Media backgrounder

The Republic of the Congo-EU Voluntary Partnership Agreement

This media backgrounder provides journalists with information on the Republic of the Congo-EU Voluntary Partnership Agreement, which aims to address illegal logging, improve forest governance and promote trade in legal timber products. The backgrounder explains the aims of the VPA, progress to date and next steps. 

The Republic of the Congo’s forest sector

Forests in the Republic of the Congo provide millions of people with jobs and subsistence products. Forests are the country’s second most valuable natural resource after oil. Illegal logging, enabled by poor forest governance and driven by trade, results in lost state revenue. The EU receives around 15% of timber exported from the Republic of the Congo. Trade therefore has a role to play in addressing the problem of illegal logging.

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 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 before 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. The Republic of the Congo 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 licences. 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 licences 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 licences 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 EU Timber Regulation and dialogues with other important timber markets, including China, the EU and the VPA partner countries are contributing to a growing global movement to address trade in illegal timber and timber products. The United States and Australia also prohibit the placing of illegal timber on their markets. The process to achieve FLEGT licences may therefore help VPA partner countries such as the Republic of the Congo meet the legality requirements of markets beyond the EU.

Marking logs

Marking logs

Source: EU FLEGT Facility

Marking logs

Source: EU FLEGT Facility

The Republic of the Congo-EU VPA

The Republic of the Congo-EU Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) is a legally binding trade agreement. It aims to ensure that only legal timber and timber products from the Republic of the Congo reach the EU market by improving forest governance and law enforcement.

Although VPAs are primarily concerned with international trade, the Republic of the Congo decided to include the production of timber for the domestic market in its agreement.

VPA negotiations

The Republic of the Congo and the EU negotiated the terms of the VPA through a cooperative process: both parties share the goals of eliminating illegality and fostering good forest governance.

VPA negotiations started in June 2008. The negotiations involved representatives of the Republic of the Congo’s civil society organisations, the private sector, and government ministries and agencies As a result, significant national ownership and stakeholder engagement were achieved and the VPA reflects a broad consensus among stakeholders.

The negotiations concluded in May 2009. The Republic of the Congo and the EU signed the VPA in May 2010 and ratified it in February 2013. They are now implementing the commitments laid out in the VPA text and annexes [PDF].

VPA commitments

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

Before FLEGT licensing can begin, however, the EU and Republic of the Congo must confirm that the Republic of the Congo’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 Republic of the Congo-EU Joint Implementation Committee that the system is ready to issue FLEGT licences, meaning the system is robust and credible enough to ensure it licenses only legal products.

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

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

Henri Djombo and Marcel van Opstal signing 1st JIC Aide Memoire

Henri Djombo and Marcel van Opstal signing 1st JIC Aide Memoire

Source: EU FLEGT Facility

Henri Djombo and Marcel van Opstal signing 1st JIC Aide Memoire

Source: EU FLEGT Facility

VPA implementation

A Republic of the Congo-EU Joint Implementation Committee oversees implementation of the VPA. Records of discussions are made public. At the national level, the Ministry of Forest Economy and Sustainable Development coordinates implementation. Civil society is deeply engaged in the implementation of the VPA and has established a Platform for the Sustainable Management of Forests (PGDF, by its French acronym) that groups over 30 local organisations. The private sector is also represented in all the VPA structures and participates actively in implementing the agreement.

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

The Republic of the Congo’s efforts to tackle illegal logging

The Republic of the Congo has made considerable efforts to address illegal logging in recent years. The country established an independent monitor in 2007 and has successfully promoted certification of sustainable forest management. It has set a 2016 target for all forest concessions to complete a sustainable forest management plan and for half of all concessions to be certified.

Key dates

  • 2007: The Republic of the Congo establishes an Independent Forest Monitoring initiative
  • 2008: The Republic of the Congo and the EU start the VPA negotiations
  • 2009: The Republic of the Congo and the EU conclude the VPA negotiations
  • 2010: The Republic of the Congo and the EU sign the VPA
  • 2010: The Republic of the Congo launches a review of its forest legal framework
  • 2010: The Republic of the Congo creates the Cellule de Légalité Forestière et de Traçabilité (CLFT), a new unit tasked with legality verification under the supervision of the General Forest Inspectorate
  • 2011: The Republic of the Congo holds the first of a series of monthly meetings of the Joint Working Group
  • 2013: The Republic of the Congo and the EU ratify the VPA
  • 2013: The Republic of the Congo and the EU establish the Joint Implementation Committee (JIC) to oversee implementation of the VPA. The JIC holds a first working session
  • 2013: the EU Timber Regulation enters into force
  • 2015: The JIC holds a second working session
  • 2015: Legality verification procedures are developed. Development of a traceability and legality verification software begins
  • 2015: The independent auditor begins work

The Republic of the Congo’s timber legality assurance system

Under the VPA, the Republic of the Congo committed to develop a rigorous yet practical system for assuring the legality of its timber, through an inclusive multistakeholder process. The timber legality assurance system described in the Republic of the Congo-EU VPA has five components:

  1. Legality definition: The legality definition states the aspects of the Republic of the Congo’s law for which the timber legality assurance system evaluates compliance with for purposes of FLEGT licensing. The legality definition applies all along the timber supply chain and to timber products from all types of forest
  2. Supply chain controls: Supply chain controls ensures that timber products verified as legal remain legal throughout all processes associated with the supply chain. Supply chain controls also prevent verified legal products being tainted by unverified products entering the supply chain.
  3. Verification of compliance: Verification of compliance involves checks that all the requirements of the VPA legality definition and supply chain controls have been met to ensure that timber products are legal
  4. FLEGT licensing: A FLEGT licensing authority issues FLEGT licences to consignments of timber products that the verification mechanism has confirmed are legally compliant. FLEGT licensing cannot begin until a joint evaluation of the timber legality assurance system by the Republic of the Congo and the EU confirms that the system works as described in the VPA (see Next steps)
  5. Independent audit: The independent audit regularly checks that all aspects of the legality assurance system work properly. An annex to the VPA provides terms of reference for the auditor. The auditor produces reports for the Joint Implementation Committee and the public.

