GHANA: Locals hail EU pact to end illegal logging

Saturday, November 8, 2008

A long queue of trucks loaded with timber, freshly sawed from Ghana's fast-depleting forests, lines up at Accra’s Tema Harbour to offload to ships bound for Europe.

No one at the port in the Ghanaian capital knows if the timber delivered by the trucks is legally or illegally acquired.

Customs official James Klutse makes a final check on the number of logs per truck. "My job is simple, to make sure I have the right number of logs," he told IRIN. "The source of the timber cannot become my headache."

Up to 80 percent of Ghana’s forests have been destroyed by illegal logging, according to the World Bank. The Ghana Forestry Commission estimates that US$256 million in illegal timber leaves the country each year, most of it to Europe, Ghana’s biggest timber consumer.

The Ghanaian government and the European Union (EU) are trying to put a stop to this by signing a mandatory agreement called the Vountary Partnership Agreement (VPA), by which they agree to cooperate and ensure that timber – at every stage of the export process – is properly licensed.

Timber licensing laws are already in place in Ghana, according to Jannik Vaa, head of rural development at the EU in Accra, but they are not yet being strictly implemented. The agreement will supersede European governments’ importing laws.

Timber is one of Ghana's top four export earners, along with gold, tourism and cocoa.

Cracking down

"The VPA will check indiscriminate logging of trees particularly by illegal operators,” the EU’s Vaa told IRIN. “And through carefully tracking the number of trees logged, proper reforestation mechanisms can be put in place”, he said.

The agreement will also monitor timber companies to ensure they pay appropriate forest rents to local communities and invest in education and health sectors in these communities. It also demands the Ghanaian government collect timber taxes more transparently, according to VPA coordinator at the Ghana Forestry Commission, Chris Beeko.

An independent monitoring body will be formed to track the VPA's implementation.

Ghana's parliament has yet to ratify the VPA but Vaa warns that if the Ghanaian government fails to implement it, all EU support to extractive industries in Ghana will cease, including access to the European market for Ghanaian timber and timber products.

The Ghanaian government will require $60 million to implement the VPA over the next five years, according to the Ghana Forestry Commission, some of which will come from the EU, with $20 million from the World Bank.

"For us, maintaining access to the European market is an important reason to sign up," Beeko told IRIN. "We have a lot to gain by it."

Frimpong Manso, a community activist from the forest area of Domma Ahenkro, 300km north of Accra, had not heard about the VPA but he said he would "accept anything that stops deforestation."

Lost forests, lost revenue

Illegal logging not only drains national and local government coffers, according to the World Bank, but also hurts the livelihoods of communities living in forest areas.

In Domma Ahenkro a logging company was given the rights to fell 319sqkm of timber in the forest reserve, the largest individual such contract of the 1990s. A decade later no trees remain.

According to Manso in addition to the logging company, criminals snuck into the forest to cut down the trees.

"Our livelihoods are now in danger – we depend on the forest. We are simple farmers but these people cut down everything in sight."

Some two million Ghanaians rely on forests to survive – either through burning wood for fuel or making charcoal to sell, hunting forest game, and searching for wild foods, according to the Ghana Forestry Commission.

Three-quarters of Ghanaians rely on wood fuel as their primary energy source, according to the World Bank.

Beeko at the Ghana Forestry Commission recognises that these practices also deplete forests and need to be addressed, but he says the destruction occurs on a smaller scale over a longer time-period than logging, so they are not currently a priority for the government.

According to Manso, inhabitants of Domma Ahenkro were not adequately compensated for the degradation of their forest by logging companies. In addition to the trees lost illegally, this is partly because companies under-declare the amount of trees they have cut, thus lowering the tax they must pay, according to Beeko.

Nationwide, this means the government stands to lose up to $45 million each year in forest rent and taxes, the World Bank says. For instance, in a forestry industry with a $500-million annual turnover, the government took in just $22 million in 2007.

Under Ghanaian law, local communities own forests through traditional chiefs but the government manages them, according to the World Bank.

Logging companies on edge

Timber company representatives participated in the consultations leading to the VPA, but some are unhappy with the outcome.

Samuel Afari Dartey, deputy manager of Samatex, one of the top ten plywood companies in Ghana, advises the government to tread cautiously before ratifying the deal. "The VPA is likely to impose additional costs on local timber companies, which could cripple some of us," he told IRIN.

"This is a beautiful system,” he said. “But we must ensure it does not increase costs to industry. If the EU is insisting on properly licensed wood, then [the EU] must finance all that it takes to make that wood acceptable – not industry, nor government."

VPA not tough enough

But environmental organisations say the agreement is not tough enough. Accra-based non-profit Forest Watch calls it "piecemeal," urging the government to forge such agreements beyond Europe. They say that dealers could shirk it by switching to new, equally profitable markets such as China, where legislation is less demanding.

"We need a universal system that has across-the-board application," Kyeretwie Opoku of Forest Watch told IRIN.

Border controls in European importing countries must also be tightened to detect and reject unlicensed Ghanaian wood, said the Ghana Forestry Commission’s Beeko.

EU officials are aware of these weaknesses, and have begun discussions with the US and Chinese governments on how to harmonise the legal regime. They are also negotiating with African exporting countries, including Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo, to sign up to the VPA.

For now government officials are hopeful. Beeko is well aware of what the country stands to lose. He said: “I know the VPA will work."