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Opinions of Friday, 20 June 2014

Columnist: Daryl Bosu | Environmentalist

Rosewood: Most expensive, fastest selling commodity in Ghana today

‘Resources are not - they become’ is the popular adage that guide planners, managers and businesses. This is the true reality of the case of the current illegal harvesting and trade in Rosewood in Ghana. Rosewood as the name suggests, is a finely grained timber used mainly for the production of very expensive furniture for the elite class in Asia. It is used also for making chess pieces, parts of other creative and musical instruments, and as such very highly prized in Asian countries, particularly China.  China alone imports close to 96% of all rosewood lumber exported out of Ghana.

In the northern region, until 2010/11, rosewood was only used by women for the production of charcoal. Some ethnic groups in Northern Ghana use its branches and twigs to build local houses and manufacturing specific components of the local xylophone. Used traditionally, the rosewood species had no threat of been wiped out. Four years ago, one would have been described as insane to predict that rosewood would become the fastest selling and most expensive commodity in Ghana.

Rosewood is currently being sold cheaply in Northern Ghana as common firewood by the roadside but as expensively as diamonds on the elite streets of London. It has moved from a market value of less than 3 Cedis to over 50 Ghana Cedis in less than a year on the timber market in Ghana. 3 years ago, this species was of insignificant commercial value and not even listed as one of the high demand timber species in Ghana. Though rosewood exports from Ghana actually begun in 2005, it is only in the last 3 years that the trade has increased significantly, turning it into the fastest selling and most expensive commodity in Ghana today. According to records from the Timber Industry Division of the Forestry Commission of Ghana, the trade in volumes of rosewood has increased from 125 cubic meters in 2005 to over 40,000 cubic meters by close of market year 2013.

Rosewood is found in open forest and wooded savannah mostly in the forest savannah transitional zone and parts of the northern savannah woodland ecological zone. It is predominant in six of the ten regions in Ghana, namely: Ashanti, Brong Ahafo, Northern, Upper East, Upper West and Volta regions. Rosewood harvesting and trade in Ghana started with salvage logging first during the construction of the Bui hydro power dam, and then more recently during the construction of the Fufulso-Sawla Road, both in Northern Ghana. What started as legal salvage activities for the removal of trees of commercial value within the catchment of the Bui dam and Fufulso-Sawla road construction zones has turned into the biggest illegal harvesting and trade in any timber species ever in the history of Ghana.

According to existing Acts and Legislative Instruments regulating forestry and the timber industry, for timber to be legal in Ghana, it has to meet certain criteria covering the (1) source, (2) resource allocation, (3) harvesting operations, (4) transportation, (5) processing, (6) marketing, and (7) fiscal regulatory systems. In terms of resource allocation, an issue that is central to this report, three modalities are specified and approved by legislation. These are: Competitive Bidding, Timber Utilisation Permit (TUP) and Salvage Felling. With respect to Salvage Felling or permit, current legislation allows the issue of permit for salvaging trees from an area of land undergoing development such as road construction, expansion of human settlements or cultivation of farms. Right from the onset, the harvesting and trade in Rosewood in Ghana has been mainly through the Salvage Felling. Salvage permits have mainly allowed the collection of abandoned logs/billets. These permits however never seem to expire as new ones are issued allegedly to avoid the situation where they are destroyed by fire during the dry season

The harvesting and trade in rosewood has exposed the weaknesses and greed of leadership both within the traditional administrative system and the institutions and agencies responsible for securing our natural heritage. Trade has brought to light the abuses of existing policy and legal frameworks by sector heads and other authorities, as well as political expediency in the face of market forces for monetary gains. Trade and export of rosewood is shrouded in a lot of impropriety, to the extent that even regions which are not timber concession areas such as the Upper East, Upper West and Northern Regions of Ghana as well as areas without development activities as stipulated by the Salvage Permit regulation, have all become the targets of current logging and salvage permits for ‘abandoned logs’ that mysteriously keep replenishing themselves.

Increases in the volumes traded coupled with improprieties and irregularities have resulted in two official bans on the trade and export of rosewood. The first one, in 2012, was issued by the late President of Ghana, His Excellency Evans Atta Mills, may his soul rest in peace. This ban was followed by the famous confiscation of illegal rosewood by a task force set up to bring to a halt the illegal, and subsequent mysterious disappearance of the containers of rosewood at the Tema Port. The second ban was announced by the Hon Alhaji Fuseini, Minister for Lands and Forestry in September 2013, to take effect from 1st of January 2014. Operators were however given three months grace period to wrap up their activities. 

Since 1st January 2014 however, despite the ban, seven companies were partially given the permit to continue to export this “commodity”. The hardest hit districts are North Gonja, West Gonja, Central Gonja, Bole and East Gonja Districts as well as a few others in Upper East and Upper West Regions. At the time of publishing this report, there is a permit to salvage logs from these areas till September 2014.

