Feature Article of Thursday, 13 September 2012
Columnist: Pan-Africanist Briefs
The West African nation of Ghana prohibits small operators using chainsaws
from logging its forests, but it permits the export of timber cut at large
sawmills. Now, some analysts are questioning whether such laws simply
benefit powerful business interests without helping local communities or
by fred pearce
The giant hardwood tree lay on a hillside in the West African state of
Ghana. George Ayisi, drenched in sweat and sawdust, painstakingly cleaned
the teeth of his chainsaw, then cut the freshly felled trunk into
five-meter lengths, and sawed the first of them lengthways to take out a
His companions from the nearby village rolled that huge segment onto the
ground, where they took it in turns to cut planks. It was precision work.
Barely a slither of timber was left behind when they downed their tools,
balanced the planks on their heads, and picked their way down the hillside
through a cocoa farm to the road. “The government says this is illegal,”
said Ayisi, spitting out sawdust, “but how can they tell us not to do this?
This is our land — these are our trees.”
Welcome to the illegal face of logging in Ghana. Around 100,000 villagers
are involved in this work — not usually in the rainforest (there isn’t much
rainforest left in Ghana), but on thousands of farms run by smallholder
owners who treasure their surviving large trees as money in the bank.
[Graphic Click to enlarge
Courtesy of Fred Pearce
Ghanaian villager George Ayisi uses a chainsaw to cut a massive tree trunk.]
Ayisi’s planks would later be trucked to a large lumber market that employs
some 600 people in the nearby town of Oda, northwest of the capital Accra.
It is one of dozens of such markets across the country — all entirely open
and all entirely illegal.
I toured Oda market with Kwame Attafuah, local organizer for DOLTA, Ghana’s
national union of chainsaw operators. “The government says we destroy the
forest and create deserts. But it’s lies,” he said. “We supply almost all
the timber used in Ghana. All the officials and ministers buy from us, but
they still blame us and make us illegal.”
Attafuah clearly had a point. Since 1998, all chainsaw-milled lumber
production, transport, and trade of chainsaw-milled lumber in Ghana has
been illegal. But the chainsaw operators still supply almost all the timber
used in the country, from humble chairs and wardrobes on sale by the road
in almost every town to the giant beams in the new national stadium in
This business operates in parallel with another, legal, industry that cuts
up timber at sawmills rather than using chainsaws, is dominated by a
handful of large companies, and is largely devoted to exports for Europe,
the U.S., and Asia, especially China.
With Ghana’s natural forests almost gone, many say Ghana has got its lumber
laws the wrong way round. It should legalize the chainsaw teams and the
domestic trade that Ghanaians depend on, and outlaw the exporters.
This is not just a conundrum for Ghana. For it goes to the heart of global
forest governance and the ambition — widely voiced at the recent Earth
Summit in Rio de Janeiro — to halt global deforestation by the end of the
To that end, there is a growing call for all importing nations to outlaw
illegally logged timber. In 2008, the U.S. amended the Lacey Act to
prohibit the import of wood that was harvested illegally — the world’s
first such ban. And beginning in March next year, the European Union will
have its own European Union officials are calling for reform of forest
governance inside timber-exporting countries like Ghana. regulations
requiring proof of legality for every timber load arriving at European
The theory is that, by backing existing domestic lumber laws with trade
sanctions, importers can improve forest sustainability around the world
without upsetting the national sovereignty of exporting nations. But what
if the domestic laws are all wrong? What if backing them makes a bad
situation worse, by providing a stamp of respectability for rapacious
timber giants, while reinforcing the criminalization of their smaller
rivals who supply local needs?
Those drafting the European Union laws are well aware of these questions.
While trying to outlaw illegal loggers from the international trade, they
are also calling for reform of forest governance inside timber-exporting
countries like Ghana.
Thus, Europe’s new timber regulations are intended to operate primarily
through a series of voluntary partnership agreements. Under these
agreements, exporting countries license legal timber companies and track
timber flows. But they also encourage environmental groups and other
representatives of civil society to get involved in deciding forest policy
and ensuring that those policies work for forest communities.
One reason for this European approach, which is much more interventionist
than the Lacey Act, is strictly practical. Rampant illegal logging is
obviously a big barrier to ensuring that timber exports are legal A union
official calculated that bribes paid to police for illegal transport of
lumber in his region totaled $100,000 a week. — the more so when it is as
routine as in Ghana.
Sitting in his office in the provincial Ghanaian town of Asamankese,
Patrick Agyei, secretary of DOLTA’s eastern region, calculated for me the
bribes paid to police for the daily passage of 20 trucks carrying lumber
from his region to Accra. At $750 a truck, it worked out at just over
$100,000 a week. Routine traffic patrollers were getting rich, he said —
not exactly providing incentive for cracking down on illegal logging.
The activities of chainsaw operators are frequently criticized by
environmentalists. But independent forest researchers I spoke to said this
is simply pandering to propaganda from their bigger, legal, more powerful
rivals. Small-scale chainsaw millers are the selective loggers, they say,
taking individual trees from farmers’ land rather than ransacking natural
forests. And because their work is sweaty and labor-intensive, they have no
incentive to waste the timber they cut.
