At Forest and Resilience Forum on “Implementing Int’l Commitments to support forest governance “, EU’s Laurent Delahousse Remarks

“We are improving policies and revising laws and regulations, for commercial forestry to be more sustainable. Of course, there are still challenges and issues, but we remain unrelenting in our efforts to deal with them. Sooner, rather than later, under my leadership, we will surmount these challenges in order to ensure that forest resources benefit all Liberians.”

Those were the words of His Excellency President George Manneh Weah yesterday morning at the opening of our meeting. Liberia is indeed a party to many international commitments related to the forest.

In 2011, it signed with the European Union and ratified in 2013 a Voluntary Partnership Agreement within the framework of the European Union’s strategy to tackle illegal logging set out in the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan in 2003, what we call FLEGT. And I will stick to that agreement.

This Partnership Agreement is a binding bilateral trade agreement which aims to strengthen governance and law enforcement in the forestry sector. Through a licensing system, it provides the assurance that the timber has been legally produced.

The VPA signed with the EU demonstrates the Government of Liberia’s commitment to improve accountability and transparency in the sector. As a result of poor management of forest resources and illegality in the sector in the past, Liberian timber did not have a good reputation on international markets. The VPA is intended to offer clear assurances that Liberian timber products come from verified legal sources.

Like the negotiation, the implementation of the VPA involves a wide range of stakeholders and helps Liberia to develop its capacity in forest management amongst both government agencies, such as the FDA, and forest users, including commercial operators and local communities. It introduces stronger monitoring and oversight of forestry activities by an independent auditor.

Although the focus of the VPA is on trade with the EU market, its scope is much broader. Liberia has decided to apply the same Legality Assurance System (LAS) to timber products destined for all international markets and to timber products sold in Liberia as well, including charcoal.

Many efforts have been made Prior to the conclusion of the VPA in 2011, Liberia has made since 2003 significant efforts (with the support of the EU and the United Kingdom) to reform the forestry sector, increasing access to timber resources and improving transparency.

These efforts include a comprehensive review of the regulatory framework of the sector, the development of a national timber traceability system (Libertrace) to  track timber production and payment of revenues, and a reform of the Forestry Development Authority (FDA).

Liberia was the first country to include timber revenues under the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (LEITI), when it became the first African country to achieve EITI compliance in 2008. In recognition of the progress made, the UN Security Council lifted sanctions in 2006, thus opening the way for Liberia to rebuild its forest sector.

The Government of Liberia has, through this reform process, shown its  commitment to implement strong systems for control and verification of legal timber harvesting and production for international and domestic markets.

The current situation is worrying Despite the important progress made in the past, we cannot say that the process is evolving today as it should. On the contrary we have a feeling of regression.

Liberia is far from delivering FLEGT licences. This objective was set for 2012 and rescheduled for last year2022. Even this date, 10 years later than the first objective,

was not met, and by far.

I don’t want to go into details concerning the VPA which are far from being comforting. But I would rather give you a picture of the situation. Three elements come to mind: Coherence, Governance and Sustainability.

First element: Coherence.

It is essential that statements, official declarations, international commitments like

just to quote one – the National Determined Contributions to act on climate change, are accompanied by consistent and coherent actions.

Faced with a rather dramatic situation regarding deforestation (the figures I have is that it reaches 3% in Liberia § I know that there is a debate on the figures and we need to certainly clarify that debate), we haven’t seen enough pertinent and timely actions.

What we have seen is rather an attitude of sometimes casual satisfaction, if not denial, as if everything was fine, as if just having the forest should entitle Liberia to receive funds from the international community, because those funds would somehow be owed to Liberia.

But climate finance just doesn’t work like that. The international community measures and takes into consideration the efforts, the operational commitments, the policies, the strategy and the concrete actions that reverse the trend of deforestation. Investors do not put their money on the status quo or on promises, they invest in concrete prospects of obtaining tangible results.

It is even more important when we talk about green bonds, where investors are invited to finance strategic plans and concrete actions. Trust, transparency and credibility are therefore fundamental. As for coherence, let me just mention the conflicts between policies and laws, for instance with mining, or judicial orders to deliver export permits for illegally harvested timber, when the law provides for confiscation of such timber.

Second element: Governance The development partners made a great effort to support the creation of a forest governance system in Liberia, especially in the framework of the VPA FLEGT. We invested millions of dollars in funding and technical assistance.