The concern with the trade and export mostly stem from the issuance of salvage permits even for areas where there is no development activity necessitating the salvaging of trees. Even more disturbing is the absence of any monitoring activities on the ground by the Forestry Commission to ensure that allocated volumes are actually what is been collected. This brings us to the bigger concern of all, which is “why these logs are lying down” in the first place, thus enabling the issuance of continuous exemptions for new logs to be collected before dry season fires destroy them, as indicated by the Operations Director for High Forest Zone of Forest Services Division under the Forestry Commission of Ghana. The legal timber regulations of Ghana clearly indicate that for someone to fell trees with a chainsaw, the operator should have a license from the respective District Assembly and a timber permit from the District Forest Office. All these regulations have been grossly abused and as result, fresh cutting of rosewood continues in all the hardest hit areas despite the fact that there is not a single permit authorising the cutting of fresh wood. Contrary to what is stated on various salvage permits issued, timber operators are funding fresh logging activities so they can continue to ask for salvage permits from the Ministry and also from the Executive Director of the Forestry Commission, who unfortunately either for insufficient information or for financial incentives award the salvage permits. The authenticity of the later remarks has not been verified but a serious investigation needs to be conducted to ascertain why the Forest Services Division continues to give salvage permits allowing merchants to source timber from fragile ecosystems in the three northern regions of the country. 

With permits still being issued by the Forest Services Division, sometimes with the blessing of the Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources, traditional authorities in the hardest districts of the northern regions are taking advantage to cash in on the open and unregulated harvesting and trade in rosewood. A number of communities are now under siege from chainsaw operators who work night and day, and cut trees in any habitat without regard to existing farmlands and watershed areas in the fragile landscapes of the savannah eco-zone. Both young and old have become involved in this thriving trade, with teachers and students abandoning the classrooms to join the pillage to enrich themselves.

The agrarian economy of most of these District Assemblies in the northern regions has become threatened. These Assemblies have become so overwhelmed they are compelled to take revenue from the timber traders. The police as well as the forest service division staff in these areas mandated to ensure law and order as well as respect for the forest and timber regulations of Ghana. They have, however, shed their responsibilities and resorted to chasing operators in the bush for their share of the money. Elegant pick-ups with Chinese and Ghanaian occupants are a common sighting in remote areas where hitherto, an ambulance could not reach to deliver emergency medical care. Tractors supplied to communities to aid farming activities have now become the means by which felled logs are conveyed to dumping sites for the loading trucks to transport them to the port in Tema.

Some Forest Reserves in the Northern Region are under attack as serious felling is ongoing, with some encroachment from recalcitrant chainsaw operators now putting a lot of pressure on Mole National Park, the premier protected area in Ghana. Communities have become victims of the market, and just by mere coercion or small payments, they are forced or enticed to aide these merchants in the destruction of their own environments.

Clearly, in the face of thriving trade and growing market value, our leaders have thrown caution to the wind and are busily enriching themselves by supporting and allowing the carnage wrought by the continuous harvesting of rosewood, even in critical ecosystems, to continue. If there is another motivation why this trade continues without an end in sight, then the authorities should explain themselves publicly so we can get off their backs. A number of questions have been asked and remain unanswered by responsible agencies and their respective heads in relation to a number of key issues including the illegal felling and trade in rosewood, especially in the three northern regions of Ghana, some of which are stated below:

·      Why do the authorities, particularly the Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources and also the Forest Services Division, continue to issue salvage permits for abandoned logs for areas where there is no developmental activity?

·      If Salvage Permits are issued to enable the collection of abandoned logs, how did these logs come to be lying on the forest floor? Did they just fall from the sky?

·      Who is monitoring the activities of timber merchants?

·      Who is enforcing the countries’ laws and regulations on timber management in Ghana?

·      If, according to existing laws and regulations, felling these trees is illegal, then these logs are therefore illegal. So the question is, who do they eventually get exported to, what syndicate at the ports or at the forest services division is aiding this illegal logging and trade?

·      The two major developmental activities which prompted the issuance of salvage permits for areas in Northern region are almost at their end, but the salvage permits continue to be issued even beyond the project completion dates. Why? How is this possible?

·      If we cannot ensure compliance of existing timber management regulations can we as a nation keep our part of the bargain under the Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) and Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade (FLEGT) in our partnership with the European Union?

·      Is it asking too much if we request the establishment of a national task force to investigate why the harvesting and trade in rosewood is getting out of hand? Without dictating the terms of reference for this task force, may I suggest that the investigation should focus on the licenses that are issued, the sources of these licenses, the actual revenues lost to the state and, even more importantly, the authenticity of the timber companies who keep receiving permits to continue salvaging abandoned logs?.

·      There are serious allegations of political expediency at the root of this illegal harvesting and trade, to the extent that all permit holders are connected to the ruling party. Ghanaians need to know the truth so the country and, more importantly, the affected institutions, can make the necessary reforms in the environmental sector to ensure this does not happen ever again in this or any other sector of Ghana’s fledging economy.

·      Today a lot of money is changing hands so the rosewood trade can thrive. Are the authorities really concerned about the long-term implications of this massive logging in critical ecosystems like the savannah zones of this country?

·      To the forestry commission especially, may I ask how they are living up to vision ‘To leave future generations and their communities with richer, better, more valuable forestry and wildlife endowments than we inherited’? From what I am seeing all over the country with respect to our forest resources, I cannot but observe that we are rather walking in the opposite direction than living up to the vision.

·      Is the country truly committed to the Convention on Biodiversity, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and to stopping desertification, or are we as always paying lip service to all of this?

Until the illegal felling and trade in rosewood stops, the international community should not take our commitments to halt environmental destruction seriously. Even China, who is the major importer of the species for which our authorities are condoning the massive destruction of our environment, has robust and stringent forest and timber regulations in place. For how long will our leaders, placed in positions of authority and power, continue to sell our natural heritage for a pittance, consumed by greed, condemning the masses to long-term suffering and hopelessness?

The vision is right, but if changing the captain on the ship is required so we can see true and positive changes in the environmental indicators of this country, then so be it.