Legal Acquisition Findings: A Game-Changer for Stopping Deforestation

By Alyssa Beccar
By Alyssa Beccar

This week, CIEL is in South Africa for the 17th Conference of the Parties (CoP17) for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). CITES is tasked with regulating the trade of endangered species in order to protect them. One of the most important decisions that will be taken at CoP17 this week – and one of the most effective ways address the illegal trade of timber – relates to the Legal Acquisition Findings (LAFs) for CITES-protected species.

What is a Legal Acquisition Finding?
In order to ensure CITES-protected species are traded legally, CITES directs the Management Authorities of Parties to conduct a Legal Acquisition Finding before issuing a permit for their export. The Legal Acquisition Finding certifies that the specimen was not obtained in contravention of the laws that protect flora and fauna.

How do Legal Acquisition Findings contribute to the illegal trade of CITES species?
The illegal trade of endangered fauna and flora is enabled by a variety of factors, including a lack of government institutional capacity and funding, which can be compounded by corruption, and a lack of uniform guidance from CITES for Parties to comply with the Legal Acquisition Finding requirement. While CITES directs national authorities to make Legal Acquisition Findings before issuing export permits, CITES does not provide specific guidance on how Parties should determine if a specimen was collected legally. CIEL has analyzed nearly a dozen Parties’ laws and regulations on CITES Legal Acquisition Findings. While many countries have laws stating that a specimen must not be obtained in contravention of any law, some countries do not have even this reference, and most do not have codified procedures for Management Authorities to follow when conducting a Legal Acquisition Finding.

Two opportunities to advance Legal Acquisition Findings at CoP17
The CoP17 agenda includes consideration of the Secretariat’s Draft Decisions for further actions on Legal Acquisition Findings, marking the first important opportunity to advance guidance for Legal Acquisition Findings. Agreeing to share information, hold a workshop, and develop guidance is of paramount importance. The second opportunity is approval of the recommendation from the 66th Standing Committee to amend a resolution from the last CoP so that it includes a section on permits and certificates issued under court order. Parties have previously acknowledged problematic court-ordered export permits at the 14th Conference of the Parties. Because court-ordered permits supersede Non Detriment Findings and Legal Acquisition Findings and can be highly problematic, the Standing Committee has recommended to amend Resolution Conf. 12.3 at CoP17. These two decisions will lay the groundwork for Parties to coordinate their efforts to ensure all trade in CITES-listed fauna and flora has met baseline Legal Acquisition Finding requirements.

The challenges of Legal Acquisition Findings
It is difficult to fairly assess the mechanisms different countries employ for conducting Legal Acquisition Findings specifically, or the criteria for issuing export permits for CITES protected species more broadly. Such a broad assessment of all Parties’ management authorities and legislation on Legal Acquisition procedures and requirements has not yet taken place within CITES. The Secretariat’s recommendations regarding the coordination and development of Legal Acquisition Findings guidance are fundamental to addressing a large gap between legal protection, and enforcing that protection.

Compounding the issue of lack of legal guidance is the issue of institutional capacity. The Secretariat has noted that some Parties have particular difficulty conducting Legal Acquisition Findings for countries in which paper-based documents are easily forged, permit staff rotate in and out of the position continuously, and courts may order Management Authorities to issue export permits even in the absence of Legal Acquisition Findings.

Discussion and coordination at CoP17 around Legal Acquisition Findings are critical first steps for providing meaningful guidance to the Parties’ Management Authorities. The gap between legal protection status for CITES-listed species and uniform acknowledgment and implementation of this key legal safeguard among Parties is profound. However, CIEL is encouraged by the current state of the dialogue between Parties and the Secretariat, and is hopeful that Parties at CoP17 will take positive steps towards the development of Legal Acquisitions Finding guidance.

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Originally Posted September 26, 2016