Independent Forest Monitoring in the Congo Basin

Taking Stock and Thinking Ahead

1. What Is Independent Forest Monitoring and What Is It Supposed to Achieve?

1.1 Independent Forest Monitoring Definition and Overall Objective

Mbzibain and Tchoudjen (2021) define independent forest monitoring (IFM) as “a third-party assessment of the conformity of forest management and forestry activities with the legislative and regulatory standards in force in the forestry sector of the country.” The overall objective of IFM is to trigger improvements in forest governance that lead to environmental and social benefits through monitoring activities (Figure 1).

Figure 1 | IFM Theory of Change

Note: Although the definition of IFM is currently quite stable, the concept evolved as it expanded to new areas over time.

Source: REM author.

1.2 How Did the Concept of IFM Emerge and Evolve over Time?

A groundbreaking concept beginning in Cambodia in 1999: Formal collaboration among a government, donors, and a nongovernmental organization to monitor forest crime through IFM

Local civil society organizations (CSOs) and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) had been independently monitoring forests long before 1999.1 However, when the expression “IFM” emerged in Cambodia that year, these third-party independent monitoring activities became officially recognized by the government (Global Witness 2013). Funded by several international donors, Global Witness was appointed by the Royal Government of Cambodia as the IFM organization in charge of ensuring reporting accuracy and validation of reports on forest crimes (Brown and Luttrell 2005). At first, the project had positive results including increased documentation of significant forest infractions and exposure of weak government action including collusion with illegal logging. However, the Cambodian government was increasingly unwilling to respond to key IFM findings, causing the IFM organization to increase its advocacy work, in turn further reducing the willingness of the government to collaborate. This downward spiral eventually led to a total breakdown of relationships among the partners and the eventual suspension of the project in 2003 by the government (Brown and Luttrell 2005).

Scoping and refinement of the concept in Cameroon in 2000: From an independent observer of the allocation process to the first IFM field missions

In the meantime, the IFM concept spread to Cameroon “with a contract for an independent observer to support the process of forest concession allocations [...] in 1999” (Brown and Luttrell 2005). In addition, scoping missions to implement IFM in Cameroon began in 2000 at the formal request of international donors concerned about the country’s severe level of corruption, as Cameroon was ranked last in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (Transparency International 1999). Global Witness was appointed to carry out IFM in Cameroon in May 2001. Similar to the situation in Cambodia, tensions arose between the government and the monitor, threatening the feasibility of a full IFM project when the first investigations uncovered illegal logging with a net loss estimated at US$38 million for the Cameroonian government, further damaging the image of the forest sector (Transparency International 2003).

Institutionalization of the IFM concept in Cameroon, 2000–2004: The emergence of mandated IFM

Aware of the risk of failure and worsening tensions in Cambodia but also of the high potential of IFM to increase transparency, stakeholders involved in IFM in Cameroon worked to improve the approach. Lengthy negotiations of a memorandum of understanding (MoU)2 between the government and the monitor occurred, clarifying the monitor’s rights to access specific information and processes, key activities, and the reports publication procedure. By signing this MoU, Global Witness became a mandated IFM organization.3 European donors joined forces with the World Bank to financially support IFM by co-funding a long-term project. This funding, combined with the World Bank attaching aid conditionalities to the project, added considerable weight to the institutional framework of the mandated IFM approach developed in Cameroon, laying the foundation for future IFM development in Africa. In the meantime, Global Witness’ advocacy initiatives were triggering resistance from the government and private sector to IFM activities.4 Despite the MoU, monitors were often affected by repercussions from their findings, including threats of contract cancellation and shifts in funding.

IFM moves away from advocacy organizations in 2005

In 2003, several key Global Witness staff and consultants who had undertaken the IFM project in Cameroon from the outset in 2000 created a new NGO named Resource Extraction Monitoring (REM), which was exclusively dedicated to the new approach of mandated IFM. In 2005, the Cameroonian government appointed REM as the replacement for Global Witness. At the same time, more stable funding systems were put in place by various donors through calls for tender, and embassies of European countries began providing support to IFM. REM won the 2003 call for tender and subsequent calls, remaining the mandated monitor in Cameroon until 2009. From 2010 to 2012, the Belgian company AGRECO and the Cameroonian NGO Cameroon Environmental Watch acted as IFM organizations, funded by the European Union (EU).