The Republic of the Congo has already agreed a legality definition that establishes principles for both natural forests and plantations. It is strengthening its national timber tracking system and transferring all paperwork to an electronic system. The Republic of the Congo has also created national structures that enable the verification of compliance with all VPA requirements.

How the Republic of the Congo-EU VPA has improved forest governance

The VPA has already had an impact, both as a result of what the Republic of the Congo and the EU have committed to and as a result of the multistakeholder process of negotiating and implementing the agreement.

Greater participation in decision-making

The level of stakeholder participation in the VPA process is unprecedented. During VPA negotiations, representatives of civil society and the private sector participated alongside government in the national VPA steering committee and its five technical working groups. These stakeholder groups are also represented in the national multistakeholder implementation committee and the Republic of the Congo-EU Joint Implementation Committee.

Enhanced capacity to address illegal logging

The VPA process has strengthened the capacity of government, the private sector and civil society stakeholders to work together to address illegality in the Republic of the Congo’s forest sector. Capacity building activities have contributed to VPA objectives in various ways:

  • The Forest Legality and Traceability Unit (Cellule de Légalité. Forestière et de Traçabilité, CLFT) was created and staffed in early 2010. Several capacity building and training sessions have been organised for CLFT staff
  • UNIBOIS, a private sector association of small- and medium-sized enterprises, is working with the Association Technique Internationale des Bois Tropicaux (ATIBT), an international private sector association, to strengthen members’ understanding of the EU FLEGT Action Plan and the VPA
  • Civil society has demonstrated that it has the capacity to self-organise and engage by establishing a legal working group and providing consolidated input to the Forest Code revision

More transparency

An annex to the VPA lists the information the Government of the Republic of the Congo commits to making publicly available. A dedicated VPA website publishes information about forest production, the allocation of forest concessions, transport permits, trade statistics and other data.

Clearer legislation

The VPA process has made what legality in the forest sector means in the Republic of the Congo much clearer. The VPA legality definition clarifies what operators in the timber sector must do to comply with the law, and the indicators and verification measures auditors will use to assess legality. Clear legislation makes it easier for the police to enforce the law and for the justice system to prosecute illegal loggers.

Measures covering the domestic market

The VPA covers timber traded in the domestic market. All timber and timber products produced in the Republic of the Congo will be subject to the same legality assurance system, irrespective of whether they are exported or not.

Empowered communities

The VPA process has enabled stakeholders to discuss issues that are critical for community empowerment. The text of the agreement includes unprecedented language on social benefits as part of the broader legal reforms. Decrees are being drafted to ensure that the existing Indigenous Peoples Law is effectively implemented, including regarding clear recognition of community rights and community forestry.

Certification standards in the Republic of the Congo

Annex III of the Republic of the Congo-EU VPA deals with the timber legality assurance system. One of the elements in this annex concerns legality verification in forest concessions.

Among other things, the annex establishes the need to undertake a formal evaluation of private certification standards in forest concessions. The evaluation, which is ongoing, is assessing to what extent certification standards coincide with the definition of legality agreed under the VPA.

The results of the evaluation will be made public. Should the results show that certification standards comply with the legality definition agreed under the VPA, companies with certification schemes in place will be able to issue certificates that automatically qualify as legal under the VPA. This will avoid having to check these concessions twice and will ensure the VPA process and certification work well together.

TRABEC documentation Boubissi concession

TRABEC documentation Boubissi concession

Source: EU FLEGT Facility

TRABEC documentation Boubissi concession

Source: EU FLEGT Facility

Next steps

Develop the timber legality assurance system

The next steps to develop the timber legality assurance system in the Republic of the Congo include:

  • The development of software to underpin timber traceability
  • The completion of the evaluation of private certification schemes regarding VPA legality requirements
  • The verification and issuance of legality certificates through the Forest Legality and Traceability Unit

Begin trade in FLEGT-licensed timber

When a Republic of the Congo-EU joint evaluation concludes that the timber legality assurance system is fully operational, as described in the VPA, the Joint Implementation Committee can propose that the Republic of the Congo begins to issue FLEGT licences. Once a decision is made to commence FLEGT licensing, the parties will follow their respective internal processes, including legislative measures, such as amending the FLEGT Regulation on the EU side.

Once FLEGT licensing begins, all exports to the EU of timber-based products listed in Annex I of the VPA must be accompanied by a valid FLEGT licence. EU customs officials will deny entry to any products covered by the VPA that arrive without a valid FLEGT licence.

Further reforms

Further reforms being considered in the Republic of the Congo include:

  • Passing and implementing regulations related to the new forest code
  • Refining legal requirements related to permit types. This is of particular relevance given the increase in timber from forests converted to agriculture and other uses
  • Addressing challenges in the domestic market

Impact monitoring

The EU and the Republic of the Congo have made a joint commitment to monitor the social, economic and environmental effects of the agreement. Monitoring examines whether a VPA is having the desired outcomes and informs government policy making, as assessments reflect the effectiveness of policies. Monitoring can also identify unintended negative effects for the EU and Republic of the Congo to address and mitigate.

Independent market monitoring

The European Commission has appointed the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO) as the independent market monitor for all VPA countries. ITTO will assess the trade in timber products between the Republic of the Congo and the EU, and the impacts of FLEGT licensing on this trade.