But many challenges are still there which undermine the efforts that have been made.

Let me mention three of those challenges:

 First challenge: Liberia has good, if not very good laws and regulations but too

often they are not enforced sufficiently. The enforcement of the law is a core

function of the State and it has to done by the State, it is not the job of

development partners.

 Second challenge: the tax efficiency is low. Only half of the tax revenue from

the forestry sector is collected, representing on average 5 or 8 million US dollars

each year.

The potential revenue is double that, and it would allow to finance the vehicles, motorbikes, the FDA jobs and other expenses necessary to enforce the law.

 The third challenge is the benefit sharing mechanisms for communities which are not respected, worsening livelihood conditions and reducing the financial and social benefits for affected communities in forest concessions.

The implementation of the VPA is followed through a Joint Implementation Committee, or JIC, which is supposed to meet twice a year. At the 8th session of the JIC in November 2020, and again at the 9th in March 2022,the Government committed to prepare a road map setting out a series of actions and related timelines for addressing non-compliances. A last draft was expected in April 2022, but we never received it.

We often receive complaints from Community Forests, where heavy cases of bad governance and violations are observed. The last one we received, I have it here, is from the Tartweh/Drapoh community forest, where interferences in the management of the community forest imposed a forestry company and intimidations and arrests were reported. This is not the only case, it is very worrying and we will look into it with our friends and colleagues at FDA

The third element of concern has to do with Sustainability Forest governance is a pillar of sustainable forest management. Sustainability is often a misused concept, but when it comes to natural resources, we have a clear idea of what unsustainable means. It means forest degradation, depletion of the resources, the loss of environmental services with a global decrease of the “flow of well-being”, as environment economists would say, for current and future generations.

The “forestry system” in Liberia is barely sustainable. It is characterised, technically speaking, by too short rotations, by the lack of proper forest management plans, by illegal logging, which are all real threats to forest regeneration and which affect the commercial and the global value of the forest.

From an economic point of view, and this is an opinion we have at the EU Delegation, the revenue obtained from the forest sector is too limited compared to what the sector should yield. The benefits accruing to a limited number of people and companies are probably lower than the environmental and social costs for the country and its population. The added value in the forest sector is limited, due to very low processing and transformation of forest products in Liberia.  We need to work on a sector that operates on value and not just on quantity. From a social point of view, I already mentioned that benefit sharing for communities is deficient. I would say that conditions are not met for communities to promote and adopt sound and sustainable forestry management. Livelihood conditions, lack of land use planning, lack of capacity and adequate compensation mechanisms are some elements that should be tackled in order to promote a good balance between forest conservation and logging activities at community forest level.

To conclude, here are some proposals:

o Time is running short. We need to act quickly to stop deforestation and sustainably manage the forests and biodiversity by several means. We do not have to wait for perfect solutions.

o The forest issues must be tackled with a multisectoral approach in order to focus on all the drivers of deforestation. Integrated approaches and solutions have to imperatively include agriculture, mining, financial sector, private sector, justice, biodiversity conservation, infrastructure and education sectors etc. We have to start thinking and acting in a systemic way.

o Forest issues must be mainstreamed in all the policies and be always on the top of the agenda.

o We need to have a problem solving attitude, and to act where the impacts occur, in particular at community forests level, where most of forestry activities are concentrated.

o Territorial management and land use management at landscape and community level have to be developed, also promoting effective decentralisation.

o A particular priority should be to create synergies with biodiversity conservation, promoting ecological corridors and larger buffer zones with protected areas.

o We have to focus on community forests at different levels, especially on governance, livelihood alternatives and sustainable forestry practices.

o We have to find a good balance between forest conservation and commercial and logging activities at community forest level. We must look for innovative ways to compensate community foresting, based on measurable results, to encourage more sustainable choices and behaviours, and by all means including green and carbon financing.

o We have to ensure that, when green and carbon financing mechanisms are in place, funds will effectively reach the communities. o Beyond the VPA and in the context of its holistic approach to forest, since COP 27, the European Union has launched Forests Partnerships with five countries (Guyana, Mongolia, the Republic of Congo, Uganda and Zambia) by signing tailor-made MoUs. I invite the Government of Liberia to assess this opportunity and join the other five countries in their ambitions.

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