In Brussels on Thursday, EU and DRC officials signed a declaration to launch the negotiations for a voluntary partnership agreement on the export of legal timber to the European market under the 2003 Forest Law Enforcement Government and Trade Action Plan, or FLEGT.
European Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs, left, and DRC Minister for Environment, Nature Conservation and Tourism Jose Bononge Endundo in Brussels, October 21, 2010. (Photo courtesy Office of the Commissioner)
DRC Minister for Environment, Nature Conservation and Tourism Jose Bononge Endundo; European Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs; and Belgian Minister for Development Cooperation Charles Michel, on behalf of the EU Belgian Presidency, signed the declaration.
"The decision of the Democratic Republic of Congo to commit to the fight against illegal exploitation of forests is good news for the DRC and for the EU. It will help forestry sector of DRC to develop in a sustainable way and to create jobs," said Piebalgs.
"Europeans, on their side, will be reassured that all the wood products coming from are both legally produced and exported," Piebalgs said.
A voluntary partnership agreement is a World Trade Organization-compatible trade agreement between a producer country and the EU to work together to stop illegal logging. Although voluntary, voluntary partnership agreements are legally-binding on the two parties, once agreed.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is the former Zaire and is also known as the Congo-Kinshasa. Between 1908 and independence in June 1960, this area was called the Belgian Congo.
The DRC contains about 60 percent of the forests of the Congo Basin and is the second largest rainforest area in the world - only Brazil has a larger area of tropical forest.
Illegal logger fells an old tree in DRC's Ituri forest. (Photo by Jan-Joseph Stok)
This forested area covers 98 million hectares (378,380 square miles), about 32 times the size of Belgium. About 40 million people live in and depend on these forests and supporting industries.
DRC forests shelter the greatest diversity of great apes in the world, forest elephants, forest buffalos, okapi, antelopes and rare butterflies.
About 80 percent of timber and timber products originating in the DRC are exported to Europe. Wood exports from the DRC to Europe, mainly processed products, can top 200,000 cubic meters per year. France is the largest importer, followed by Portugal, Belgium and Italy.
Nongovernmental organizations that monitor forest issues in the EU estimate that half of the tropical timber and 20 percent of timber from boreal forests imported into the EU is illegally sourced.
From 1990 to 2005, forest cover in DRC fell by nearly three percent. The United Nations estimates that at the present rate of exploitation as much as two-thirds of the Congo Basin forest will disappear by 2040.
DRC Prime Minister Adolphe Muzito (Photo courtesy UN)
A voluntary partnership agreement with the EU is expected to support ongoing reforms in the DRC, including the adoption of a new forestry code and legislative framework, process of conversion of forest titles, recruitment of an independent observer of forest activities, improvement of the forest control strategy and reform of the ministry of Environment, Nature Conservation and Tourism.
Following the formal request of Prime Minister Adolphe Muzito of DRC to open FLEGT-negotiations, the the government of Belgium, through Belgian Development Cooperation, has supported the FLEGT-facilitation process in the DRC financially from August 2009, and that support extends through December 2010.
Belgian Development Cooperation now is jointly developing a project that could contribute up to €3.5 million during the period January 2011 through June 2013. Management of this support project is to be delegated to the European Commission.
Three watchdog environmental groups cautiously support voluntary partnership agreements under the EU FLEGT Action Plan.
Stump left from illegal logging in the DRC rainforest (Photo courtesy Greenpeace France)
Greenpeace, the UK-based Global Witness and FERN, a Brussels-based organization that tracks the EU's involvement in forest issues, said in a policy brief earlier this month that the agreements "could play a substantial role, not only in combating illegal logging but also in supporting pro-poor forest policy reform in partner countries."
But the three groups say that "to ensure that legality, sustainability and social justice go hand in hand" the European Commission must "clarify the minimum requirements" for the signing of a voluntary partnership agreement and the implementation of a licensing system.
The groups say negotiation of these agreements must "involve civil society in law-making and in participatory forest management."
They urge creation of "a democratic, transparent and open process" that involves and empowers civil society, including local communities and indigenous peoples' organizations.
The groups are calling on the EU to adopt environmental legislation that makes it a crime to import illegally sourced timber and wood products and obliges all companies selling timber and wood products into the EU market to prove the legal and sustainable sources of the raw material.
The DRC is the tenth country to enter into FLEGT voluntary partnership agreement negotiations. Malaysia, Indonesia, Liberia, Central African Republic, Gabon and Vietnam are now engaged in negotiations, while agreements already have been signed with Ghana, Cameroon and the DRC's neighbor, the Republic of the Congo.
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2010. All rights reserved.