Expansion to the Congo Basin, 2004­–2014: Toward locally based organizations leading IFM

In 2004 and 2005, REM carried out scoping missions to expand IFM in the Republic of the Congo (Congo) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The government in the Congo became the first government not only to accept but to request civil society involvement in mandated IFM. REM and its partner organization, Forests Monitor, were appointed to lead IFM in 2006 by the Congolese minister of forests. In the DRC, after additional scoping missions by Global Witness and REM in 2007 and 2008, REM was appointed in 2010. In the meantime, REM trained local experts who then created organizations specialized in IFM. The Congolese organization Cercle d’Appui à la Gestion Durable des Forêts (CAGDF), created in 2009, began leading IFM in the Republic of the Congo in 2013. Similarly, in the DRC the local organization Observatoire de la Gouvernance Forestière was created in 2012 and became a mandated IFM organization in 2013 (Figure 2).

In Central African Republic (CAR) and Gabon, REM and Forests Monitor introduced the concept of mandated IFM and trained local civil society organizations Centre pour l’Information Environnementale et le Développement Durable (CIEDD) and Brainforest between 2005 and 2012. In 2012, CIEDD and REM carried out the first IFM mission in CAR. In Gabon, Brainforest carried out its first IFM mission in 2019, while Conservation Justice began IFM missions in 2014 with ALEFI (Appui à la Lutte contre l’Exploitation Forestière Illégale), a project designed to tackle illegal logging in Gabon.

Figure 2 | Institutional and Geographic Evolution of IFM Organizations Analyzed in This Paper

Notes: Abbreviations: IFM = independent forest monitoring; DRC = Democratic Republic of the Congo; Congo = Republic of the Congo; CAR = Central African Republic; REM = Resource Extraction Monitoring; CEW = Cameroon Environmental Watch; CAGDF = Cercle d’Appui à la Gestion Durable des Forêts; OGF = Observatoire de la Gouvernance Forestière; CIEDD = Centre pour l’Information Environnementale et le Développement Durable; NGO = nongovernmental organization; CSO = civil society organization.

Source: REM author.

Broadening the concept, 2015–2020: From a specific to a more flexible concept

Recently, an increasing number of organizations have been calling themselves IFM organizations. This label is now commonly used to refer to both mandated and external monitors5 that operate without a mandate but with varying levels of formal collaboration or agreement with governments. The frontier between mandated and external IFM is increasingly blurred, with some CSOs and NGOs mixing strategic elements from both approaches to suit their objectives and increase the impact of their work. For instance, the external IFM organization Forêts et Développement Rural (FODER) signed an MoU with the Cameroonian government providing a framework for collaboration that encourages information sharing and that establishes a process for publishing reports. This includes reviews by a technical and ethics committee. Although this MoU does not only focus on FODER’s IFM activities, and the composition of its reading committee differs from mandated IFM reading committees, an MoU and reading committees are two typical characteristics of mandated IFM.

Meanwhile, the concept also evolved toward more standardization. In Cameroon, several external IFM organizations worked together to develop a Standardized External Independent Monitoring System (SNOIE) that was certified by the International Organization for Standardization in April 2018 (CIDT n.d.).

In addition, discussions are underway regarding the expansion of the concept to other commodities, including soy, beef, cocoa, rubber, and minerals, and its potential extension to carbon finance (EFI 2021), which could lead to significantly broadening the concept in the coming years. A few IFM organizations have, for instance, tested monitoring REDD+ projects.6

Institutionalization of IFM through voluntary partnership agreements, 2003–2021

In parallel to the developments described above, IFM has been progressively institutionalized since the EU published the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan in 2003. The FLEGT Action Plan established voluntary partnership agreements (VPAs), each VPA being a legally binding “bilateral trade agreement negotiated between the EU and a timber-exporting country outside the EU [...] to ensure that timber and timber products imported into the EU from a partner country comply with the laws of that country” (EFI 2020). VPA negotiations are multi-stakeholder processes involving civil society in the producer country, including those carrying out IFM. In addition, a number of VPAs “contain some [...] provision for civil society to play a role in monitoring the implementation of the agreement” (Brack and Léger 2013).

