Freedom of Information Laws
Many countries have a local variation of what can collectively be called Freedom of Information (FoI) laws. These laws are passed to give citizens legal rights to obtain information held by the government, to increase the ability of civil society to hold government to account.
These laws commonly set out the types of information that should be accessible to the public on request, information that should proactively be published, and information that remains subject to restrictions. Commercially sensitive information commonly falls into the last category, which presents challenges in accessing information pertaining to companies. The willingness of government agencies to release information in line with the law is varied, with governments frequently withholding information in violation of the law. In Indonesia, for example, NGOs had to resort to the courts to force the government to publish relevant data relating to timber harvesting and processing.
Nonetheless, such laws can and have been used as critical tools to increase the ability of civil society to monitor the forestry sector and identify illegality in timber harvesting and trade. The Environmental Investigation Agency, for example, was able to understand and show the complex system for timber laundering employed by companies in Peru (see Case Study 6) using the law to access government data on exports and inspection reports for logging concessions.
FoI and Voluntary Partnership Agreements
FoI provisions specific to timber are built into the text of Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs), legal agreements between the EU and several wood-exporting countries to encourage the supply of verified-legal timber. These impose some legal obligation to disclose information, even in states where no generic FoI law has been enacted.
Most VPA texts include an Annex outlining what information should be made public, in various ways, to facilitate monitoring of legality. This generally includes a wide range of data, down to the location of individual logging titles and the location of valid processing facilities. It also includes aggregated data on annual log production. Implementation of VPAs has been slow and varied, so it may be the case that the data is not available, but that it should be accessible. Annexes on Public Information are included in VPAs in the following countries:
- Cameroon (Annex VII)
- Central African Republic (Annex XI)
- Indonesia (Annex IX)
- Liberia (Annex IX)
- Republic of the Congo (Annex X)
VPAs are being negotiated with several other other Latin American, African and Asian states. The text of the finalised VPAs, including Annexes, can be found on the EU’s FLEGT website.