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Saturday, February 24, 2024

Forest governance and answering nature’s call

Ghana’s forests have historically been the domain of the government and the timber industry. The often marginalised and impoverished communities who live in their vicinity had little or no say in how they were run. What’s more, until recently, locals would watch as vast profits from razing the tropical forests flowed out of their areas without trace. No longer.

Aboagyekrom Junior High School
Some students of the Aboagyekrom Junior High School in a group pose in front of the toilet facility constructed with money from the Social Responsibility Agreement (SRA) paid by timber firms operating in the area

Today, timber companies must share the benefits of the forests they log – either in cash or in kind – with communities who live within a five kilometre radius of their timber concession.

Although for several years, companies have been obliged to commit some money towards local forest communities, in truth this rarely happened. The catalyst for change was the Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) timber trade deal that Ghana signed with the European Union (EU) in 2009.

As part of the process of establishing the legality of its timber imports to the EU and elsewhere, Ghana overhauled its forest laws, passing regulations requiring companies to negotiate Social Responsibility Agreements (SRAs) with communities. Fundamental to these agreements is gaining the consent of the whole community, not just the local chief, as frequently happened in the past.  The impact of this change is now reverberating across Ghana – and people’s lives are being transformed as a result.

Alleviating an age-old problem

Take for example the village of Aboagyekrom, eight hours drive west of Accra, in Sefwi Wiawso Municipal District, an area noted for its rich, fertile soil and lush forests. Here the SRA the community signed with a timber company has helped alleviate an age-old, widespread health hazard. Aboagyekrom was once a community where school truancy was rife.

The reason wasn’t that children were lazy or didn’t desire education. It was simply that the only Junior High School (JHS) around did not have a toilet. The absence of toilets – which drives people to openly defecate – is of course not confined to Ghana.

Yet it is an enduring issue in a nation where, according to the World Health Organisation, about 5.7 million people are forced to relieve themselves in the open, and the lack of access to basic sanitation is considered one of the biggest threats to the nation’s socio-economic development. But, following the astute use of money the community received from an SRA, Aboagyekrom now has a toilet for the school that serves four additional communities: Odjobikrom, Mensahline, Gyampokrom and Tutucamp.

The simple four room facility for the staff and pupils is a source of communal pride. The toilet’s construction has removed parents’ worst headache: getting the children to stay in school and focus on learning. “Before this, we suspect the children were using the situation to play truancy, but there was nothing we could do about it,” says Solomon Dziwornu, Chairman of the Aboagyekrom SRA Committee.

“You see, we didn’t get proper education and we expect our children to do better than we have done in our lives,” he says. “Schooling is very important, so we wanted to ensure that we give to them whatever is needed to make them stay in school.” Another member of the SRA Committee, Ofori Ernest, says that since the school got the toilet, pupils have stopped defecating on nearby farms, a practice that polluted the stream which people rely on for domestic water.

The Aboagyekrom initiative fulfils the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on health and education, and is attracting wider plaudits, with the Executive Director of the Coalition of NGOs in Water and Sanitation, Basilia Nanbigne describing it as laudable. “Open defecation is one of the dangerous sanitation behaviours affecting the health, economic and social lives of people.”

“In Aboagyekrom, I see a beautiful picture of children who would otherwise have left the school premises to ease themselves, now staying and concentrating on learning, and girls who would have also missed school because of their menstrual period, are now in school uninterrupted,” Nanbigne adds.

But answering the children’s call of nature is not the only problem being alleviated by SRA money. Aboagyekrom now also has a new storehouse from money from an SRA contract with a second timber firm operating in the area, while the Sayerano township, which is around 40 minutes’ drive away, has constructed a one room quarter for a midwife to attend to the community’s health needs.

Benefit sharing across Ghana

Developments in Aboagyekrom fit into the wider story of Ghana’s ongoing attempt to rid its timber industry of corruption and illegality, and instead, share the spoils of the nation’s forests equitably, while enabling the public to scrutinise how the sector is run. The local environmental and natural resources NGO, Civic Response, who are working in partnership with Ghana’s Forestry Commission, are helping play a significant role in this.

Civic Response is currently documenting the benefits SRAs are bringing to forest communities the length and breadth of Ghana, to feed into the public portal of information on forest governance. This website, launched by the government in March 2018, provides updates on various aspects of Ghana’s timber sector, including logging permits, companies’ areas of operation and exports.

Since 2017, 299 communities from 11 forest districts across the country have received a total of 758,380 Ghanaian Cedi (GHS) (the equivalent of around EUR 125,185) from SRAs, and it is making a real change to peoples’ lives.

Elvis Oppong Mensah, a Programme Officer with Civic Response, says they decided to work in this area when they realised that there were conflicts within the process, with the key actors – namely the timber contractor, local communities, and Forestry Commission – often disagreeing on what had been negotiated for and how much had been paid.

Civic Response is impressed with the progress companies are making in ensuring they comply with the SRAs, although Mensah thinks that the percentage of money communities receive should be raised. “Compared to about five years ago, there has been a remarkable improvement now in companies signing SRAs with communities and fulfilling their promises. Wherever we have been to, communities are satisfied that at long last, they are also getting real benefits from their forests, instead of only strangers benefiting,” says Mensah.

Mensah explains that Civic Response goes to the District Forest Office to get information on timber contractors working on SRAs in the area, including on their estimated value, and the amount of money paid to communities. Afterwards, the team goes to the communities to validate the information.

If discrepancies are found in the data, they organise a meeting with the contractor, the local community and the Forestry Commission, to resolve the differences. If the data tallies, the team then investigate whether the money was used for the benefit of the entire community or whether it was hijacked by its elites.

Enhancing development

Dr Richard Gyimah of the VPA Secretariat at the Forestry Commission, underlines the legal principle SRAs are founded on. “If a timber company doesn’t have an SRA that has been negotiated and signed by the community and the contractor, they will not be eligible for a timber right and this is clear in the law. So, the VPA is only reinforcing what is in the law,” he says, adding that “SRAs are a good tool for development.”

A consultant with Tropenbos Ghana, Kwabena Nketiah, notes that SRAs are evidence under the VPA that a timber contractor has the good will and consent of communities, and more importantly, they ensure that those who live close to forests also benefit from the revenue they generate.

What’s more, those Europeans and others exporting timber from Ghana, can be secure in the knowledge that the people at the other end of the supply chain – in the tropical forests where the wood is from – are prospering from their natural resources, rather than suffering the disruption to their lives that the arrival of the lorries and chainsaws brought for decades when timber operators moved into their areas.

By Ama Kudom-Agyemang

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