The common perception that the small-scale operators waste more timber than
their bigger rivals is open to question. The most widely quoted study in
Ghana, by Emmanuel Marfo of the Forest Research Institute of Ghana,
estimated that chainsaw loggers only sold 30 percent of the timber they cut
— but that was scarcely worse than the commercial sawmills’ 38 percent. And
Ghanaian national statistics suggest that, with total annual wood sales of
1.9 million cubic meters and the harvest at around 6 million cubic meters,
30 percent is about the national average. If they are inefficient, they are
certainly not alone.
The demonization of the chainsaw operators is misplaced, according to
Elijah Danso, a forest consultant in Ghana for the last two decades.
Illegal chainsaw loggers are probably cutting as much timber as the legal
companies, while doing less environmental damage and more social good than
the legal sector, he says. A study by Ghanaian forest consultant Gene
Illegal chainsaw loggers do less environmental damage and more social good
than the legal sector, one consultant says. Birikorang, for the
Washington-based Rights and Resources Institute, suggested they also
deliver more than twice as much GDP as the legal sector.
The European Union would like to see the chainsaw operators brought within
the law. But the obvious route of changing the law seems to be blocked. “We
are not legalizing chainsaw operators,” said Chris Beeko, director of the
timber validation department at the government’s Forestry Commission in
Accra. Instead, he says, they will be encouraged to join the legal industry
by switching to mobile sawmills.
But the chainsaw millers I met dismissed this idea. Mobile sawmills cost a
great deal more than chainsaws, are far more difficult to take into the
field, and do not even do a better job. Such a policy is more likely to
squeeze out small operators than to improve timber extraction. That might
be just what the big operators have in mind.
But there is a more fundamental issue here — a failure of forest governance
in Ghana bigger even than the criminalizing of an essential national
industry. It is about the ownership of the forests.
While rural communities in Ghana control their land, the state has legal
ownership of the trees on that land. The Forestry Commission hands out
logging concessions, mostly to the large timber exporting companies, with
barely any compensation paid to communities.
In theory, those concessions are supposed to be allocated through
competitive tender, to prevent corruption. But in practice there are
loopholes. A prime example is Timber Utilization Permits (TUPs), which are
issued by the Forestry Commission and do not require competitive ‘The big
companies just come onto our land and do what they want. We don’t have any
right to stop them.’ tender because they are supposed to be for use by
local communities who want to log their forests non-commercially.
More than a third of the country’s logging concessions have been allocated
through 124 TUPs, according to a study this year by Jens Friis Lund and
colleagues from the University of Copenhagen. But he found that “all 124...
have been granted to timber firms, not community groups.” Many of these
firms have “no track record in the forestry sector,” according to Lund.
They appeared to be “rewards, possibly for political support.” The Forestry
Commission’s Beeko admitted that the system “had not worked well.”
Rural communities are supposed to benefit from taxes and other state
revenues from the timber trade. But in practice, says Lund, annual state
revenues add up to only about $20 million, or a paltry 6 percent of the
value of the timber at the time it is cut. And only a tenth of that revenue
gets back to communities, while more than three-quarters goes to the Forest
It is little wonder that those communities prefer to invite the illegals in
to cut their timber. Even though the price of domestically-traded timber is
much lower than that for export, the communities get a bigger return from
the chainsaw millers. The chief of Brakumans community near Asamankese,
Barfour Kwame Ackom, told me: “The big companies just come onto our land
and do what they want. We don’t have any right to stop them. We want the
government to legalize the chainsaw people because they are part of our
Ultimately, changing the destructive dynamics of Ghana’s forest industry
requires a fundamental reform of the ownership of the forests, according to
Danso, the forestry consultant. “If we changed ownership so that farmers
could profit legally from every tree that was cut on their land,” he says,
“then they would be much more likely to protect their trees.” That, surely,
is the lesson of other “tragedies of the commons” around the world. Only
some form of ownership encourages responsible management.
But meanwhile, the prospect for the serious forest reforms that could bring
that about in Ghana are receding, say local activists. “Those of us who
want reform don’t see it happening,” says Danso. “The government and its
civil servants have learned to please the European Union and our own NGOs
with rhetoric, but without delivering reform.”
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READ MORE Lund, of the University of Copenhagen, has little doubt about the
reason for this. “The [existing forest] governance regime has served the
entrenched interests of an economic and political elite [that has] resisted
any attempts at reforms that could threaten its favorable position.” This
is bad news for Ghana’s surviving natural forests. Danso believes the
government is resigned to losing them. “Its attitude is that when the
forests are gone, they will do plantations,” he says.
In the final cynical rush to grab the last forests, the demonization of the
small-scale chainsaw operators is convenient — but largely false. These
operators are not angels. But they are mostly meeting local needs through
selective logging on existing farmland, while providing income for local
farmers and employment for local communities. They are as essential to a
country like Ghana as smallholder farmers. They and the communities they
come from should be supported and encouraged to take control of their
The real villains are elsewhere — whatever the law may say.
POSTED ON 16 AUG 2012 IN ENERGY FORESTS POLLUTION & HEALTH AFRICA AFRICA