Governments of African timber exporters are not providing crucial public access to information about how their forests are managed, according to a study published by Global Witness which analyses the transparency commitments in agreements between c 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."