Pre-negotiation phase of a VPA process
During the pre-negotiation phase of a Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) process, a timber-exporting country and the EU explore the opportunities and challenges of engaging in a VPA process, and decide whether to begin negotiations. Each country has its own approach and structures to reach a decision, which may involve:
- Acquiring and sharing information
- Analysing the forest sector, and structures and stakeholders who are directly involved or have an interest in the sector
- Raising awareness among stakeholders
- Deliberating within and among stakeholder groups on priority issues a VPA could help address
- Assessing potential benefits and consequences of engaging in a VPA
- Preparing for negotiations
The length of the pre-negotiation phase varies among countries. In Ghana, awareness-raising activities started in February 2005. A national workshop in May 2005 resulted in broad agreement among stakeholders to move forward. The Government of Ghana formally notified the EU of the desire to enter into negotiations in December 2006.
Information and awareness raising
Timber-exporting and timber-producing countries in the tropics have had opportunities to learn about the EU Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan since 2003. A timber-exporting country interested in a VPA can request information from the EU. The EU, EU member states, FLEGT facilitators, the EU FLEGT Facility, nongovernmental organisations and UN agencies, such as the FAO, provide information and other support to help country representatives and other stakeholders understand VPAs.
Governments and stakeholder groups in timber-exporting countries also generate and share information, through activities such as:
- National political engagement to strengthen support for a VPA process across a range of ministries
- Meetings to raise awareness
- Analyses of the forest sector and relevant aspects of governance and law and trade, such as chain of custody systems
- Visits to countries that are engaged in or have concluded VPA negotiations to meet with stakeholders and learn from their experiences
- Visits to the EU to understand changing market requirements
- Commissioning studies, such as on the costs and benefits of a potential VPA or on the potential social impacts of a VPA (see box ‘Technical studies')
- Participating in outreach activities to raise regional awareness
A common challenge is to communicate complex technical information about a VPA in language that stakeholders can understand.
A country's decision to begin VPA negotiations should reflect the needs of stakeholders. Differences within and among stakeholder groups mean, however, that stakeholders must first come together to discuss and reach a consensus about whether to pursue a VPA.
It is crucial therefore, for stakeholders at all levels to understand the potential costs and benefits, and what a VPA would mean for them in practice. Civil society groups and private-sector stakeholders often discuss among themselves whether a VPA would be of benefit to them, before exchanging views with government representatives.
The government of a timber-exporting country is responsible for fostering stakeholder participation. In most VPA partner countries, before deciding whether to pursue negotiations, governments have made efforts to consult stakeholders and generate broad consensus regarding the value of a VPA and the challenges a VPA could address. Activities have included:
- Identifying, engaging with and informing stakeholders, who may then form national platforms or other representative structures to advance their interests
- Encouraging dialogue within and among stakeholder groups about a VPA and its important elements
- Holding national workshops that allow stakeholders to identify challenges they think a VPA should address
Consultation can open dialogue on issues such as:
- How to define legal timber
- How to track and verify legal timber
- How to resolve grievances
Experience to date shows that discussions benefit later stages of a VPA process. If a government does decide to enter into negotiations with the EU, discussions within and among national stakeholders continue into the negotiation phase. Some countries, however, have struggled to consult stakeholders and this has affected progress in the VPA process.
As countries prepare to enter negotiations, or once negotiations have begun, they may find that they lack sound information about the forest sector and existing systems. In these cases, countries may conduct or commission technical studies to fill information gaps or explore how aspects of a timber legality assurance system could work in practice. These studies should involve stakeholders as they can help governments and other stakeholders:
- Decide whether a VPA is appropriate
- Consider the costs and benefits of engaging directly with the EU
- Understand what they would need to do to design and implement VPA-compliant systems
- Ensure negotiations take account of all issues
Examples of studies and activities that have informed negotiations include:
Cameroon. A comprehensive review of legislation, a study of trade in the domestic market and a review of independent observation of the forest sector
Côte d'Ivoire. A participatory assessment of the legality and traceability of forest products, which identified issues linked to each component of the legality assurance system
Gabon. An assessment of governance challenges in the forest sector
Ghana. An assessment of the socio-economic impact that a VPA could have on different stakeholders under different possible outcomes from the negotiations
Indonesia. Discussions with stakeholders in government, the private sector and civil society, and national multistakeholder workshops, on the potential of a VPA and engagement strategies. As a result, Indonesia established a FLEGT focal point to interact closely with existing civil society platforms. Subsequently, a market study was conducted.
