholders and stakeholders from other VPA countries have not been privy to this exercise.
They were displeased that the interim findings were published on EU’s website for public viewing, and said, “in the spirit of mutual respect and best practices, the findings and conclusions must have been an internal document until a conclusive decision has been made and communicated to timber producing countries who have negotiated and signed VPAs with the EU.”
This was contained in a statement issued on behalf of Ghana’s civil society sign by 23 CSOs, NGO platforms and individuals to the EU through its Ambassador in Ghana. The statement admitted that that progress to licensing has been understandably slow, given the changes that partners want to bring about in the sector. It emphasised that “at producer-country level, we remain committed to the process as we see significant reforms and greater legal compliance.”
The statement issued to coincide with Earth Day on Thursday, April 22nd, 2021, recommended an investment “in identifying the bottlenecks that are impeding the process in various VPA countries such as declining political commitments and supporting producer countries to resolve these challenges.” It noted: “VPAs are not perfect, but in Ghana, VPAs have brought real transformational change to the forest management and governance sector. Are there challenges with VPAs? YES, but all transformational programmes encounter challenges.”
The signatories believe that given the deep-rooted issues that the VPAs set out to tackle, “the duration of the process is a sign of its robustness,” and affirmed that “licences will not be issued until the required reforms have been achieved and systems are in place.”
The statement therefore called for targeted solutions to fixing the problems identified, in the light of benefits that have been recorded in producer countries. The statement observed that “If the EU continues to fiddle with programmes, it will soon lose credibility” urging her to stay on course.
The EU is yet to formerly respond to the statement. But indications are that when it does so, it will be good news for Ghana’s FLEGT-VPA saga.
By Ama Kudom-Agyemang