Hands on the VPA wheel

Thailand has decided that implementing a FLEGT VPA has to be the way forward, and it’s determined to get there, writes Thai Timber Association chairman Jirawat Tangkijngamwong

“Achieving an EU Forest Law Governance and Trade Voluntary Partnership Agreement (FLEGT VPA) and, ultimately, supplying FLEGT-licensed timber is going to be a big challenge for Thailand.

We are predominantly a timber processing country, rather than a producer, as for 20 years we have had a ban on harvesting natural forest resources. Instead we rely on plantation supply and imports.  In terms of achieving a VPA, this is expected to reduce the workload, compared to countries where the focus is more on timber production. 

We understand too, that the VPA process is flexible, and gives each signatory a degree of autonomy in establishing its legality assurance system (LAS).

At the same time, this is more than just documenting timber exports for customs clearance! It’s starting at ground zero. We have to redefine our timber legality and chain of custody systems so that they will both work in the interests of our industry, and be accepted by the EU under the terms of FLEGT – and our current framework has existed for 60 years.  We also have to ensure that the process engages all stakeholders.

At this stage – and Thailand is now in VPA pre-negotiation phase – we can only assume some of the steps will be bureaucratic, chaotic, time-consuming and painful to implement. In fact, it’s probably the biggest challenge the deep-rooted Thai legal system has faced for generations.

However, after long debate over whether to sign a VPA, we’ve concluded this is the path we must take.  There are still many ‘what ifs’, but the EU is our third largest market for wood products after the USA and Japan and, if we keep doing nothing, we will be the sector’s bad guys.  It will be painful. Some will win, some will lose. But it is the only way forward. The line is now drawn and the private sector has accepted the principles of a VPA and agreed to adapt to the required legality assurance system. 

For cost and other reasons, we do not believe our VPA implementation will take the consultant-driven approach adopted elsewhere.  Here the Royal Forestry Department (RFD) has taken the lead and is teaming with related ministries’ agencies to form the task forces needed to reconfigure existing systems to the demands of the Agreement.  And, in the interim, its existing certification department is providing assurances required to help meet customer’s proof of legality requirements. 

Our aim is to enter the first round of VPA negotiations by the end of this year, and to complete negotiation and implementation of all the necessary licensing, documenting and monitoring procedures to prove timber is legal and identifiable in two years.  

A further major challenge will be bringing on board the rubber wood sector, which has never been seen as part of the natural forest and is under the remit of the Agriculture Ministry.

But we know we must rise to this and all the other challenges involved.  If we can eliminate illegal trade and prove timber is legally and properly procured, it can lay claim to being the most environmentally friendly material there is.  A FLEGT licence will be a great assurance of this for customers, and, with time, it will become the trade norm for our industry.

So, it’s feet on the paddles, hands on the wheel, nose to the grindstone. Thailand is ready for FLEGT VPA step one.”