After eight years of negotiation, on 19 October 2018, Vietnam and the EU signed a Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) to promote trade in legal timber and improve forest governance. This trade deal has the potential to offer preferential access to the EU market for timber products coming from Vietnam, under the condition that substantial improvements are made to the way forests are managed. As Vietnam imports a great deal of timber that it subsequently exports, the deal could have significant knock-on impacts on other forested countries.
The VPA is being strongly criticised by civil society organisations (CSOs), and a petition launched by Rainforest Rescue has already gathered more than 200,000 signatures. Their concerns are valid. Environmental Investigation Agency, with support from undercover forest monitors, published several reports providing evidence of Vietnam’s trade in illegal timber, harvested and exported from its neighbours, Laos and Cambodia.
Notably, one of the VPA’s biggest contributions towards addressing illegal timber imports is Vietnam’s development of legislation making it mandatory for Vietnamese importers to ensure that their timber sources are legal. When the VPA enters into force – probably next year – Vietnam will be under the legal obligation to implement this system. The fact that timber smuggling still occurs while Vietnam commits to clean its supply chain from illegalities is, indeed, shocking and raises serious doubts on the political will of Vietnam to realise its commitments.
The system does have safeguards, however: the preferential access to the EU market will only materialise when the full system is in place. This may well take a few years, but structural change has never happened overnight. Ultimately, an independent, multi-tiered assessment will be carried out to assess the credibility of the system and address its weaknesses.
Civil society must keep scrutinising the implementation process and providing recommendations to improve forest governance, and this trade deal provides a vehicle for CSOs to do so. In addition, it provides Vietnam with an incentive to improve the global reputation of its timber sector. Stopping the deal would close off avenues of exchange, and shut down the opportunity for reform.
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