Indonesia and the EU celebrated a major milestone in the fight to end illegal logging last week. The launch of Indonesia’s Forest Law Enforcement Governance Trade Action (FLEGT) Licensing scheme means exports to the EU must be verified legal timber products. It represents the successful implementation of the provisions of a Voluntary Partnership Agreement (‘VPA’) between the two, fixing standards for timber to be logged in accordance with provisions of the EU Timber Regulations (‘EUTR’). VPAs of this sort are part of a raft of measures set out by the EU in its 2003 FLEGT. Six countries (Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Ghana, Indonesia, Liberia, and Republic of Congo) have since formalised VPA’s with the EU, and another nine are currently negotiating agreements. Together, the fifteen represent 80% of the total imports of tropical timber to the EU.
But the beneficial effects of the VPAs reach far beyond the timber trade. They also have a positive impact on democracy, justice, jobs, peace, security, climate change and biodiversity conservation. The effect of the agreement and implementation of VPAs has been shown to further no less than five SDGs agreed by the United Nations last year. In order to automatically meet the requirements of the EU Timber Regulations, the VPAs mandate the implementation of a comprehensive Timber Legality Assurance System, which ensures that all imported timber to the EU is from legal and sustainable sources. That way, each piece of imported timber can be traced back to a lawful and sustainable source.
The effect of implementing VPA agreement is ensuring sustainable logging practices (SDG 12 – ‘Sustainable Consumption and Production’), protection of the environment (SDG 13 – ‘Climate Action’) and endangered species (SDG 15 – ‘Life on Land’). Countries designate mapped areas of protected forests, in addition to harvesting quotas, annual operational plans and forest management plans guide production, after environmental impact assessment plans are completed. All VPAs are in accordance with Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (‘INDC’s’) set out in the UN Framework on Climate Change for reductions in greenhouse emissions that all signatory countries we asked to secure, thereby integrating climate change policies into national plans and strategies. Once legality is proven and FLEGT licences issued, timber importers are afforded free trade to the EU. This creates a ‘level playing field’ between legal and illegal companies, allowing legal producing businesses to flourish. Countries such as Indonesia have also provided training and other support to speed up the implementation of its Timber Legality Assurance Systems, to smaller companies that extract timber or make furniture. In this sense, the initiative encourages the formalisation of Small to Medium Sized enterprises, improving employment and growth (SDG 8- ‘Development and Economic Growth’). Labour rights are also secured, with the inclusion of national trade unions and regulatory bodies in the process.
By ensuring that affected communities are consulted in the process of VPA negotiation, the agreement secures the land and tree tenure of local communities, promoting peace and justice in a sector long marked by conflict and acrimony (SDG 16). By addressing longstanding conflicts and fostering consensus and cooperation among stakeholders, VPAs help ensure that all agreements will be implemented and have lasting effects. With commitments to transparency and accountability, the agreements considerably strengthen national institutions. The use of economic incentives in the form of free trade in timber to ensure compliance with the aspirations of sustainable development has been hugely effective, and this success should be replicated in other areas by the EU and other institutions. The only criticism is that free trade is not used more widely as a leverage for encouraging compliance with Sustainable Development Goals. FLEGT licensing is a solution which works for all, stimulating the economy whilst bringing standards of production up to internationally recognised benchmarks of sustainability. By bringing all of the stakeholders involved to the table, VPAs ensure that the process is inclusive, representative and participatory, securing access to justice and the strength of national institutions.
 The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), officially known as Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is a set of seventeen aspirational "Global Goals" with 169 targets between them.