New Forest Code approved in the Republic of Congo
With over 65% of the Republic of Congo covered by forest – an area almost the size of the United Kingdom – it is vitally important that sustainable forest management practices take place in the country, both to improve livelihoods and protect the forest. The main legislation to do this is the country’s Forest Code; in July 2020, a new version of the code received presidential approval after eight years of revision. This is an important milestone towards a more sustainable and inclusive forestry and timber sector.
The implementing regulations are currently in development, it is expected that they will be equally strong to the key improvements of the law. For the time being, companies with exploitation titles granted under the previous Forest Code have an adaptation period of three years.
The revision took place within the VPA (Voluntary Partnership Agreement) that the Republic of Congo signed with the European Union on 2010. A VPA is a bilateral trade agreement between the EU and a timber-exporting country with an aim to (1) guarantee that any timber to the EU comes from legal sources and (2) to help the partner country stop illegal logging by improving forest governance and regulation. The VPA is a central element of the EU Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan.
The new Forest Code clarifies concepts and introduces new ones that highlight the importance of timber legality. The concepts and modalities of the FLEGT VPA are outlined throughout the text, such as verification of legality, certification, computerised system for legality verification, etc. Additionally, the legislation proposes an independent structure to manage a national forest certification system aligned with international standards.
One important change to the Forest Code is the inclusion of the concept of Free, Prior and Informed Consent, which means that local communities and indigenous peoples will be able to participate in forest governance processes for the first time. Similarly, the mandate of civil society to undertake independent forest monitoring is recognised legally for the first time. Civil society organisations will take part in the commission in charge of adjudicating forest-concessions and within the contracts, benefit-sharing specifications will be negotiated directly by affected communities. Importantly, civil society organisations, local communities and indigenous peoples will also be involved in the development of forest management plans through multi-stakeholder processes. Furthermore, a new community forestry scheme grants rights to forest-dependent communities.
With regards to the timber sector, the most impactful measures will potentially be the following:
- The mandatory in-country processing of nearly all products for export, imposing a ban on log exports. The only exceptions are heavy and hard timber species, machining of which requires specific technology.
- The introduction of the production sharing scheme, terms of which remain to be specified, establishes that the annual log harvest of a concession will be split between the concession holder and the state. Companies under this system will be exempt from direct state taxes while remaining subject to local taxes.
- The obligation for forest companies to certify the management of their managed concessions or the legality of their exploited and processed products.
- The introduction of a new type of logging right, the domestic harvest permit, which is subject to simplified management requirements and aims to ensure a regular and sustainable supply of timber to the domestic market. This measure mentions explicitly artisanal logging, which could underline an ambition to formalise this activity.
- The introduction of the plantation timber valuation agreement, which confers its holder the right to take a defined volume of timber from plantations that are on the private domain of the State.
- The introduction of two new taxes: the occupancy tax and the residue tax. The first one to be paid by a company operating due to the occupation of lands in the domain of the State. The second one refers to the payment for the categories and quantities of waste produced by a forestry company.
Regarding infractions, while they have remained broadly unchanged, most sanctions are stricter. In particular, forgery or counterfeiting of any proof of legality is subject to fines fifty times higher than before.
It’s important to highlight that many of the changes to the Forest Code are related to the importance of timber legality verification, more specific forest and logging rights, and stakeholders’ active participation in forest governance processes. These are a major improvement and it’s a crucial step towards country-wide legality in the forestry sector.