A quiet revolution in Ghana’s forests

A quiet revolution has transformed Ghana’s forestry sector, laying the foundations for sustainable development, greater benefits for communities and improved access to international markets.

A decade ago, much of the country’s timber was illegally-harvested. Law enforcement was weak and there was little accountability and transparency. Timber companies were defaulting on their legal obligations with respect to local communities.

Illegal logging was also depriving Ghana of lost revenue. “The loss of stumpage revenue alone was around USD 18 million per year,” says James Parker, West Africa representative at BVRio, a non-profit association promoting trade in legal timber. 

Since then, there has been a “drastic improvement” says Parker. He says that, after reviewing existing laws and policies, Ghana developed a clear, consistent definition of legal timber and, where necessary, improved legislation and policies regulating the timber sector. “Conflicts resulting from illegal logging have reduced. Law enforcement is being improved. Illegal logging is declining.”

Forestry Commission officials examining a map indicating species, size and location of trees in a forest concession

Forestry Commission officials examining a map indicating species, size and location of trees in a forest concession

Forestry Commission officials examining a map indicating species, size and location of trees in a forest concession

A fresh development is the Ghana Timber Transparency Portal. The website, launched in March, provides real-time access to information on logging permits, companies and areas, and on timber exports to different markets. It will help foreign importers perform due diligence on Ghanaian supplies while giving independent monitors here the information they need to scrutinise the sector.

“Without credible information, it is not possible for local communities or civil society to work to address illegalities in the forest sector,” said Samuel Mawutor, coordinator of Forest Watch Ghana in a statement. “The development of the portal comes as good news to civil society, and also demonstrates the commitment of the Forestry Commission to be open about forest management.”

The portal resulted from a collaboration between the Forestry Commission and civil society organisation Civic Response that, not long ago, would have been unthinkable. “In 2004, the relationship between civil society organisations and the Forestry Commission was confrontational and full of suspicion of each other’s intents,” says Albert Katako, head of Civic Response.

What brought them together was Ghana’s decision to pursue a trade agreement with the European Union (EU) to address illegal logging, improve forest governance and promote trade in legal timber products. Ghana and the EU signed the agreement 2009 and have been implementing it since then.

The Government came to realise that civil society organisations were not only out to criticise but were bringing useful information and analysis, says Katako. This earned these organisations a seat at all consultative processes in the sector, he says. Today, the Government, timber industry and civil society now deliberate together on forest governance and law enforcement, working together to develop legislative reforms and improve systems.

Katako says that, unlike in the past, collaborative stakeholder processes to address issues and achieve shared objectives have become institutionalised in the sector. “The forest sector is leading the way in transparency and accountability for other sectors to emulate.”

The new spirit of partnership is exemplified by a package of policies and reforms the Government has developed recently in consultation with people affected. “They are based on consensus, meaning every stakeholder has ceded some positions to reach an acceptable text for the law,” says Mawutor of Forest Watch Ghana.

New regulations adopted last year, for instance, require all companies acquiring any kind of logging permits to negotiate social responsibility agreements with local communities. They also commit the Forestry Commission to unprecedented transparency. 

The new online portal is intended to help with this by providing public access to information on forest management. It links to a new tracking system, which checks whether the law is being followed all the way from when a tree is cut down, to when it is turned into a product such as a piece of furniture.

Trees in Sefwi Wiawso, Ghana

Trees in Sefwi Wiawso, Ghana

Trees in Sefwi Wiawso, Ghana

One challenge is ensuring that the new reforms and systems benefit all players. “The larger exporters are generally supportive,” says Gustav Adu of the Kumasi Wood Cluster Association. They see the changes “as a way to address illegal logging, improve efficiency in their companies and promote sustainable forest management while giving them access to EU markets for high value products.”

“Businesses are, however, waiting to see how effective the new laws and systems will be,” he says. “And some parts of the industry, especially the smaller companies and informal businesses serving domestic markets, are concerned about raw material availability, increased production costs, and the extra skills and capacity they will need in order to comply with the new systems.”

The regulations enacted last year go some way to addressing these concerns. They introduced a new category of small-scale timber permits, which allow small and medium enterprises to legally access timber. Communities are set to gain too, says Katako. He anticipates more financial benefits for forest communities and greater roles for communities in managing forests and monitoring them to report illegalities.

Ghana’s transparency portal was developed in collaboration with Civic Response (a natural resource and environmental governance policy advocacy group in Ghana) and the country’s Forestry Commission, as part of the Civil Society Independent Forest Monitoring (CSIFM) Project funded by the EU, the Swedish International Cooperation Agency and UKAid through the FAO-EU FLEGT Programme. For more information, see the FAO-EU FLEGT Programme website.