The NGO TRAFFIC recently published a study on the state of the art of timber traceability systems in the Congo Basin countries. Here is the summary.
The Congo Basin Forest extends across a vast area providing both ecosystem services and secondary benefits to the people and economies of the Central Africa subregion. Despite these benefits, the Congo Basin countries with large rainforest areas – Cameroon, the Republic of the Congo, Gabon, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Equatorial Guinea – have been steadily losing their forest due to pressure on forest resources and land conversion into other uses. Over the last two decades, the Congo Basin has lost more than 5.6% of its forest cover. The forest deterioration is aggravated by over-exploitation due to endemic corruption, weak accountability, and illegal logging. In 2013, five Congo Basin countries and Côte d’Ivoire agreed to the sustainable and legal development of the wood industry in the region, committing to implement measures to improve timber tracking, transparency, and forest governance. In support of this commitment, TRAFFIC has carried out this assessment of the timber traceability systems in the six Congo Basin countries to identify lessons, strengths, weaknesses, and gaps, and recommend improvements to the systems to ensure sustainable and legal timber trade.
More than 50 online publications, reports, websites, and news articles were consulted. The secondary information was supplemented through direct and mailed-in interviews with informants from government institutions and agencies, development partners, NGOs, CSOs and community leaders. Finally, a sub-regional workshop was organised to complement, verify, and consolidate the information gathered and presented in a preliminary review document.
In all the Congo Basin countries, the law provides guidelines on traceability along the entire supply chain from the forest to export for both industrial and artisanal/communal/community logging. The governments implement timber legality control, revenue collection, traceability, and other functions through comprehensive timber and forest information management systems. The information management and traceability systems are all mandatory but are at different stages of development and deployment across these countries.
In Cameroon, the government developed the first Computerised Forest Information Management System (SIGIF) in 1998 to facilitate the management of forest exploitation permits, but without including the then parallel and paper-based timber traceability system. However, since November 2020, the government is deploying a mandatory traceability system embedded in the second generation Computerised Forest Information Management System (SIGIF 2).
They have been developing SIGIF 2 since 2011 under the framework of the Voluntary Partnership Agreement on Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade in Timber and Related Products (VPA-FLEGT) signed with the EU in 2010. The government aims to manage all transactions through the system to ensure that all timber is legally exploited and reported. The system is currently operational but not fully deployed due to challenges to equip all the traceability checkpoints, seamlessly integrate all the modules of the exhaustive information management system, ensure regular access to electricity and the internet, and build users capacities, among others.
In Gabon, some NGOs and private sector organisations have developed a few voluntary timber traceability systems that collect and publish data, are mobile-enabled, and run on the internet. The government has, however, not officially recognised these systems because they exclude government servers, are not aligned to any government guidelines or regulations for legality control, cannot assure accurate revenue collection and secure records on their open online access. In 2011, the Gabonese government created the Forestry and Timber Industry Execution Agency (AEAFFB) to, amongst other missions, better implement activities in the timber sector and on forest product traceability. Unlike most other Congo Basin countries, whose timber information management and traceability systems are developed with the primary aim of implementing the VPA-FLEGT plans, the AEAFFB set up a project to develop a computerised public timber traceability system (STMINEF) to overcome the challenges and meet their objectives for the forestry and timber industry under the Emerging Gabon vision. The AEAFFB launched the project in 2020 and, given the strong political will and government-ownership, they have completed developing and pilot-testing the system by September 2021. The three major challenges they still needed to overcome for the system to fully go operational throughout the country in 2022 are to acquire and install all the equipment, train actors and stakeholders, and overcome hesitancy and resistance from timber operators against additional costs without perceived improved efficiencies.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the government has initiated many developments of a computerised timber traceability system since they began VPA-FLEGT negotiations with the EU in 2010. Between 2013 and 2015, this culminated in the development of a state-owned forest monitoring and traceability system, known as the computerised forest management information system (SIGEF) and a Timber Traceability and Legality Management Platform (TRABOIS). Although these systems are mandatory, they are at an impasse due to incomplete coverage of the physical trade chain, absence of procedural documents due to incomplete timber and wood export regulations, and the resistance of the private sector to bear the direct cost of implementing the system. Furthermore, the VPA-FLEGT negotiations are also stalled with no effective plan or system in place, and insufficient human capacity to control and monitor forest resources.
