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UK greenheart restriction could put pressure on Guyana’s logging economy

Logging concession in Kwakwani, Guyana. Photo by Akola Thompson for Mongabay

Logging concession in Kwakwani, Guyana. Photo by Akola Thompson for Mongabay

  • Greenheart is one of the toughest and most durable woods known to man, and is particularly suited to marine and freshwater based applications. The UK instituted a ban on its import earlier this year.
  • Over the last four years, greenheart exports generated $27 million for the Guyanese economy.
  • Greenheart represents over 18 percent of Guyana’s logging industry production, of which timber is a major export earner – it brought in $45.6 million just last year.

KWAKWANI, Guyana – On most weekday mornings, 46-year-old Jennifer Edwards wakes up in the town of Kwakwani, deep in the heart of Guyana’s southern logging country. She goes about her morning ritual, sees her family off, and then heads to work at her co-managed logging concession about 30 miles away. It’s tough work, and just getting there is a challenge.

“Most of we don’t own vehicles and so to go in, so we either take a ride in with a logger…or we hire something,” Edwards said in Guyanese Creole, the dialect commonly used amongst area residents, in an interview with Mongabay. “Sometimes you hope and pray that someone going your direction, ‘cause to hire something is expensive.”

Involved in the logging industry for over 25 years, a few years back Edwards partnered with 51 year-old Devina Palls, a member of the regional forest production association. Formed in 2001 to help small loggers gain logging concessions, the association now has over 180 members and 16,000 acres under the State Forest Permit.

Once on the job, Edwards oversees two workers and examines and measures greenheart (Chlorocardium rodiei) and wamara – or Guyana rosewood – (Swartzia leiocalycina) tree species selected for harvest. Greenheart is a tropical hardwood particularly suited for marine and freshwater construction, and is crucial to Guyana’s forestry industry. It is one of the few places in the world where greenheart – one of the toughest and most durable woods known to man – can be found.

For small logging concession owners, it’s been steady business.

Representing 18 percent of the production of the logging industry, over the past four years greenheart exports generated $27 million, according to the Guyana Manufacturing and Services Association (GMSA). Timber is a major export earner for the small nation of Guyana, and brought in $45.6 million just last year. The GMSA functions as liaison for various industries and the government, including forestry and forest products.

Piles of greenheart logs on the road near Kwakwani, Guyana. Photo by Akola Thompson for Mongabay
Piles of greenheart logs on the road near Kwakwani, Guyana. Photo by Akola Thompson for Mongabay

Yet now the impact of a UK Environment Agency (EA) advisory ban on the import of greenheart could create difficulty for Edwards and others like her in the industry. The advisory was issued in 2015 and went into effect in mid-2016 just as the previous longstanding Guyanese government administration was exiting. The current government has publicly stated that relations with the UK during that period were “at an all time low.”

The EA noted that the restriction on greenheart imports is necessary due to insufficient certification standards and lack of proof that trees are harvested from “sustainably managed forests.” According to the International Timber Trade Organization, Guyana’s forests are mostly intact and the country has a large growing-stock of hardwood timber and a broad forest resource base.

Logging concession owners like Edwards and Palls say they go by the book.

“We work with all the rules of Guyana Forestry Commission and we try and make sure everybody else work with it too, ‘cause if one make bad, everybody suffer,” Edwards said. “So we cut and make sure we maintain height and girth for re-sprouting.” The GFC has collaborated with international agencies over the years to impose restrictions on logging to ensure harvested trees are cut properly and that only mature, merchantable trees are harvested. This is done so as to ensure proper re-growth.

Kwakwani loggers Jennifer Edwards in tractor, and (l-r) Devina Palls and Lorraine Franco. Photo by Akola Thompson for Mongabay
Kwakwani loggers Jennifer Edwards in tractor, and (l-r) Devina Palls and Lorraine Franco. Photo by Akola Thompson for Mongabay

Current government representatives plan to press their case for reversal of the decision in face-to-face meetings with UK government officials in early 2017. The species and its trade power with the UK are immensely important. Up until a year ago, greenheart was being widely used in sea defense projects by UK contractors.

“Greenheart is literally at the heart and soul of Guyana’s timber industry,” said Minister of Natural Resources Raphael Trotman in a statement.

The cost of sustainability

While UK standards aim to support environmental sustainability,  going through the audit process to prove sustainability can be expensive. One of EA’s requirements is certification by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), the world’s foremost wood-products sustainability certification body. The smaller the logging concession, the more the five-year FSC certification costs per member. Direct audit costs start at about $10,000 per five-year term for a concession of about 2,500 acres, according to the FSC. If the logging group has 100 members and up to about 50,000 acres, the price goes up to around $35,000. That’s roughly $350 per member.

Critics say the Iwokrama logging concession shows that FSC certification may not be a viable goal for everyone in the industry. Iwokrama, which is part sustainably managed forest reserve and part eco-tourism site, obtained proper certifications for greenheart export to the UK, but it came with a price tag of hundreds of thousands of dollars. In fact, according to Andrew Mendes, director of McVantage of Guyana Inc., which operates the sustainable forestry portion of Iwokrama, it would have been impossible without help.

“Iwokrama received a grant for $300,000 so that we could do this,” Mendes said. Iwokrama manages a 371,000-hectare forest in central Guyana to show how tropical forests can be conserved and sustainably used. The grant was funded by Caribbean Aqua-Terrestrial Solutions.

