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Thursday, September 28, 2023

Saga of issuance of timber legality licenses in Ghana (2)

Ever since, Ghana’s forestry sector stakeholders learnt about the fitness check the European Union (EU) conducted in 2020 on the Forest Law Environment Governance Trade (FLEGT) system in Ghana, an uneasy calm seems to have settled on the sector.

Samuel Abu Jinapor
Minister of Lands and Natural Resources, Samuel Abu Jinapor

This unease is, perhaps, as a result of the findings and conclusions of the interim report, which are not favourably disposed towards continuing the FLEGT and the Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) between the European Union (EU) and timber products exporting countries including Ghana. This is because, the current status of FLEGT is seen as not commensurate with the huge amount of funding and time invested.

The unease could also be due to the fact that the EU has not yet responded to the appeal by a group of civil society organisations and concerned individuals to the block, not to abandon the FLEGT-VPA process. It is almost two months since the appeal was made, and stakeholders are now wondering if the EU will eventually abandon the FLEGT-VPA process as suggested in the report.

A Natural Resources and Governance Consultant, Kwame Kyeretwie Opoku, is of the view that the EU will not abandon the FLEGT-VPA process. Speaking on the issue in an interview, he stated: “Rather, they will put something else in place, because they will still have to access our timber resources.

Kwame had personally not expected much from the FLEGT-VPA, especially after witnessing only one incomplete bidding process for Timber Utilisation Contracts (TUCs). This process of accessing timber resources was introduced as part of the forestry sector reforms in the late 1990s and was meant to replace the discretionary allocation of timber concessions.

But the process was stopped after members of the timber industry refused to continue, when they realised that some of the lots they had bided for were empty of timber stocks. They complained to the Forestry Commission (FC) and were hopeful that the anomaly will be rectified. But this was not done. Therefore, the expected conversion of concessions into TUCs never materialized and has become one of the issues that has slowed down the process of issuance of FLEGT licences in Ghana.

Kwame, who is a founding member of Forest Watch Ghana, is convinced that industry and FC are both responsible for this failure in the process, which is currently being addressed. He believes that the FLEGT process in Ghana has staggered, “because FLEGT was only tolerated in government as it came with considerable cash, which was an incentive for participation.” Thus, FLEGT-VPA became the standard and once a country showed seriousness with the process, all forest sector programmes, got funded.

He opined that “the FLEGT package focused mainly on technical administrative issues, which alone could not result in the desired change in the sector,” explaining, “FLEGT did not deal with the central political question, which has to do with power relations in resource management that revolves around who has the power, the interests of who has the power, who doesn’t and how to change the power equation.”

Kwame insists that the argument should therefore not be about the money invested so far or the time spent, “but about whether the method used has delivered the results that we want.” He agreed that the cause of protecting the forests, protecting the rights of forest communities and ensuring that Ghana gets its fair share of timber and forests products exports is a noble cause and there is no question about that.

“But the question is whether this can be done through certification or whether technical solutions can help,” Kwame queried, noting that “technical solutions funded by donors will not address the fundamental political problem of who welds the power, which is with the state and industry, while the EU has vested interest.” Thus, the state, industry and the EU, all have interest in the continuity of timber from Ghana.

He stated that with the current focus of FLEGT, all that will change is a little bit of awareness within the EU itself and other countries with vested interests in our country. “And this will only bring some change in innovation, but it is never going to change the fundamental issues at stake,” adding, “you deal with the power relations, and then audits, management plans and established systems will become relevant. If the power relations is not dealt with, all the other things will not change anything.”

He, however, strongly believes that FLEGT has brought a very significant value to the forestry sector. “For me, the value is that it has brought local stakeholders around the table, made them aware of what was happening and got them into advocacy work…”

The Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Ghana Timber Millers Organisation (GTMO), Dr. Kwame Asamoah Adam, agrees with Kwame that FLEGT has brought about a strong institutional collaboration within the forestry sector, saying, “it is highly commendable that now NGOs can talk to the private sector and the regulators, and even sometimes harass them.”

In an interview, he also agreed that there was a lot more to do to ensure that the objective of FLEGT in setting up a system to reduce trade in illegal timber was achieved. Dr. Adam said if all the stakeholders in the supply chain play their expected roles, FLEGT will work very well and this should not be seen as the sole responsibility of the private sector.

“After all, the resource is managed and allocated by government, who is also responsible for setting the rules and law that governor the sector. So they have to apply the law and make the rules work. The private sector is supposed to buy the material from the government through the competitive bidding process and this should be operationalized and followed by the private sector. So, if the government complies with the requirements, private sector will also comply, then it will work,” Dr. Adam explained.

He is confident that FLEGT license could be issued in Ghana by the end of this year, if the Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources (MLNR), the FC and Parliament are able to work quickly to ratify the conversion of concessions into TUCs.

By Ama Kudom-Agyemang

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