“We came late to the process. But knew it was important, so we made it our priority to understand it. And we were met by a committed group of people working together towards a common objective”. Rosario García is the president of the National Lenca Indigenous Organisation (ONIL) and coordinator of the Roundtable for the Unity of Lenca Indigenous People (MUPIL). The process she is referring to is known as the Voluntary Partnership Agreement, or VPA, and it is already reshaping the way forests are managed in Honduras.
Back in 2013, Honduras and the European Union committed to working together and addressing the prevalent problem of illegal logging and trade. To this end, they began the negotiation of a VPA, an agreement that aims to ensure any wood sold domestically and exported from Honduras to the EU and other destinations comes from legal sources. The VPA has now been ratified by the Honduran Congress and by the EU and entered into force in September 2022.
The Agreement does not, however, stop at that. Arguably the more ambitious goal, and the one García and other indigenous voices from Honduras see as a priority, is to improve overall governance in the forest sector. This in turn requires all stakeholders be given an opportunity to voice their priorities, concerns and desires for the future of their forests.
From the outset, VPA negotiations in Honduras strived to include representatives from the Government, the private sector, civil society organisations and, crucially, indigenous communities. “We see the VPA as an opportunity to deal with historic, entrenched problems indigenous peoples have struggled with”, García says. “On the one hand, we seek clarity about land titling, and on the other, we want to ensure we have the right to be consulted before any activity is undertaken in our lands. These are aspects the VPA includes in its text, so we are looking forward to seeing them implemented in practice”.
Other stakeholders have been following the VPA since the negotiations started and have seen it grow into an inclusive mechanism characterised by trust. “The VPA has triggered an honest dialogue about the management of Honduras’s forests. We have discovered our voices differ, but our objective is the same: we all want to ensure forests are managed sustainably”, says Carmen Borjas, who represents small and medium forest owners. “We need indigenous peoples to play a central role. Initially, some groups were reticent to participate, but most of the indigenous groups, which are many and diverse, are now represented in the VPA process. They are actively making proposals to reflect their priorities, and we are all paying full attention to what they have to say.”
As the VPA enters the implementation phase, additional challenges will become apparent. Regular meetings of a devoted body known as the Joint Implementation Committee will ensure that progress is made and recorded, while setbacks are to be discussed and overcome. Putting paper into practice will require work and patience. But it will also pay off, bringing an unprecedented level of transparency. “For us, the fact that only legal timber will reach Europe and other destinations is key. For years, we’ve seen trucks drive past our communities without us knowing who they belong to and where they are going”, says García.
Expectations are high, especially now that the time has come to put theory into practice. “There is great potential, with many people willing to make the VPA work in real life, enabling learning and improvements through time”, says Borjas. “It has not been an easy process. Yet, the VPA has been ratified with an unparalleled level of consensus. The best is yet to come.”
“Obviously, we still hold some fears”, concedes García. “We live in a country where sometimes things are not done properly. But we are clear that we need to work from within to support change. There is a lot at stake for us as indigenous peoples who live in and around forests. We won’t get any rights granted if we don’t fight for them. If this were a football match, it’d be obvious: you can only score goals if you are willing to play.”