On a cool grey day in Belgium last month, a group of visitors from Guyana gathered at Antwerp port and imagined a future in which their country’s timber products flow freely into the EU, bypassing red tape because every item has been verified to be legal.
“The visit was very exciting,” says Simone Beckles, Assistant Commissioner at the Guyana Revenue Authority. “I realised we have the same principles. The only thing that’s different is the law, but we share the principle of having a risk analysis… Our problems are unique but similar to those of the EU.”
The Guyanese visit coincided with a key milestone in the efforts of Guyana and EU to tackle illegal logging and associated trade — on 23 November, representatives of each side met in Brussels to initial a Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA), which aims to improve forest governance and promote trade in legal timber products.
Even before the VPA was agreed it has had positive impacts, say members of the Guyanese delegation. They note that the VPA negotiation process has improved consultation in decision-making processes, strengthened coordination among government agencies and led to skills training for officials and the private sector.
They expect that when the agreement is fully implemented it will improve access to the EU market — for both large companies and small-scale producers — by guaranteeing the legality of timber products and so meeting the EU’s stringent regulatory requirements.
“Many communities in Guyana are involved in forest-related activities, and access to markets is often a challenge, so the VPA is a great opportunity for us,” says Paul Pierre, Vice-Chairman of the National Toshaos Council, which represents Amerindian communities in Guyana. “It is a process that will be beneficial to indigenous communities. It will give them access to markets that seek timber that is sustainably sourced.”
“If you tap into a sector, your job market opens,” says Beckles. “It creates an avenue for training. Then you have people who are better prepared and produce better products. What you end up with is an industry where people employed are knowledgeable of the product, so the sector opens up further. It’s a whole cycle. If you then expand it to other regions in the country, people don’t need to move from where they are.”
To implement the VPA, Guyana will develop systems and procedures for verifying the legality of timber products throughout the supply chain, from the forest or point of import to the point of export or domestic market. Experiences from other countries that are already implementing VPAs with the EU suggest that this is likely to take several years.
“We have already developed some key thematic areas to focus on over the next 3-5 years,” says Laura Singh, who works at the Guyana’s Forest Product Development and Marketing Council Inc., and is a member of the National Technical Working Group that led the VPA negotiations with the EU. “They include issues such as market improvements and industry development, the strengthening of implementing structures to ensure effective coordination of all the various implementing bodies, developing a finance mechanism for implementing the VPA, capacity building, communication and others.”
While in Belgium, the Guyanese delegation met with customs authorities, policymakers and nongovernmental organisations. The aim was to learn about European needs and concerns, and to understand similarities and differences between regulatory control systems at each end of the timber trade.
“It was nice to meet with European civil society organisations and hear their views about the potential of Guyanese timber to be imported into the EU,” says Ruslin Richards of the Guyana Forestry Commission’s FLEGT Secretariat, which coordinates the VPA process. “It was also good to have a better sense of the EU’s imports system, as we will have to link it to ours.”
Despite the challenges ahead, Guyana considers the VPA to be worthwhile because when it is fully implemented, all of the country’s timber exports will be verified to be legal. They will automatically meet the requirements of the EU Timber Regulation. This means that importers will be able to bring them into the EU and place them on the market without first doing onerous and costly due diligence checks.
“The VPA has put Guyana on the map,” says Kenny David, head of the FLEGT Secretariat. “There are lots of negative perceptions about the Guyanese timber sector and about what and how we do things. The VPA is a good opportunity to put us out there. Here we are, working with partners like the EU, who will say ‘Yes, Guyana’s timber is coming from well-managed and monitored sources’.”