Business News of Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Source: B&FT

Our Timber

Forests, at least the type of forests we have in Ghana, are synonymous with timber. Tropical rainforests are the world’s best source of timber.

Sadly, though, the cost of timber on the local market is cause for concern to consumers of this product. Carpenters, woodcarvers, canoe makers, coffin makers, and those in the construction industry have had cause to air their grievances on the high cost of timber in Ghana.

It is a fact that timber is one of the many natural resources that Ghana has been endowed with. For one reason or another, talk about timber exports have not been at the forefront of the export and international trade of Ghana. Until the 1990s, timber was easily the third-highest export earner for Ghana.

Timber was grossing about five to seven percent of Ghana’s GDP, and this was only after cocoa and gold. Owing to mismanagement and dwindling forest resources including timber, the importance of timber in the export earnings of Ghana keeps depreciating. With the emergence of great earnings from the service sector, non-traditional exports, agricultural sector, and the oil industry, timber can slip into oblivion as far as contribution to GDP is concerned.

This development coupled with the earlier situation of timber unavailability and high cost on the local market is cause for concern. If the timber is not readily available on the local market and it is not being aggressively exploited and exported, then where is our timber?

Our Forests

At the turn of the last century, Ghana was mostly covered by lush forests of various classifications including tropical virgin forests. As with most of the natural resources bestowed upon us, a lack of environmental awareness and diligent environmental management practices has led us to a point where the resource is depleted with little or nothing to show for its exploitation.

Although we are in an era of sustainable development, there is a general lack of this culture in Ghana, and the forestry sector is no exception.

A drive along the trunk roads in the south of Ghana seems to show or reveal many forests with pretty good coverage. The few hectares of forest cover left in Ghana are present as scattered patches littering Southern Ghana. This is very deceptive but we must not be deceived by it.

A visit or drive up north, however, shows that there is some level of desertification which attests to deforestation. The facts and scientific computations lend credence to the fact of deforestation in Ghana. For those who may find facts and statistics labourious, you can quickly skip to the next section.

For those engrained in rigid scientific proofs, the following figures may help establish the situation as pertains on the ground now.

In just about half-a-century, Ghana’s rainforest cover has been reduced by a whopping 90 percent. The alarming and unacceptable part of this worrying trend is that we lost as much as 26 percent of our forest cover in just 15 years (between 1990 and 2005).

This translates into 1.9 million hectare of forest cover. Currently, the deforestation rate of Ghanaian forests is put at 2 percent per annum or 115,400 hectares per annum. Deforestation rate used to be .13 percent between 1980 and 1985. If this trend is not reversed, Ghana can kiss timber and forest resources goodbye soon.

The economic importance

In its glory days, timber was the third-highest contributor to GDP. This means timber exports were bringing in a lot of foreign exchange earnings to support government developmental programmes, as well as helping in stabilising the cedi-dollar exchange rates.

The nature of government expenditure would make it difficult to place a hand on one particular development and say this was as a result of timber exports. However, with its contribution to GDP, it played a key role in the infrastructural and other developments that we may have today.

On the microfinance level, the timber trade was also very important. This sector provided employment for some 70,000 Ghanaians. Knowing how the Ghanaian social network and structure works, the real beneficiaries of the timber industry could easily be five times this number.

Even today, illegal timber sawing and the charcoal industry offer employment for numerous Ghanaians. With the current unemployment constraints, these people cannot be thrown into that group as well.

Lots of indirect economic gains also accrue to Ghana through the local timber market. With government focus on infrastructural development and calls for affordable housing, timber supply needs to go up if the local market demand is to be met without upward price forces. There are also the furniture companies that source their timber locally.

Last but not least, wood from our forests including timber, accounted for about 75 percent of Ghana’s energy requirements in the 1990s.

This means the disappearance of our timber and forests will leave Ghana with a wide energy deficit that cannot be made up.

It is now a common sight to see charcoal in the capital, as LPG shortages have become rampant and the order of the day. A depletion of our timber resources means Ghana and Ghanaians will suffer directly too.

Where are our forests going?

Following on from the last point raised, fuel-wood or firewood requirements is one of the greatest killers of forests and hence timber. In most rural areas, there is a total lack of electricity or gas so domestic energy requirements are met only by fuel-wood.

Due to cost implications, the extension of the national grid to rural areas has not necessarily reduced dependence on fuel-wood for energy.

