The Way Towards Legal Timber in Liberia

The Forest Sector in Liberia

Forests are important contributors to Liberia’s formal and informal economies. For many communities, forests are critical to livelihoods. However, some of their practices, including slash-and-burn agriculture, charcoal production, and artisanal logging, constitute major drivers of deforestation. During Liberia’s civil war in the 1990s and early 2000s, timber revenues were misappropriated and used to sustain the conflict. As a result, in 2003, the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on timber exports from Liberia. The UN lifted sanctions in 2006. Forest governance remains a challenge as relevant capacities are not yet in place.

China is now the main importer of Liberian timber, but both Liberia and the EU expect that VPA implementation will strengthen the standing of Liberian timber products on the EU market.

What is a VPA?

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 governance, development and environmental issues.

Stakeholders in Government, the private sector and civil society 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 have never had a voice in decision-making. VPAs are a key component of the EU Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan of 2003. Liberia is one of six tropical countries that have ratified and are implementing VPAs. Nine more are negotiating VPAs with the EU, while others have expressed interest in negotiating a VPA.

How a VPA promotes legal timber trade

A VPA partner country that has implemented a timber legality assurance system and other VPA commitments can issue verified legal timber products with FLEGT licenses. 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 licenses 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 licenses only to legal timber products.

While FLEGT licensing is an important goal, it is not the end point of a VPA process. Governance reforms, legislative and policy reforms, impact monitoring, improvements to the timber legality assurance system and other activities continue. Through progress on VPAs, the implementation of the EU Timber Regulation and dialogues with other important timber market, including China, the EU and its VPA partner countries are contributing to a growing global movement to stop trade in illegal timber and timber products. Australia, the United States and Japan also seek to restrict the placing of illegal timber on their markets. The process to achieve FLEGT licenses may therefore help VPA partner countries such as Liberia meet the legality requirements of markets beyond the EU.

VPA Commitments

Liberia commits to developing a timber legality assurance system so it can issue verified legal timber products with FLEGT licenses. Once this system is operational, Liberia commits to export to the EU only FLEGT-licensed timber products.

Before FLEGT licensing can begin, however, the EU and Liberia must confirm that Liberia’s timber legality assurance system is working and meets the requirements set out in the VPA, through a joint evaluation of the system. The joint evaluation must satisfy the Liberia-EU Joint Implementation Committee that the system is ready to issue FLEGT licenses, meaning the system is robust and credible enough to ensure it licenses only legal products.

Liberia also commits to implementing legal reforms, publicly disclosing information about the forest sector and making other improvements to forest governance. The EU and Liberia jointly commit to monitor the social, economic and environmental effects of the VPA.

The timber legality assurance system, governance reforms and other commitments are described in the VPA’s main text and annexes [PDF]. In addition to the agreed commitments, the VPA process itself has fostered multi-stakeholder participation, transparency, legislative clarity, legal reforms and other aspects of good governance (see How the Liberia-EU VPA has improved forest governance).

VPA Implementation

A Liberia-EU Joint Implementation Committee oversees implementation of the VPA. Records of discussions are made public. The Liberian team includes representatives of Government, civil society and the private sector. At the national level, the Forestry Development Authority coordinates implementation.

The VPA includes a framework for overseeing, monitoring and evaluating implementation of the VPA and its economic, social and environmental impacts.