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Provisions for Access to Information

The right to information is generally recognised in constitutions, and four of the seven countries - Ecuador, Guatemala, Liberia and Peru - have passed specific Freedom of Information (FoI) laws. In Cameroon, DRC and Ghana, civil society has demanded that their governments also approve such FoI laws, but this can be a slow process. For example, the Cabinet in Ghana originally approved a FoI bill in 2009, but it continued to be held up in 2011 by a review process in which ministers have attempted to introduce restrictive clauses.

In the four countries with such laws, it has also taken time and political will to establish supporting norms and independent offices to implement them. Ecuador and Peru have the longest-standing legislation from 2004 and 2003 respectively, backed by Ombudsmen and recent decrees on minimum information standards, but forest-related authorities have not fully complied with the requirements to publish all documents and data nor responded to information requests in a timely fashion. Similarly, forest authorities in Guatemala have not submitted reports to the Ombudsman as required by the 2008 law. Notwithstanding these difficulties, there is reason to suggest that FoI laws have positively influenced the institutional culture in the three Latin American countries. The forest authorities in each of them took steps in 2011 towards setting up more integrated information management systems, and Peru and Ecuador have reinforced the general FOI law by recognising transparency in policies or decrees related specifically to the forest sector. In comparison, there is less evidence to suggest that the FoI passed in Liberia in 2010 has had an impact, where the Information Commissioner has not yet been appointed. Meanwhile there have also been few tangible results in Liberia from dedicated funding from the World Bank to set up effective systems for information management and sharing on forests.

Besides FoI laws, the need for transparency and access to forest sector information has been recognised in the negotiation of Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs) with the European Union (EU) by Cameroon, Liberia and to some extent Ghana. There is optimism in Cameroon in particular that the strong commitment to information requirements in an annex of the agreement ratified in May 2011 will serve as a catalyst for improvements in public information disclosure. Nonetheless, the experience in Ghana, where little progress continued to be made in 2011 towards developing information systems to support the implementation of the VPA signed in 2010, highlights the difficulty of maintaining impetus.

Turning to actual information dissemination, a recurrent theme of the report cards has been that key documents on forests are not translated and/or summarised for a wider audience, in particular for forest communities and indigenous peoples who also often do not have access to websites and official national sources. The partners in the African countries in particular have reported that information dissemination is often at the discretion of forest officials and limited by administrative barriers; the immense size and weak institutions in DRC are an especial challenge to information sharing. There were some examples in 2011 of NGOs and civil society making good efforts to provide accessible information to communities, including support from Making the Forest Sector Transparent to summarise and distribute information in Liberia and make plans available in DRC, but these short-term efforts are not sustainable or necessarily desirable because they are allowing the state authority to abdicate its responsibilities. Conversely, such initiatives may be hampered by the authorities; for example the forest authority in Ghana raised objections to the partner circulating its information on forest royalties to communities.

A further concern is that virtually all of the forest authorities in the seven countries do not produce annual reports on activities in the sector, despite often being required by law to do so. The authorities in Peru and Guatemala produce statistical bulletins but only the Ministry of Environment in Ecuador released an annual report in 2011. The absence of such reports in other countries deprives the public of a key measure of the performance of their state forest authority.

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