In Equatorial Guinea, the government has adopted timber tracking as one of the strategic mechanisms to ensure that the national forestry resources are rationally exploited to provide sustainable tax revenues and socioeconomic development opportunities while preventing the degradation of the resources. They have adopted a chain of custody approach from forest inventory through to the port of export or the furniture sales point. However, tracking is entirely paper based with a monthly reporting standard and entry into an isolated central database. The system is plagued by many challenges rendering it ineffective in controlling and monitoring timber trade from harvests to point of final consumption within the country or for export. Given the challenges, timber sector officials in Equatorial Guinea have identified a computerised timber tracking system that will generate more viable information and make controls more efficient, as a pertinent output to pursue.
In the Republic of the Congo, the government, following the signing of the VPA-FLEGT with the EU in 2010, has been developing a computerised legality verification system (SIVL), to combat illegal logging, identified as one of the key problems impacting its forestry sector. The SIVL aims to verify the legality, and traceability, and control revenue collection to ensure that the country’s supply of timber into the international market, particularly the European markets, are from verified legal sources. The Forest Traceability and Legality Unit officials claim that all 17 modules of the SIVL, including all nine traceability modules, are fully developed and installed in the Datacentres of the Ministry of Finance and Budget in both Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire, as evidenced by a restricted website with access only to the landing page. However, the system is not yet operational, and other stakeholders are sceptical if the system will ever be fully operational.
In the Central African Republic, the government is also working to ensure that the country’s supply of timber into the international market, particularly the European markets, are from verified sources, in line with their negotiations under the VPA-FLEGT. The government has conceived a dedicated Legality Assurance System which includes traceability components for tracking timber flow from forest to transit and export, compliance and computerisation for real time access and control. However, the LAS is still to be developed and deployed. The authorities hope that an effective traceability system should help reduce the risks for illegal timber trade and improve law enforcement capacity to control and monitor the trade.
The review has identified certain challenges and difficulties that the Congo Basin countries need to overcome to have adequate timber traceability systems. The first challenge is to frame the system such that it covers the legality requirements along the supply chain and compliance in the target markets. It also needs government ownership and support as well as both awareness building and buy-in from other implementing stakeholders such as forest communities and logging companies to smoothly develop and deploy the system. Also, evidence of the added value over the additional operational costs of implementing a new system may well be needed. Furthermore, the development of the traceability systems based on the comprehensive VPA-FLEGT model requires huge costs that are more challenging to be fully covered in block by the highly solicited government budgets. Therefore, countries recourse to donor funding whose requirements generally further complicate the decision and implementation processes.
From our reference review of a system that has worked, the timber tracker system implemented in Tanzania by the Tanzania Forest Service Agency (TFS) provides lessons on how these challenges were efficiently overcome that may be appropriate for timber control and tracking in the Congo Basin region.
The key lessons from the TFS approach that are pertinent to the challenges faced by the Congo Basin countries are:
The timber tracker system in Tanzania provides lessons that may be appropriate for timber control and tracking in the Congo Basin region.
In conclusion, the Congo Basin countries are making different types of efforts to develop traceability systems to improve timber trade control and monitoring. The challenges faced by these countries in the process can be met by lessons from their processes and from other systems that have been successfully implemented. The lessons point to the best practice system that Cameroon and the Republic of the Congo should have to complement the traceability work that is ongoing in both countries as part of the LAS system within the VPA-FLEGT framework. The stepwise approach that the TFS used in developing and implementing the timber tracker system in Tanzania – in record time and essentially with national resources after the initial donor support – stands out as a relevant model for the Congo Basin countries to exploit in order to improve their timber information and tracking systems.
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