- For generations, those who lived by Ghana’s forests invariably saw their lives get tougher when timber companies arrived in their areas: access to the forests they relied on was restricted, while the wealth generated from the logging eluded them.
- Overhauling Ghana’s forest laws has meant trying to resolve this through new regulations that require companies to negotiate Social Responsibility Agreements (SRAs) with the communities living within a five-kilometer radius of their logging concessions. Under these agreements, the timber companies must share the benefits of the forests they exploit with the people who live there.
- In the past, any agreements between timber companies and local people would be conducted by the local chief. This left the door open to chiefs enriching themselves by capturing rents at the expense of their communities. But an SRA needs the consent of the entire community, and when people have a voice in the decisions that effect their lives, the power starts to spread.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
Sefwi Wiawso doesn’t feature in Ghana’s tourist guides. Its main town, Wiawso, is little more than a single road — albeit one bursting with vitality and color, with hawkers selling their wares and people milling about in animated conversations.
But being off the beaten track — or, more specifically, an eight-hour drive west of Ghana’s capital city, Accra — is no measure of the district’s significance.
“So many of our natural resources come from this area: timber, cocoa, gold, food crops,” says Raymond Ennin, an enthusiastic 30 year-old community activist with local environmental and resources NGO Civic Response. “The region supports the rest of Ghana, but the people aren’t seeing enough of the benefits.”
Until now, most of the proceeds from sales of the natural resources harvested in Sefwi Wiawso have gone into a few pockets, Ennin explains as we drive out of Wiawso along undulating red dirt roads.
We pass tropical forests where the vegetation is so dense it seems to be in a state of rapture. Heavy trucks laden with timber rumble by, deepening the crevices in the already rutted road.
The trucks represent a tiny cog in the wheel of an industry that is crucial to Ghana’s economic health, accounting for about 11 percent of export earnings. For decades, though, the timber sector has been rife with illegality and corruption.
In 2004 alone it is estimated that Ghana lost more revenue from illegal logging — $100 million (€83,271,000) — than it received in development aid. Endemic illegality led to disappearing forests. Between 1990 and 2005, an estimated quarter of Ghana’s forest cover vanished.
Yet today, the country is on the brink of becoming the first in Africa (and the second in the world after Indonesia) to issue a FLEGT license for timber exports, meaning that it has met the stringent legal standards required for access to the lucrative EU market.
Our drive through Sefwi Wiawso’s hinterland is to gauge how the protracted process of strengthening Ghana’s forest laws, which is integral to Ghana’s timber trade deal with the EU, is playing out on the ground.
Sharing the spoils
For generations, those who lived by forests invariably saw their lives get tougher when timber companies arrived in their areas: access to the forests they relied on was restricted, while the wealth generated from the logging eluded them.
Overhauling Ghana’s forest laws has meant trying to resolve this through new regulations that require companies to negotiate Social Responsibility Agreements (SRAs) with the communities living within a five-kilometer radius of their logging concessions. Under these agreements, the timber companies must share the benefits of the forests they exploit with the people who live there.
Civic Response has been ensuring that these agreements are respected by being a conduit between communities, timber companies, and authorities across Ghana. They have also been training people to effectively monitor and protect forests.
To this end, Raymond Ennin, who was born and raised in Sefwi Wiawso, spends his days traversing the scattered villages that lie on the fringes of the district’s dense forests.
Our first stop is Aboagyekrom, a cluster of brick dwellings with corrugated iron roofs and a church: an inevitable feature in a country where there seem to be as many churches as petrol stations and religion is central to so many people’s lives.
Around 20 residents gather in the community meeting area, an open building shaded from the tropical sun. Ennin translates, and their prime grievance is made immediately clear: Cocoa farming is the lifeblood of this community, which numbers around 3,000 people if those living in the outlying areas are counted, but it is failing to deliver enough money for them to live on.
The main cocoa season runs from October to December. In the off-season farmers are forced to take out loans to get by, which they constantly struggle to repay — locking them into a vicious cycle of debt.
The SRA that the community has negotiated with the two timber companies operating nearby hasn’t broken this cycle — and couldn’t realistically be expected to. It has, however, brought notable gains.
“Previously we saw no benefits [from the timber companies],” says cocoa farmer Solomon Dziwornu. “Now because of revenues from our agreement with one of them we have built a toilet for our school [which previously had none], and constructed this building [where we are seated]. We’ve also been promised a computer lab.”
After the meeting, Solomon and three others walk a couple hundred meters to proudly show us the new toilet. In the small brick classroom opposite, children in intricately patterned green uniforms are engrossed in their studies.
Beyond such material advances, the SRA has brought something less tangible — but surely more far-reaching — to the people of Aboagyekrom.
In the past, any agreements between timber companies and local people would be conducted by the local chief. This left the door open to chiefs enriching themselves by capturing rents at the expense of their communities. But an SRA needs the consent of the entire community, and when people have a voice in the decisions that effect their lives, the power starts to spread.
This is evident on our next stop, a small farming community 40 minutes’ drive away, nestling in the shadow of the rolling hills of the Sui forest reserve.
This time, the group of residents we speak to is smaller, but the message is the same: “Before the companies would give money to the chiefs,” explains cocoa farmer Emmanuel Gyebi, “now it goes to the community.”
The community has spent the money they’re entitled to under the SRA on buildings that will significantly improve their lives: accommodation for a midwife, renovating the village market stall, and completing work on a previously abandoned police station.
Yet the negotiation process has not been entirely smooth, and challenges remain.
“We are educating the community, but the Forestry Commission [responsible for regulating forests and wildlife] aren’t responding when we tell them that contractors are harvesting more timber than they should,” says Gyebi.
If, as Gyebi suggests, some timber is being illegally logged, then the rules governing the protection of the forest start to break down.
Yet the fact that he — and the rest of this community — not only know their rights, but are trying to exercise them, marks a radical departure from the past.
It is part of a democratic wind blowing through the villages around Ghana’s forests. One which, if properly nurtured, can signal the end of the illegality and corruption that have defined Ghana’s timber industry for so long.
Mark Olden is a press advisor for the NGO Fern. He has been a journalist for more than two decades and has written for UK national newspapers and formerly worked for the BBC and Channel 4 News.
This article is from Voices from the Forest, Fern’s forthcoming publication featuring reports from various tropical forested countries.
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