Development of Legal Capacity of CSOs on course
Even though Ghana’s forest cover has been rapidly declining over the years, the sector continues to engender attention from both the local and international communities, including support to build capacity of stakeholders in forest governance.
Since early 2000, various forest related dialogue platforms/networks have been established to stimulate a vibrant stakeholder dialogue, whose members are empowered to contribute meaningfully to sustainable forest management.
These networks include Forest Watch Ghana, which can be described as the pioneer dialogue network formed purposely to foster transparency in the sector’s operations, by unearthing and publicizing existing illegalities, among other things. Then came the Forest Forums organized at the district, regional and national levels to build consensus among forest fringe communities on issues of common concerns pertaining to the sector.
The latest addition to these dialogue initiatives, is the Legal Working Group (LWG) initiative, founded by ClientEarth, a group of environmental lawyers. Its works in collaboration with Taylor Crabbe, an environmental legal consortium. The LWG platform is focused on developing the legal capacity of NGOs in the forest sector to appreciate sector laws and regulations; initiate amendments in the case of obsolete legal instruments; negotiate better social agreements and to seek legal ways, where necessary to address their issues.
Since 2012, ClientEarth has been supporting civil society through these developments, and providing legal support and training to the stakeholders involved in reform processes in the forest sector.
A core aspect of ClientEarth’s work is the holding of training programmes focused on forest and related laws for members in both Ghana and Liberia. The trainings provide a learning environment characterized by partner presentations on the status of key engagements or campaigns, a main presentation on a key forest issue, a tutorial session on some aspects of purely legal matters followed by open discussions.
At the February 24th to 25th meeting of the LWG in Accra, Ghana, participants were treated to a variety of forest related issues. From the Civil Society engagement front, Samuel Mawutu on behalf of Forest Watch Ghana, said, “Currently, there is a stronger CSO front than ever, with diverse capabilities, skills and ability to integrate.” “This,” he said, “should translate to a stronger formidable actor, able to pursue campaigns to their conclusive ends.”
For this year, Forest Watch Ghana’s campaign trails will include mining in forest reserves, the Domestic Market Reform, Rose Wood Exploitation and the contribution of oil palm plantations to deforestation. The Coalition is also monitoring the impacts of some international developments such as the election of Donald Trump as US President, the planned exit of Britain from the European Union (EU) also known as “Brexit” on the country’s development efforts as well as Indonesia’s issuing of the first Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade (FLEGT) license.
Presentations were also made on the results of some studies and on-going projects including Forest Conversion in Ghana, the National Plantation Strategy, Civil Society led Independent Forest Monitoring Project, Community based Real Time Forest Monitoring and the Ghana Complaint Mechanism, which forms part of the system put in place to ensure effective functioning of the Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) in timber products trade between Ghana and the EU.
Participants were also tutored on “The Draft LI on Timber Resources and legality Licensing Regulation” and “The Private Members Bill and How to Engage Parliament.”
The training packages are interactive and “as responsive as possible to the questions and the work of our partners who participate in the legal working group to enable them to use legal skills and knowledge in the work they are already doing,” says Jozef Weyns of ClientEarth.
According to him, his organisation’s activities have enabled a number of changes in the two focus countries. In Ghana, partners have played decisive roles in the development of new regulations and of a national system to ensure the legality of timber. They collaborated to develop checklists, which the government will use to make sure Social Responsibility Agreements (SRAs) between communities and logging companies are respected. He said through their work in Liberia, which started only started 18 months ago, local communities have started using legal skills to negotiate better social agreements and seek legal ways to address their issues.
Mr. Weyns stressed that “ClientEarth is especially glad to see more subtle changes like improving legal skills and confidence, changing attitudes as well as seeing a better connection between forests, people and law.” To substantiate this, he imitated, “I think our work has started a shift; where legal arguments previously ended conversations, now our partners in Ghana call themselves ‘pocket lawyers’ and engage more confidently in discussions to make stronger forest laws.”
Mr. Weyns observed a similar trend in Liberia, “Where communities who feel frustrated because they are left with too little when affected by logging operations, are starting to use legal ways of settling their differences.” He noted, “I think especially these subtle changes make a difference for people and their environment, today, tomorrow and for a long time to come.”
The work of ClientEarth in Ghana and Liberia, is part of the organisation’s wider forest programme, which aims to address deforestation and the resulting impact on poverty, biodiversity and the climate. The rest of its focus countries are Cote d’Ivoire, Republic of Congo and Gabon. ClientEarth also works in Europe. The choice of its focus countries is based on a number of different factors such as a request from local actors for it to provide legal support and whether there are opportunities to improve forest laws and decision making. Another factor is that, focus countries should also in the process of negotiating and/or implementing trade agreements like the VPA with the EU on timber trade and forest governance.