What is Voluntary Partnership Agreement?

A Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) is a legally binding trade agreement between the European Union and timber-producing countries outside the EU such as Liberia.

The purpose of a VPA is to en­sure that timber and timber products exported to the EU come from legal sources. The agreements also help timber-exporting countries stop illegal logging by improving regulation and governance of the forest sector.

What is FLEGT?

FLEGT stands for Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade. The EU’s FLEGT Action Plan was established in 2003. It aims to reduce illegal logging by strengthening sustainable and legal forest management, improving governance and promoting trade in legally produced timber.

The VPA aims to guarantee that any wood exported from Liberia to the EU comes from legal sources and help Liberia stop illegal logging by improving forest governance and regulation.

The VPA is a voluntary agreement between Liberia and the EU. However, once a VPA has entered into force, it is legally binding on both sides. Under the VPA, Liberia develops systems to verify that its timber exports are legal, and the EU agrees to accept only licensed imports from Liberia.

Improving forest governance and regulation

The VPA defines ‘legal timber’, based on the laws and regulations of Liberia. Generally, the relevant laws cover environmental protection, logging rules, payment of fees, timber trade and transport regulation, and property rights, including those of the communities that depend on forests for their livelihoods.

The legality definition ensures that forest law requirements are applicable, consistent, understandable and enforceable and also reflect Liberia’s social, economic and environmental objectives. Negotiating a VPA provides a good opportunity for Liberia to improve its forest governance and regulation, reinforce law enforcement and promote sustainable forest management.

Participatory process

The VPA negotiation process provides an opportunity for forest stakeholders in Liberia to get involved in developing national legality standards, and to reach a consensus on forest rights. This involvement of the private sector and civil society also help create broad support for the VPA. Liberia FLEGT VPA had a secretariat which coordinated the stakeholders’ activities.

Ensuring legal sourcing and production of timber

The VPA is underpinned by a strong timber legality assurance system (LAS). This system allows Liberia to verify that the timber and timber products are sourced and produced legally, and to award a ‘FLEGT licence’ to each verified consignment. Currently Liberia is in the implementation stage having ratified the agreement in December 2013. However, Liberia is still finalizing guidelines and regulations that will enforce the system once it begins to issue FLEGT licences.

The EU provides support through the establishment and support to small project offices such as; the VPA Support Unit, SGS and FLEGT Facilities to build capacities, develop systems and coordinate stakeholders’ activities to help the partner country implement its LAS.  Once the systems are in place and have successfully passed an independent evaluation, the EU will accept only FLEGT-licensed timber from Liberia.

Contributing to development objectives

The VPA can also support Liberia in achieving its development objectives. These could include alleviating poverty, securing employment and competitiveness, increasing government revenues, improving the capacity of government and the private sector, strengthening the rule of law and securing the rights of people who are dependent on forests for their livelihoods. In Liberia, this is especially evidence by the payment to communities, in July 2015, of one million United States Dollars by government as land rental fees paid by logging companies.

The legality assurance system (LAS) is the central part of a VPA between the EU and a timber-exporting country outside the EU.

The LAS is designed to identify, monitor and license legally produced timber, to ensure that only legal timber is exported. Although the VPA is an agreement with the EU, Liberia may choose to set up a system that can be used to verify the legality of timber for other markets as well.

Liberia designed and developed its own system during VPA negotiations, based on its existing control mechanisms and legislative framework. The technical details of the LAS are contained in the final VPA document.

An effective system usually includes the verification of forest operations, as well as the control of timber transport and processing as it passes from one owner to the next, all the way from harvesting through to the point of export. A timber LAS usually includes five elements:

  • a definition of what constitutes legal timber
  • a procedure for verifying control of the supply chain
  • tools for verification and the capacity to use them
  • licensing by a national authority
  • independent audit

A VPA is a legally binding trade agreement between the EU and a timber-exporting country outside the EU. VPAs are bilateral agreements that are negotiated between an individual country and the EU. The process of negotiating and implementing each VPA is therefore different for each country. The EU provides technical assistance and capacity-building support.

Establishing a VPA also involves in-country negotiations and discussions. The forest stakeholders affected by logging operations, including representatives from the private sector and civil society, are involved in these.

The Liberia VPA was developed through a formal bilateral between the Government of Liberia and the European Union. The Liberia position was developed through a participatory, multi-stakeholders process involving the government, privates sector, civil society and community representatives.