Figure 3 illustrates how IFM contributed to the development and implementation of VPAs in Congo Basin countries. All VPAs signed between the EU and countries in the Congo Basin declare that civil society should play a role in monitoring implementation of the agreement. Several of these VPAs include references to IFM in legality assurance or verification systems, interactions with an independent auditor appointed under the VPA, provisions for civil society involvement in VPA implementation, and civil society capacity building in monitoring.

Figure 3 | The Role of IFM in VPA Development and Implementation in the Republic of the Congo

Note: Abbreviations: VPA = voluntary partnership agreement; CSO = civil society organization.

Source: REM author.

In practice, the negotiation of VPAs between the EU and Congo Basin countries made IFM simpler for civil society. For instance, the VPAs signed in the Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, and Central African Republic include a transparency annex, listing all documents and information that their governments commit to disclose publicly. If properly enforced, these annexes simplify access to information about forest management and harvesting for IFM organizations.

In addition, VPAs include a multi-stakeholder process to define forest legality requirements at the national level in a legality grid. IFM organizations adopted the VPA legality grids as a reference against which to assess legal compliance, increasing the legitimacy of IFM findings.

VPAs even have led some producer country governments to recognize the role of IFM in their laws. For instance, the new Forest Law adopted by the Republic of the Congo in July 2020 explicitly mentions IFM in article 69 (in translation):

An independent monitor, originating from national civil society organizations and recognized by the government, conducts independent field missions alone or jointly with the agents of the forest government agency. The monitor regularly produces reports and recommendations on compliance with forest legislation (Republic of the Congo 2020).

However, such laws do not make it mandatory for government agencies to act based on IFM findings.

1.3 What Approaches Exist for IFM?

IFM can be accomplished with or without a mandate, which is a formal agreement between an independent monitor and the government. In reality, a range of approaches exists between mandated and external IFM, as shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4 | Range of Approaches between Mandated and External IFM

Source: REM and WRI authors.

Whether monitors have full access to official documents and to forest areas depends on the content of the formal agreement signed by mandated independent monitors and government officials. The content of these agreements varies over time and across countries. A detailed analysis is provided in Section 4, as well as a list of clauses that an ideal MoU should include. A key specificity of mandated IFM is the participation of government in reviewing reports. In the case of a disagreement between the IFM organization and the government, the government opinion is added as a note to the existing text, and the report can then be approved.

1.4 What Is the Mission of IFM?

The following sections focus on IFM in the Congo Basin since 2000, where the mission of IFM is to “analyze and report on forest governance and management, as well as the harvest and transport of timber” (Vallée et al. 2019). In practice, IFM organizations analyze official documentation and visit forests to detect, report, and highlight potential issues (Figure 5). They focus on logging activities conducted by the private sector in government-owned forests, law enforcement by local government agencies, and forest governance issues in general. Based on the facts observed, monitors draft reports that are shared with the government. In addition, IFM organizations propose recommendations7 to improve law enforcement. They also follow up on measures taken by the government following these recommendations. Finally, monitors often contribute to forest governance in other ways, including training law enforcement officials on the legal framework and existing tools, policy reform, and financial support to organize joint monitoring missions with law enforcement officials.

Figure 5 | Activities Performed by IFM Organizations

Notes: * Mandated IFM only. ** External IFM only. Abbreviations: IFM = independent forest monitoring; CSO = civil society organization; VPA = voluntary partnership agreement; LAS/LVS = legality assurance system/legality verification system.

Source: REM and WRI authors. Photo source: Resource Extraction Monitoring.

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