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Ghana grapples with illegality in its domestic timber market

There’s a paradox in Ghana. A hundred thousand chainsaw operators scattered across the country provide 72% of the lumber on the domestic market. They support livelihoods of about 650,000 people and inject much-needed cash into local economies. But every one of these chainsaw loggers is breaking the law. 

“Chainsaw loggers are criminalised, but how else do you supply the domestic market?” asks Clement Somuah, of the Ata Marie Group, which is leading the development of Ghana’s timber legality assurance system. “How do rural communities who depend on the forest get their wood? Are they denied access? Are they criminalized if they cut wood?”

Ghana and the EU are working together to answer these questions, through a project that is finding ways for illegal chainsaw loggers to supply legal timber or leave lumber behind to pursue new livelihoods.

Unworkable ban

Ghana banned the use of chainsaws for processing logs for commercial purposes in 1998 as part of its efforts to curtail rampant deforestation. Chainsaw loggers were cutting trees to which they had no legal access, and at a rate that Ghana’s forests could not endure. The loggers also deprived Ghana of several million euros each year in unpaid fees and taxes.

The ban has failed to have its desired effect. This is partly because its implementation is inconsistent with other laws and partly because there is widespread popular support for chainsaw logging and the cheap lumber and economic opportunities it provides. But legitimate businesses struggle to compete. 

Local timber market in Kumasi, Ghana

Local timber market in Kumasi, Ghana

Source: Tropenbos International – EU Chainsaw Milling Project

Local timber market in Kumasi, Ghana

Source: Tropenbos International – EU Chainsaw Milling Project

Search for solutions

The chainsaw loggers have argued that their way of harvesting timber is more efficient and sustainable than the legal sawmill industry. They have urged the government to end the ban on chainsaw logging and issue official permits to control the activity instead. It has become clear that any efforts to address chainsaw logging must factor in social impacts and livelihoods.

A search for solutions intensified in 2007, after Ghana decided to pursue a trade deal called a VPA with the EU. When the VPA is fully operational, only legal timber and timber products from Ghana will reach the EU market. Ghana knew there was no point ensuring its timber exports were all legal if its domestic market was not, so decided to include all markets in the terms of the VPA.

To support this effort, the EU funded a project led by Tropenbos International in partnership with the Ghana Forestry Commission and the Forestry Research Institute of Ghana. In 2007, the project launched a process that developed a consensus among representatives of chainsaw loggers, legal loggers, domestic timber traders, government and civil society about how to address illegal chainsaw logging. 

Audio: Ghanaian journalist Kofi Adu Domfeh reports on the economics and politics of halting illegal logging in Ghana

Alternative approaches

A key outcome from the multistakeholder dialogue is a proposal to replace chainsaw logging with artisanal milling systems. In this approach, groups of former chainsaw loggers legally access logs from large-scale concessions and use small-scale but modern milling equipment to process timber for the domestic market.

The project is testing models of artisanal milling in five communities has trained 274 former chainsaw loggers to use artisanal mills. Potential millers also received training in group dynamics and leadership, conflict management, efficient milling techniques and artisanal milling business management. To complement this new approach to milling, the multistakeholder dialogue also identified alternative livelihood opportunities such as agroforestry plantation development and charcoal production.

The pilot studies show that the proposed alternative to chainsaw logging can improve livelihoods whilst addressing illegality. But they also identify persistent challenges such as investment costs, dwindling timber supplies, corruption and a lack of legal access to land and trees. Civil society groups say small-scale permits are the solution to the latter obstacle. 

Measuring logs

Measuring logs

Ghana

Source: EU FLEGT Facility

Measuring logs

Ghana

Source: EU FLEGT Facility

Towards legality

When the multistakeholder dialogue began, lumber traders and others in the domestic timber market formed a union called DOLTA, the Domestic Lumber Trade Association. DOLTA engaged with the VPA process and the multistakeholder dialogue on chainsaw milling to press for reforms that would decriminalise its members.

Today the union is 25,000-strong. It advocates for widespread adoption of the proposal that emerged from the multistakeholder dialogue, and builds the capacity of its members to benefit from the proposed changes. The multistakeholder dialogue’s proposal has the backing of Ghana’s Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources and influenced the development of Ghana’s revised Forest and Wildlife Policy of 2012.

James Parker, who leads the project in Ghana for Tropenbos International, urges the government to go further and implement the policy proposal and action plan. This, he says, could help Ghana meet the terms of the VPA for domestic markets and secure tens of millions of euros in taxes and fees to reinvest in the forestry sector.

The project demonstrates the potential of VPA processes to identify and develop innovative policy options, although whether or not artisanal milling will solve illegality remains to be seen. So far, as part of its efforts to implement the project’s recommendations, Ghana has developed a public procurement policy. This requires timber products for government projects to be sourced from certified legal sources on the domestic market. It should create new incentives for former chainsaw loggers to put down their chainsaws and join the legal market.

Trees in local hands: problems and solutions for Ghana’s forests

Trees in local hands details how the team in Ghana are working on practical ways of securing local decision-making.

Source: IIED

Trees in local hands: problems and solutions for Ghana’s forests

Trees in local hands details how the team in Ghana are working on practical ways of securing local decision-making.

Source: IIED