The VPA is the result of nearly eight years of negotiations aimed at stopping the flow of illegally harvested timber into the EU. Members of parliament are expected to vote in favor of the resolution on March 12, though officials in the EU and outside observers have voiced concerns about the legality of the wood imported into Vietnam from other countries, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Members of the European Parliament will vote Tuesday on a resolution to consent to the EU’s Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) with Vietnam, aimed at improving the legality of wood and wood products flowing from the country into the EU.

Observers expect the vote to pass in favor of the VPA but have voiced concerns that Vietnam doesn’t yet have adequate enforcement capacity to guarantee that the exported wood comes from legally harvested sources, especially with wood that Vietnam imports from other countries.

“If there aren’t rigorous import controls in Vietnam, then there’s no guarantee that illegal timber won’t be running through that supply chain,” Jo Blackman, the head of forests policy and advocacy for the London-based watchdog NGO Global Witness, told Mongabay.

Representatives from Vietnam and the EU signed a VPA on Oct. 19, 2018, after nearly eight years of negotiations. VPAs are a step toward licensing under the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan, with the goal of ending the flow into the EU of wood that has not been harvested in accordance with the laws of the country where it originated. The EU has signed or is negotiating VPAs with 14 other countries around the world.

The agreements include timber harvested domestically and abroad.

“The EU welcomes the progress Vietnam has made in preparing to implement the VPA and initial steps in strengthening controls of the timber it imports,” Federica Mogherini, the EU’s high representative and vice president, said in an October statement from the EU. “However, more needs to be done.”

Mogherini said the success of the VPA would hinge on Vietnam’s ability to make sure that the wood it imports from other countries is legally harvested and that EU officials would work with their Vietnamese counterparts to accomplish that goal.

Vietnam exports more processed wood products, such as furniture, flooring and plywood, than all but five countries in the world.

Nguyen Xuan Cuong, the country’s agriculture and rural development minister, said businesses, civil society and the government backed the VPA.

“Vietnam is fully committed to ensure that no illegally harvested timber will enter the Vietnamese market and will take all necessary steps to tackle these through effective enforcement,” Cuong said in the statement.

In step with the negotiations, Vietnamese lawmakers passed a new forestry law that went into effect in January 2019 making it illegal for companies to import timber that was not harvested legally, according to the EU.

“I think that’s where the VPA has really played a role in Vietnam, because it’s definitely got the issue on the political agenda,” Global Witness’s Blackman said. “In that respect, the VPA’s been really positive.”

But recent investigations by Global Witness revealed legal problems in the timber sector of the Democratic Republic of Congo, compounded by government corruption. DRC has substantially ramped up its exports of whole logs to Vietnam in recent years. Global Witness’s recent analysis found that, between 2017 and 2018, Vietnam more than doubled its imports from DRC to 90,000 metric tons (99,200 tons) of wood.

DRC is “a country where there’s such a high risk of illegality, that that trend of such a sharp increase in exports should be a real concern,” Blackman said.

The largest logging company in DRC is Liechtenstein-based Norsudtimber, which sends nearly three-quarters of its harvest to Vietnam. In June 2018, Global Witness reported that 90 percent of the company’s concessions were breaking DRC’s forest law by not using required 25-year forest management plans and by logging beyond concession boundaries.

Vietnamese authorities have also been wrestling with the influx from Cambodia of timber suspected of having been illegally harvested there.

In the months since the signing of the VPA, the EU’s Committee on International Trade wrote an explanatory statement that’s included with the drafted resolution. The statement, while supportive of a vote in favor of the VPA by the broader parliament, also provides several recommendations as Vietnam moves forward.

The committee advises the development of legislation similar to the EU Timber Regulation or the United States’ Lacey Act, both of which require verification by importers to stop the flow of illegally harvested wood from reaching the markets of Europe and the U.S., respectively. It also calls for improving the capacity to enforce such laws.

Members of the European Parliament, or MEPs, will debate the VPA on March 11 in Strasbourg, France, with a scheduled vote on whether to provide the body’s consent to the agreement on March 12.

“We really welcome the points that the MEPs are making in the explanatory statement,” Blackman said. “They send quite a strong message in terms of the need for a prohibition of illegal timber.”

Once Vietnam has met the requirements of the VPA, which include the development of a “timber legality assurance system,” the country will be able to issue FLEGT licenses to operators that comply with Vietnamese forestry laws.

Currently, only Indonesia has reached that stage. Now, buyers in the EU no longer have to ensure that licensed products from Indonesia are legal through their own due diligence.

The European Parliament’s vote is the next step for Vietnam in the process toward achieving that licensing capability.

“This is an opportunity for the European Parliament to send a message to Vietnam and to the European Commission to really make a difference on the trade,” Blackman said.

By John Cannon - Mongabay - March 11, 2019