SPECIAL REPORT: EU-driven timber certification raises hopes for sustain forest management and forest
With Potentially high benefits at stake, Thailand is moving toward allowing the harvesting of some tree species, which is currently banned unless special permission is obtained.
Supporters say a legal amendment could help raise incomes and lead to sustainable livelihoods for forest dwellers, while also stimulating an increase in forested area to meet the national strategy of having 40 per cent of the country forested in the next 20 years.
The idea is part of an effort to revamp logging certification and management under the so-called FLEGT framework (Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade) pushed by the European Union in countries that it wishes to trade in certified logs with, including Thailand.
As reflected in the name, FLEGT seeks a legal way to stop the import of uncertified logs or logs with unknown origins in the hope of enhancing forest governance in the countries where logs originate.
As noted in the 2003 action plan, “conflicts have often been fuelled by the profits that armed groups make by selling illegally or legally harvested timber”. Cutting down on the amount of conflict-timber that makes its way into the trade cycle was therefore included in the seven measures under the plan.
Also important is to promoting trade in legal timber by overhauling logging certifications and management in trading countries through the much-sought Timber Legality Assurance System (TLAS).
“It’s not like we don’t have the laws or mechanisms to deal with the logging issue, but the framework is helping us look at the whole picture of timber management and complete the system we have,” said Warangkana Rattanarat, a programme director for Thailand’s Centre for People and Forests, which monitors forest community rights and forest governance.
Logging the pain
Thailand once encouraged logging by awarding concessions nationwide to harvest hardwoods such as the much-sought-after teak. However, those concessions ceased in 1989 when the government declared a “forest closure” policy, effectively banning official logging.
In 1992, the government decided to re-open commercial logging, but this time in a controlled environment under a newly introduced forest-plantation law.
New timber certification and management was introduced, allowing private entities to grow nearly 60 tree species listed as “prohibited or restricted trees” under the 1941 Forest Law, including teak and other hardwoods. Over 160 such tree species altogether were listed and were forbidden from felling or transporting without official permission.
For that, parties had to register their plantations, along with the trees they grow, with the Royal Forestry Department (RFD). The felling and transportation of trees had to be strictly checked and verified with certificates being issued by the RFD.
Thailand has subsequently pursued commercial logging and exporting via a forest-plantation management system under a legal framework.
Imported timber can also be traded, provided it is done under regulations of the RFD and the Customs Department.
The available data shows that timber trade with the EU in 2012 alone was valued at Bt2 billion, with the EU naming Thailand Southeast Asia’s production centre for timber and wood products as well as the world’s biggest rubber-wood producer. The country is also a major exporter of timber and wood products to world markets, including the EU, the United States, Japan and China.
Despite an official forest-plantation management being put in place, a parallel underground logging business is at work in protected forests and logs are being smuggled in from neighbouring countries, despite stepped up measures.
In 2013, Thailand began negotiating with the EU under the FLEGT framework, which requires an overhaul of logging certification and management.
The talks raised hope among authorities that regulation would be brought up to international standards.
VPA countries/ courtesy of the EU FLEGT
The negotiation, however, was disrupted during the political turbulence before being resumed in 2016.
Under the so-called Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs), in which 15 countries including Thailand are engaging, ratification could result in the approval of logging certification and management and allow logs from those countries to enter the EU.
FLEGT licences could also allow those approved companies to send logs to the EU without them having to pass checks under the EU Timber Regulation, which prohibits trade in illegal timber and wood products.
Athapol Charoenshunsa, RFD’s new director-general and key negotiator, expects negotiations to wrap up in two years after several years of talks and the hard work of overhauling the country’s framework for logging certification and management.
He said RFD has long worked to improve the system, which is largely paper based and plagued with corruption.
The biggest challenge, he said, lies with determining the origin of trees and traceability, suggesting that a chain of custody and control of the supply chain be introduced.
RFD and the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry had been pushing for the amendment of the dated forest law as part of the improvement. The focus was on Article 7, which bans tree cutting and transportation of “prohibited” tree species without state permission.
Early last month, the National Legal Assembly (NLA) voted to pass the amendment, thus allowing people who have “prohibited” trees growing on their land to cut and transport them without permission.
This mechanism replaces the ban with a new electronic registration of trees on individual plots. The electronic registration could also include the unregulated origins of trees, making it convenient for officers to check and trace back the origin of exported trees, he said.
Other sections concerning custom duties and taxes are also under consideration to help bring the whole system up to par.
Still remaining, however, is regulating the trees grown on state land, with forest dwellers having overlapping claims on some of these plots. But if managed in the same way as forest plantations, Athapol said registration and certification introduced could be beneficial for both forest dwellers and the government.
If the system works, it would encourage people to see its benefits and eliminate the need for illegal logging. Instead, people could plant trees to raise their income, and the state could in turn increase forested area and achieve its 40-per-cent national target.
“In the end, we just hope the system will help correct the wrongs, as people will see no reason to break the law. The system will become more and more accountable, and more convenient to support people,” Athapol said, dispelling fears that unlocking the previous ban could cause individual plots to “launder” uncertified logs elsewhere.
Warangkana said the issue of tree subrogation was the first to be debated, but the key goal under FLEGT is to suppress illegal activity and illegal logging.
The chosen measures are sufficiently convincing to help ensure accountability and transparency in the business, she said. In addition to state measures, civil society is encouraged to participate in ensuring success, including through monitoring networks, she added.
Still remaining is the issue of ensuring inclusion in access and benefits yielded by the framework, she said. The new certification and management standards may be too high for some groups of people to reach.
The government, she said, has also not yet settled the issue concerning those who have grown trees on state land. A ministerial announcement is being awaited.
Excluding those trees would affect community rights, she said.
“This is an issue that needs to be figured out,” said Warangkana, who nevertheless praises the FLEGT framework as a force propelling the country to a new sustainable forest management standard.