The Liberian negotiation team comprised a 26-people Steering Committee headed by the Forestry Development Authority (FDA), 11-people Negotiating Team headed by the Ministry of Agriculture and a Technical Secretariat. The Steering Committee also comprised sub-committees such as the; Legality Definition Working Group (LD WG), Legality Assurance System Working Group (LAS WG), Communications Committee and Budget Committee. The Steering Committee is a consensus-based committee where the Liberian VPA decisions are made and taken to the EU by the Negotiating Team while the Technical Secretariat carries out the day-to-day activities SC and NT.

Phase 1: Information and consensus building

The Liberian Government first signalled, in 2006 that it is interested in a VPA and requested more information, the EU and its partners provide materials exchanged and shared information about VPAs with the country representatives and stakeholders.

Based on the information it receives, the government then assesses whether a VPA would be appropriate, with input from the private sector and civil society. This phase ended either when the when Liberia and the EU agree to launch formal VPA negotiations in 2009 thus the beginning of the VPA process to date.

Phase 2: Formal negotiations

An agreement was reached on the contents of the VPA during the pre-negotiation phase. The EU and Liberia discussed the details of the legality assurance system and the forest governance commitments which will be included in annexes to the legal text of the agreement. A requirement of the legality assurance system is that it is the result of an inclusive, multistakeholder process. To get in-country consensus, Liberia developed and organized a consultation process that allows forest stakeholders to provide input. These in-country positions were then discussed with the EU during negotiations.

Following the conclusion of negotiations and the contents of the VPA have been agreed upon, the EU and Liberia initialled the VPA.

Phase 3: Ratification and implementation

After the initialling, the VPA must be ratified by the legislative arm of both the Government of Liberia and the EU. First, the VPA was translated into the 24 official EU languages, and is then signed by the Council of the EU (representative of the Council Presidency), the European Commission and the legislature of Liberia. The European Parliament then approved the agreement after which it was ratified and published by both the Liberian Government and the EC.

Prior to the signalling to the EU of Liberia’s interest in the VPA, there were limited systems in place that allow it to control, verify and license legal timber immediately, so Liberia have started to develop the systems agreed in the VPA before ratification. These systems include; the legality assurance system, capacity building and developments new regulations and procedures.

Once these systems are in place, Liberia will use an independent auditor to check that the legality assurance system is operating correctly and that the verification systems are working. The Joint Implementation Committee, made up of representatives from Liberia and the EU, is responsible for oversight and dispute resolution during this system development and implementation phase.

Phase 4: Licensing

During the licensing phase, each shipment of timber or timber products from Liberia to the EU must be accompanied by a FLEGT licence. The licence states that this shipment is legal according to the requirements set out in the VPA. Shipments without licences will be rejected at the EU border.

Defining legal timber

Each VPA defines ‘legal timber’, based on the laws and regulations of Liberia. The national legality definition sets out the legal and regulatory requirements that must be met before a FLEGT licence can be issued. The laws cover the economic, environmental and social aspects of forest management and timber processing. The definition also provides criteria and indicators to be used for checking compliance with those laws.

Controlling the timber supply chain

The LAS ensures that timber entering the supply chain comes from legal sources. It also contains procedures to trace and control timber throughout the supply chain, from the forest where the timber is harvested, to its transport, storage facilities and processing, through to the point of export.

Verifying compliance

The Liberian Government chooses a governmental or non-governmental body to verify that timber or timber products are legal. This verification body ensures that timber is produced and/or processed in a way that meets the requirements of the definition of legal timber, and that its supply chain has been controlled and checked.

The verification body must have adequate resources and procedures to carry out documentary and field verifications.

Issuing FLEGT licences

The Government of Liberia will create a national licensing authority, to issue FLEGT licences for individual timber consignments that have passed the verification tests. Licences are issued based on evidence from governmental bodies or the internal control systems of private sector operators. In the case of the second option, the LAS describe how to assess, approve and monitor these internal control systems.

Monitoring implementation

The Liberian Government will appoint an independent auditor to check that all the LAS components have been implemented properly. The auditor must identify non-compliance and system failures and report its findings. A summary of each audit report is made publicly available.

Mandatory implementation bodies:
The independent auditor reports to a Joint Implementation Committee, which is established for the VPA. The Committee is made up of representatives from Liberia and the EU. It facilitates and monitors the implementation of the VPA, resolving any conflicts and disputes.

Optional implementation bodies:

Independent observation will be used to complement the independent audit. This will be carried out as part of Liberia’s control system, for example the monitoring of law enforcement by the ministry in charge of forests.

Stakeholders may also be involved, which ensures that the civil society and private sector groups which are involved in the VPA negotiation can also participate in VPA implementation. This has been the case in Liberia, which set up the National Multistakeholder Monitoring Committee (NMSMC).