Liberia. An analysis of the costs and benefits of a VPA for Liberia and a study of the national timber traceability control system that Liberia was developing
Thailand. An exercise to identify civil society stakeholders and a timber flow study to identify timber sources, levels of control, stakeholders and gaps allowing non-verified timber to enter into controlled supply chains
Source: FAO. 2014. The Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) Process in Central and West Africa: from Theory to Practice. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Rome, Italy. 58pp. [Download PDF]
Preparing for negotiations
The level of engagement and understanding in the pre-negotiation phase affects later stages in the process and the overall quality of a VPA. If, at this stage, a VPA is likely to proceed, it is in the interests of government and other stakeholders to prepare for negotiations before they begin. Preparations can include:
- Stakeholder discussions of studies of timber trade flows, and assessments of timber tracking systems and levels of illegal logging
- Considering how a VPA would fit with existing legislation, systems and reforms
- Forming a multistakeholder group, whose members from private sector and civil society organisations have ideally been self-selected
In most countries, the move to formal negotiations has proceeded rapidly, reducing the time and space for stakeholder engagement and consensus building. This means it is important for stakeholders to organise themselves into representative structures, identify priorities and prepare to negotiate on specific issues as early as possible. If the EU is confident that a country is moving towards negotiating a VPA, it may encourage support programmes to help stakeholders create platforms and understand issues so that they are equipped to participate in negotiations when they begin.
Readiness for negotiations
The pre-negotiation phase of a VPA process ends when the government of a timber-exporting country decides that a VPA would not be appropriate or decides that it wishes to start negotiations. In the latter case, the decision usually happens at a national meeting when all stakeholders affirm their support. The decision may take the form of a written statement that representatives of stakeholder groups sign.
In many countries, the decision to start negotiations requires in-country political approval. For instance, Thailand required a parliamentary mandate and Malaysia needed a decision by the state council.
When the government of a timber-exporting country decides it wants to proceed towards a VPA it writes to the EU to outline why it wishes to begin negotiations and what it hopes to achieve with a VPA. The national government should indicate that its decision follows and reflects deliberations across government and with stakeholders. The government should also identify challenges that national stakeholders think a VPA should address.
Once the EU receives assurance of a country's engagement, the two parties announce their intention to launch VPA negotiations. In some cases, formal requests from timber-exporting countries to the EU to begin VPA negotiations did not make it clear that discussions with stakeholders had taken place, or identify objectives for the VPA. In these cases, the EU suggested further in-country dialogue and reflection in order to prepare for negotiations.
Preparation can also create delays
Preparation can narrow the space for participation if it is not open or does not involve broad stakeholder representation. For example, if a government chooses the stakeholders to be involved instead of allowing stakeholders to decide for themselves, this can cause tensions that create problems in reaching consensus later in the process.
In some VPA processes, stakeholder groups have felt that they have not had a voice and have called for action to address the issue. In some cases, this has led to a broader interpretation of stakeholders. In others, it has led to stakeholders walking out.
In one country, a mapping exercise to identify stakeholders with an interest in the VPA identified only stakeholders linked to the supply chain and excluded other potential stakeholders. Comprehensive representation became an issue during the negotiation phase and required time to resolve. The delay could have been avoided if stakeholder mapping in the pre-negotiation phase had been broader in scope.
Stakeholders can also do too much preparation. In another country, stakeholders decided, before entering into VPA negotiations, to develop a multistakeholder consensus on a legality standard based on experience with company-based certification standards. When negotiations began, the country shared what it considered was a near-complete legality definition with the EC.
However, the EC felt the definition did not fully address concerns and would not advance clarity in the timber legality assurance system. In this case, preparation built experience among stakeholder groups, but led to some misdirection early in the VPA process.
Related sections of VPA Unpacked
Falconer, J. 2013. Overview of VPA processes: opportunities and challenges for projects to advance FLEGT. Presentation to FLEGT Project coordination meeting. 9 October 2013, Brussels. [Download PowerPoint presentation]FAO. 2014. The Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) Process in Central and West Africa: From Theory to Practice. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Rome, Italy. 58pp. [Download PDF]