Sustainable forest management is the art of reconciling what users want from the forest with what the forest can sustainably produce. This fragile balance requires a legal framework that combines economic development, natural resources protection and the well-being of the population. In Côte d’Ivoire, this has not always been the case, and the country has lost over 80% of its original forest cover. Nevertheless, in recent years, important legal reforms have been put in place to transform the way the forest sector is managed.
These reforms have been catalysed by a bilateral agreement between Côte d’Ivoire and the European Union (EU) on timber legality called Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) on Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT). And these reforms are beginning to bear fruit. Lieutenant-Colonel SYLLA Cheick Tidiane is Côte d’Ivoire’s Focal Point for this Agreement. He explains that “since the beginning of the negotiations, a new forest ownership regime is in force, export procedures have been clarified, the role of civil society has been recognised and regulated, and there is a more favourable context for the participation of the various stakeholders in the implementation of forest policy”.
A new ambition: achieving 20% of forest cover
Between 1960 and 1980, the forestry sector was the third-largest export sector in Côte d’Ivoire and an important driver of economic growth. However, due to the massive clearing of the Ivorian forest in favour of rapid development of agricultural production, the timber industry saw its weight in the country’s economy decline sharply. Nevertheless, the forestry sector remains essential not only for thousands of workers, but also for the fight against climate change, biodiversity loss and soil erosion.
Until 2014, the management of Ivorian forests was based on a Forest Code dating from 1965. This legal framework was based on a commercial and extractive vision of natural resources. Moreover, it did not integrate the multiple environmental services provided by forests and did not encourage reforestation.
In light of these challenges, Côte d’Ivoire initiated a series of reforms in 2013 to update its legal framework and adapt it to the current context. This political will has resulted in several reforms, including the adoption of a new policy for the preservation, rehabilitation and extension of forests, which aims to increase forest cover to 20% by 2030. To this end, a new Forest Code was enacted in 2019.
A partnership agreement with the EU as a catalyst for reform
As the EU is the destination market for around 50% of Ivorian timber exports, in 2013, the two parties initiated the negotiation of a timber trade agreement, the FLEGT VPA. This Agreement aims to ensure legality in the entire timber-forestry sector, which implies compliance with the economic, environmental and social Ivorian legislation. This includes not only the export of timber and timber products from Côte d’Ivoire to the EU, but also the logging, processing and transport of timber. It also aims to improve forest governance and support more sustainable forest management.
As Lieutenant-Colonel SYLLA Cheick Tidiane explains, “Through the VPA process, the Ivorian State wants to achieve two main objectives: accelerate the implementation of a set of reforms to improve forest governance at the national level, and verify the legality and traceability of the timber it exports to the EU market and other markets, including the national one.”
During the VPA negotiations, all stakeholders need to agree on the legal requirements that should be included in the Agreement: the types of land use, the different aspects of forest management, but also social and environmental aspects. Initiated in 2013, this analysis of the legal framework has brought various stakeholders in the timber and forestry sector to the table, including the ministries involved in forest management, civil society organisations and traditional chiefs.
As Rodrigue Ngonzo, VPA Facilitator, explains, “civil society, the private sector, local populations, but also several other administrations have not always been closely involved in decision making on forest management. But now, the participatory approach that has underpinned negotiations since the beginning of the FLEGT process is enshrined in the Ministry of Water and Forests’ (MINEF) procedures manual. Thus, policies, strategies and legal texts relating to the management of forests, wildlife and water resources are adopted after information, consultation and dialogue with key stakeholders.”
A new tree ownership regime
The process of reviewing the legal framework for the forestry sector has highlighted several shortcomings, identified solutions and developed new regulations to be integrated into the legal framework.
One of the issues addressed is that of tree ownership. The forest management model that prevailed before the VPA negotiations began was based on exclusive public ownership of forest resources, which excluded landowners from receiving remuneration for the value of the trees naturally present on their land. This had the effect of severely limiting farmers’ interest in reforestation.
Today, the Forest Code recognises that villagers have the right to own the trees on the land they own – including under customary law. Raphaël Kra, country associate of the international NGO ClientEarth in Côte d’Ivoire, explains that “the benefit is now clearly specified in the regulation: communities are owners of their forests, even if the land only belongs to them customarily, customary ownership being recognised by law. This will allow them to freely market the trees on their lands, but it will also encourage reforestation, as they will now have an economic incentive to do so.”
Many of the legal texts are still in the process of being adopted, but once finalised, the new ownership regime will allow owners to develop and benefit from their forest resources in the long term, a real paradigm shift for the forest sector.
Clarification of export procedures
The process of revising the legal framework has also led to the clarification of some areas that were not entirely clear. The review of procedures related to forestry activities is a good example of how the VPA negotiations have contributed to modernising and improving transparency in the sector.
Colonel Gnahoué Koudou Eliane, Head of Forest Products Inspection at the Autonomous Port of Abidjan and member of the FLEGT Permanent Technical Secretariat, explains that “today, we have very clear texts on the export procedure. The operator knows what documentation he has to provide to the forest administration so that we can validate his export, as well as the steps and the timeframes for processing the files, whereas before, there was no clear written procedure. This is really an achievement of the VPA process.”
Recognition of civil society's role
Another change introduced in the Forest Code is the recognition of the independent monitoring role of civil society.
Youssouf Doumbia, President of the Ivorian Observatory for the Sustainable Management of Natural Resources (OI-REN), explains that “bad governance is one of the factors that have reduced the national forest cover. To avoid this in the future, civil society must play a watchdog role that allows it to report non-compliance in the management of forest resources, but also to propose solutions and lead decision makers to correct these non-compliance. In this sense, the VPA negotiations have contributed to adopting legal provisions to establish independent monitoring in forest management and governance.”
A more favourable business climate
The legal reforms being pushed through as part of the VPA negotiations also aim to create a more favourable business climate for the private sector. According to Gilles Gueu, Secretary General of the Industrial Wood Producers’ Union, “regulating the activity will create a levelled playing field. The regulation will also allow economic operators to compete on an equal footing in national markets, knowing that illegal operators will be excluded.”
Furthermore, and without losing sight of the fact that the VPA is a trade agreement, “the regulation will allow manufacturers to add value to their product internationally, as the FLEGT licence will allow Ivorian timber products to circulate freely on the European market”.
Towards a better future for Ivorian forests
Although challenges remain to successful achieve the VPA’s objectives, Côte d’Ivoire and the EU are working closely together to ensure that the necessary balance between all stakeholders is maintained to improve natural resources governance and increase the Ivorian forest cover.
As Denisa Salkova, EU Focal Point for the EU-Côte d’Ivoire FLEGT VPA, explains, “it is important that policy makers and stakeholders work together to develop and implement effective laws that ensure a sustainable future for the forest sector, an approach that is facilitated by the FLEGT VPA.”
Original article published on FLEGT VPA Facility