The recent movement by government to shift Ghanaians onto natural gas was beginning to take off, but the government has thrown a rod into the spokes with the repeated shortages. So, even right here in the capital Accra, many people are moving back to dependence on charcoal. With our high population and population growth rate, this development means the deforestation rate of Ghana will definitely rise to exacerbate our already precarious situation.

The failure of Ghana to develop agriculture beyond subsistence farming is another forest killer. The lack of commercial and mechanised farming means that agriculture is dominated by small family-holder farmers who still use slash and burn agriculture with low-yield varieties and no fertiliser application.

Thus, every couple of years, a new forest area has to be deforested if their subsistence lives are to be sustained. With still about 54 percent of the population into agriculture, the contribution of bad agricultural practices to deforestation is enormous.

The last but by no means least has been operators in the timber industry themselves. Overexploitation of a limited number of timber species in the early days led to a ban on 14 primary species of timber in 1979. As we did not learn our lessons, over-exploitation continued and in ten years time, another four species were added to the banned list.

To date, we have not learnt our lessons and we are overexploiting the secondary species. There are also reports of logging companies not giving the recommended forty-year grace period for forests to recover from activities of logging.

Additionally, the logging industry has not seen much technology infusion. Chain-saw operations, although banned, are still pervasive.

The licenced commercial operators can also be faulted for not improving the technology they are utilising. This results in high levels of inefficiency in lumbering and processing. According to experts, Ghana extracts a mere 25 to 40 percent of total timber logged. The wastage rate is horrendous and unacceptable.

Other terrible agents of deforestation are bushfires, be they wild or human activity-related. Bushfires cost the nation a lot in the 1980s, including the famous, or more appropriately, the infamous hunger of 1983. With the combined effect of increased desertification and global warming, bushfires are likely to be more rampant and more catastrophic in outcomes. Human activity-related bushfires can therefore not be countenanced.

‘Sankofa’-- restoring the glory of timber

The role and importance of timber in development has not declined. If anything, it has appreciated in value. Ghana thus stands a golden chance of making more revenue from timber exports that it did in the 1940s to 1980s. Having been recently promoted to a middle-income nation, and also leaping into an oil economy status, the development of alternative industries and sources of revenue is more imperative than ever before. Nonetheless, the world is growing wearier of the effects of deforestation and is thus ready to partly sacrifice valuable timber on the altar of sustainable development.

All that is required of Ghana is to manage the timber industry in a sustainable fashion for long-term sustained gains, instead of just exploiting it for fleeting short-term gains. Between 1968 and 1977, Ghana was able to replant 400 km2 of logged forests into logged-over forest reserves.

Why are we now doing a paltry 10-20 km2 per annum? Ghana has demonstrated the ability to do replanting to maintain and sustain our forests and timber. In this era of global warming and climate change, Ghana should be working to replant more logged forests and not doing less. Climate change will soon threaten our cocoa, and with oil and gold being finite resources Ghana ought to beware.

The option of commercial timber plantations can also be looked at. Where private participation is a problem, the government can look at plantation forests using, say, the National Youth Employment Programme.

Even the cultivation of timber species is a problem; there is always the option of planting fuel-wood species so deprived rural areas can turn to these for energy and not engage in illegal deforestation and depletion of our forests and timber.

Such plantations exist in many European countries and Ghana can learn from them. Additionally, environmentally-oriented civil society groups, especially the environmental NGOs, have to do more of practical tree plantations in addition to their educational activities.

We cannot talk about enhancing timber without talking about the greatest destructive force to timber -- slash and burn agriculture. Slash and burn agriculture accounts for about 70% of Ghana’s deforestation.

This occurs because our subsistence farmers do not use fertilisers and other modern agricultural practices. For the safety of Ghana’s food security and timber production, the subsidised fertiliser programme for cocoa farmers should be extended to food crop farmers as well.

This way, these small farmers will not have to clear our forest and timber every three years or so because the land is now infertile.

From the few remedies listed, it is very obvious that each of them is at worst a two-edged sword that solves the problem of deforestation in addition at least one other problem. Trying to restore timber would restore and bring aboard several other benefits.

Restoration of forests through timber would not only give us sustainable revenue from timber, but revenues from eco-tourism, and possible removal of fauna such as the pygmy hippopotamus, forest elephants, birds, and several other species from the endangered species list.

The activities of these animals in themselves are crucial to the dispersal of seeds without which the forest cannot sustain itself or grow. As it is usually said, the cure for AIDS and other diseases yet to emerge might very well lie in the trees and herbs in our forests.