For small- and medium-sized concessions with a more traditional approach, like the Edwards-Palls operation, certification simply isn’t an option.

“Small concession holders and operators cannot find money to get FSC certification,” Mendes said. “It’s an involved and expensive process.” He adds that the forestry sector is being given “more and more hoops to jump through” and needs a proactive approach to change.

Logging concession in Kwakwani, Guyana. Photo by Akola Thompson for Mongabay
Logging concession in Kwakwani, Guyana. Photo by Akola Thompson for Mongabay

“Negative reinforcement through bans and extra regulations essentially make it cost prohibitive for small- and medium-sized enterprises to access these more sustainable markets and in reality drive them to other, potentially more destructive uses of the forest to earn a living,” Mendes said.

According to the FSC, small concession holders do have options.

“Providing support to overcome the challenges faced by small concession holders (smallholders) is a high priority for FSC,” Tallulah Chapman, a spokesperson for the FSC’s UK office, said in an email to Mongabay. “If a producer qualifies as small or low-intensity according to FSC eligibility criteria, FSC offers certification options and support that can reduce the costs of certification.”

Those options include streamlined auditing procedures, self-grouped owner certification, and an FSC fund to help offset the costs of preparing for certification. According to Chapman, the FSC knows there is more to be done, and part of their five-year plan, launched in 2015, includes an emphasis on increasing FSC certification in tropical countries.

Yet the process of proving sustainability is just one difficulty facing the greenheart industry.

According to the GMSA, increased restrictions on forest management practices could impact the livelihoods of those directly employed in industry. Residents of rural and indigenous communities are especially at risk, and sometimes they are one and the same as the logging industry.

For Palls, who has four children and is her family’s sole breadwinner, the UK greenheart restriction is worrying. While she has yet to feel the impact, she believes it’s only a matter of time. According to Palls, any slight change in price can severely affect profits, “which are already small” given high costs of production and transportation. According to Palls, her transportation costs alone can exceed $1,500 for every transport of logs to the capital city of Georgetown.

Lingering issues

According to a white paper published by the Guyana Forestry Commission (GFC) in November 2015 entitled “Sustainable Management of Greenheart,” 23 percent of all greenheart lumber exported goes to the UK. That’s gone down to about 8 percent since the UK first issued its advisory, according to the GMSA.

There is also the matter of goodwill and cooperation at the level of foreign diplomacy. Essentially, the Guyanese government is unhappy with how the UK restriction came about.

In an interview with Mongabay, GFC Commissioner James Singh said that no communication or consultation was made with local industry stakeholders before the greenheart restriction was implemented. He added that after the advisory was sent out, the GFC and several other stakeholders had teleconference calls with the EA in which they admitted they did not make consultations with anyone.

Children playing near the road in Kwakwani, Guyana. Photo by Akola Thompson for Mongabay
Children playing near the road in Kwakwani, Guyana. Photo by Akola Thompson for Mongabay

That teleconference was verified to Mongabay by the chairperson of the GFC, Jocelyn Dow, the GMSA spokesperson and president of Forest Products Association, Deonarine Ramsaroop, and McVantage of Guyana Inc.’s Andrew Mendes.

“They asked about information on independent audits done under the Guyana Norway agreement,” Singh said. “This showed that they did not do an in-depth research as these audits were available right on our website.”

The EA could not be reached for comment on the teleconference or on the greenheart restriction.

Guyana’s systems of monitoring and verification to ensure sustainable and legal logging have been tested and proven by the European Union’s Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade program (EU-FLEGT) and by Norway. Norway has a $250 million agreement with Guyana to protect its forests and ensure sustainable management. The ITTO, Yale University’s Environmental Performance 2016 Index, and Global Forest Watch have all noted Guyana’s low deforestation rate, which the GFC reported in 2014 stood at less than 1 percent.

Singh says that although some larger concessions are sustainably managed, “some of the small concessions have been harvested for decades and most of the high value mature commercial trees have been removed.”

That means the next steps will be critical, both for the industry and for individual concession holders.

“What we are thinking of doing now is leaving these concessions untouched for a period between 30 to 40 years to allow for the regeneration of these prime species,” Singh said. “These would be areas of 5 to 10,000 acres.”

New rules

Many small- and medium-sized concessions are unable to meet the extensive new requirements or the economic and human resource setbacks of the UK restriction. Roderick Aitken, managing director of one of largest buyers of greenheart from Guyana in the UK, Aitken and Howard, notes that Guyana is one of the best-managed tropical forests he has ever seen. Aitken has been active in trying to get the UK restriction rescinded.

“We were trying to present independent audit reports to the UK to show how Guyana does prove sustainability but up until now, they’re not accepting evidence,” he said. “We can’t even bring someone from the EA down to see because it is deemed as bribery.”

Aitken believes the problem is partially perception.

“The problem we have as an industry is that when someone in the west thinks of tropical logging, they see an image put into their head by an environmental NGO about those who are clearing the forest,” he said. “That is not forestry – that is agriculture, that is mining. As far as the EA is concerned though, Guyana does not have [the right certification] and as such they won’t accept from Guyana.”

Akola Thompson is a freelance journalist based in Guyana, where she writes “Against the Grain” for the Guyana Chronicle

Banner image: Logging concession in Kwakwani, Guyana. Photo by Akola Thompson for Mongabay


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