PROSPER Policy Brief #11: The Voluntary Partnership Agreement – Backstopping the Community Rights Law

Following passage of the National Forestry Reform Law in 2006, the European Union (EU) and Government of Liberia (GoL) began informal discussions about signing a Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA), as a means to further strengthen the reform process in the commercial forestry sector. The VPA was officially signed on July 27, 2011 and became effective on December 1, 2013. To date, the VPA covers the following contract/permit types: Forestry Management Contracts (FMCs), Timber Sales Contracts (TSCs), Forest Use Permits (FUPs) and Private Use Permits (PUPs). This is understandable, given that these arrangements were – at the time VPA negotiations formally began – the only way in which timber could be commercially exploited. However, the GoL then passed the Community Rights Law of 2009 with Respect to Forest Lands (CRL), establishing a process through which communities could have their customary claims to forest resources formally recognized, allowing them to engage in commercial logging. Unfortunately, the Regulations to the Community Rights Law of 2009 with Respect to Forest Lands (CRL Regulations), which were to provide guidance on how Forest Communities could commercially exploit their timber, were not passed until August 30, 2011 – months after the VPA had been signed – so could not be incorporated into the first iteration of the agreement.

The parties did, however, recognize the need to incorporate community forestry into the VPA, since the CRL explicitly provides for the commercial exploitation of timber. But the timing and nature of the community forestry program’s inclusion was made dependent upon when the CRL Regulations were finalized. It now appears that the CRL Regulations, after initially failing to reflect what was established in the CRL, are close to being harmonized, which will ultimately require the VPA to be updated. This is happening not a moment too soon, as communities will need to be able to understand and comply with the VPA if they want to commercially exploit their own timber; and because the VPA provides an opportunity to establish important safeguards that may help to prevent the emergence of a scandal, similar to that which was associated with PUPs. Although both are relevant, the second issue is more immediately important, as communities interested in commercial timber harvesting will more than likely – based upon their low capacity – have to contract with outside parties, which may seek to exploit communities’ ignorance of the forestry sector. The policy brief will look at measures that could be included in the VPA to achieve the goals of the community forestry program, while protecting communities from predatory practices.