Briefing Document / Oct. 9, 2012

VPA Transparency Gap 2012 - Cameroon, Ghana and Liberia

African timber exporting countries failing to meet access to information commitments, as lack of transparency threatens ground-breaking trade agreements with EU

Governments of African timber exporters are not providing crucial public access to information about how their forests are managed, according to a Global Witness study published today. The study, released at a conference held at the European Parliament analyses the transparency commitments in agreements between Cameroon, Ghana and Liberia and European countries put in place to ensure the timber trade is legal. Too often, it finds people are kept in the dark about what is happening to their forests, a violation of the terms of these groundbreaking agreements.

David Young, a forest campaigner at Global Witness said, “Forests are different from other resources because people live in them and are completely reliant on them. But at present these people can’t see what deals are being done and who benefits. This is a big problem in an industry with a long history of corruption and human rights abuses. The EU needs to work with Cameroon, Ghana and Liberia to make sure the information is available, otherwise people will have no way of knowing how the timber was obtained and whether this was done legally.

The agreements – known as Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs) – between timber-exporting countries and the European Union include new, binding requirements for government authorities to publish key information on deals and decisions about forests. The first step of sharing information is a necessary precursor to more fundamental reforms to ensure only legal timber reaches the European market.

Global Witness has worked with anti-corruption forest watchdog groups in Cameroon, Ghana and Liberia to assess compliance with their respective VPAs. Although the context and the status of VPA implementation differs in each country, none of these countries are currently fully meeting their commitments to public information and transparency.

Mathew Walley, who is representing forest communities from Liberia at the conference, has seen at first hand the effects of access to information being denied: “People feel cheated. We see log trucks leaving their forests, but despite our requests, no one tells us how much and what species, so how can we know we are being paid the correct amount for the timber?

Samuel Mawutor of Ghana’s Forest Watch coalition said, “Too often, information is requested from the Forestry Commission, but whether officials make it available depends on who is requesting the information and why. If there was more information we could all work together in stopping illegalities in the sector.”

The report found that local communities are often unable to access key data and documents, or authorities are reluctant to provide timely information. In some areas, for example, officials have delayed providing details while continuing to allocate permits that risk undermining compliance with the European agreements.

Major reforms in information management and dissemination are needed if implementation of the VPAs is going to lead the way to overcoming endemic illegal logging. Many documents and data could be published immediately, without waiting for VPA implementation.

David Young concluded, “These agreements with the EU could be a gamechanger in terms of including the people that live in forests in decisions about what happens to them. But it’ll only work if the governments in question play by the rules, and this study shows that’s not happening at present. We’d love to be proved wrong – if any government authority, in Europe or timber exporting countries, can point us to publicly accessible sources of this information, we’d be happy to announce this.”

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Notes to editors:

  1. ‘Guardians of the forests?’ is an international conference assessing the impact of ten years of European Union innovation and action in worldwide forest governance. The conference, held at the European Parliament, is hosted by Yannick Jadot, MEP and Fiona Hall, MEP and organised by FERN, Client Earth and Forest Peoples Programme.
  2. VPA Transparency Gap Assessments for Cameroon, Ghana and Liberia, and a short overall summary, are published today. Hard copies are available at the Guardians of the forests conference.
  3. The assessments were carried out between May and July 2012 by reviewing websites and other information sources of relevant authorities and organisations, and contacting key informants. In summary:

-        In Liberia, the VPA commits the government to the publication of 22 laws and regulations, plus 30 items that report on the location and extent of forest sector operations, and the companies involved. The assessment shows only 13 and 11 (respectively) of these have been fully met. Download the assessment here.

-        In Cameroon, the VPA commits the government to publication of 75 items including laws, regulations, maps, and reports on forest sector operations. Some 20 of these cannot be expected until full implementation of the VPA, but of the remaining 55, the assessment shows only 14 of these have been fully met. Download Cameroon’s assessment in English here; and in French here

-        Unlike the VPAs with Cameroon and Liberia, the agreement with Ghana does not include a specific list of public information. Nonetheless, transparency is highlighted in the VPA as an important principle and 68 types of information that should be published can be identified by studying the VPA. Of these, nine cannot be expected until full implementation of the VPA, but only 10 out of the remaining 59 items are proactively published. Download Ghana’s assessment here.

  1. Global Witness has been working on forest sector transparency and illegal logging for over 15 years, and works with leading NGOs in seven forest-rich tropical countries (Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ecuador, Ghana, Guatemala, Liberia and Peru) on a programme called Making the Forest Sector Transparent. Read more about our other work on forests here.
  2. Making the Forest Sector Transparent is funded by the UK Department for International Development Governance and Transparency Fund.