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Ghana: Independent Forest Monitoring will strengthen legal compliance, say experts

Despite Africa’s dwindling forest resources over the years, institutions and organisations continue to evolve strategies to salvage the integrity of what is left of the continent’s forests.  One of the strategies being applied now is the Independent Forest Monitoring (IFM).

Independent Forest Monitoring
Participants at the African Sub-Regional Conference on Independent Forest Monitoring in Accra, Ghana

The IFM is a strategy for addressing one of the identified drivers of deforestation, which is the weak or non-enforcement of sector regulations. It is an international tool for assessing and strengthening legal compliance in the forest sector and geared towards complementing official forest law enforcement activities.

This tool comes with the objectivity and public credibility of an independent third party, which experts say can improve transparency in the short term, while contributing to the development of a sound legislative and regulatory framework for responsible forest management.

The IFM is structured to function within the Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) between the European Union (EU) and timber producing countries including Ghana that trades with the EU. Therefore, the VPA operational framework provides for an officially appointed Independent Monitor (IM), who is responsible for auditing the overall legal assurance system.

Civil society has also been playing an active role in the IFM process within the continent in countries such as Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo as well as Liberia. This is known as the Civil Society led Independent Forest Monitoring (CSIFM). It is aimed at enhancing the effectiveness of the IM’s role through regular, investigatory, analytical, watchdog and policy advocacy work.

In Ghana, the Civic Response (CR) organisation, is leading moves for the adoption of the CSIFM process with funding from the European Union (EU), under the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade (FLEGT) programme.

And as part of the IFM implementation process, CR has organised the first ever “African Sub-Regional Conference on Independent Forest Monitoring,” in Accra, on the theme: “Improving Forest Governance through Effective Independent Forest Monitoring.”

The two-day event was attended by participants from government institutions, civil society organisations, the private sector, forest-dependent communities, international organisations, academia, and donor orgnisations from countries within the sub-region.

The conference was held to among other things, build a forestry sector consensus for the operationalisation of the CSIFM in the country.

Deputy Minister for Lands and Natural Resources, Benito Owusu Bio, who opened the conference on behalf of the sector Minister, Peter Amewu, stated that the IFM should, “… not be used as a witch hunting tool or a post due diligence tool to FLEGT licenses issued.”

He stressed, “We intend for IFM to be used as a pre-due diligence tool to ensure that FLEGT licenses issued are credible and provide adequate feedback to continually improve forest management practice and systems.”

Mr. Bio called for the sharing of best practices as well as negative ones from which Ghana can learn as the practice of IFM is new to the country. He hoped experts from the Central Africa sub-region, particularly those in the Congo Basin who are already implementing forms of the IFM, will develop expert teams to guide the implementation of the IFM in other parts of Africa.

The Deputy Minister recalled that previously, forest management was focused on “ensuring that the timber industry had access to timber.” He noted that the situation changed, following moves and subsequent dialogues by civil society in 2004 on the need to improved forest governance, which culminated in the signing of the Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) between Ghana and the EU in 2005.

Mr. Bio said government sees the VPA “as a vehicle to address governance challenges … as well as legality of timber on the domestic markets, rather than just as a mechanism for exporting legal timber to the EU.”

He expressed concern about Ghana’s inability to issue a FLEGT license, after 10 years of signing the VPA and traced the situation to major political  hurdles such as “the conversion of existing leases, which expired in 1998 as a result of the coming into force of the 1998 Timber Resources Management Act 1998 (Act 547).”

The Act required existing leases to be converted into Timber Utilisation Contracts and Timber Rights Fees to be paid by the holders. But this did not happen.

Another hurdle Mr. Bio talked about was the controversy around the use of Special Permits. He said, “The claim has been that the discretionary powers and arbitrariness associated with issuance of special permits by the Minister undermined transparency and accountability.”

According to Mr. Bio, these issues have almost been resolved with a draft Legislative Instrument (LI) developed in conjunction with key stakeholders to address these concerns. He said the LI will soon be laid before Parliament, and was certain that “once is passed into law, it will do away with all the political hurdles that has prevented Ghana from issuing a FLEGT license.”

Other speakers at the opening ceremony were the FAO African Regional Director, Magnus Grylle and a representative of the EU, Chris Ackon. They reminded participants of the importance of forest monitoring in forest management and the need to appreciate the element of transparency, which is crucial for the VPA process. They stressed on the need for cooperation of all stakeholders to sustain transparency in forest management.

Earlier, the Executive Director of the Timber Industry Development Division (TIDD), Dr. Ben Donkor, welcomed the participants to the conference on behalf of the Chief Executive Officer of the Forestry Commission (FC), John Allotey.

He said the new thinking in forest monitoring presents opportunities for various actors at different entry levels and identified three levels of forest monitoring within the VPA system.

Dr. Donkor stated that the first level is performed by the now established Timber Validation Board, within the FC. It is responsible for the legality compliance checks.

He said the second level of monitoring is the role of the Independent Monitor (IM), whose duty is to audit the entire operation of the Legality Assurance System (LAS) including the workings of the internal auditor and the Timber Validation Department. Dr. Donkor announced that Ghana’s contracted Independent Monitor has already issued two witness reports on the operation of the LAS covering 2014 and 2015.

The third level of monitoring is associated with non-state actors such as civil society organizations contributing to forest governance. Dr. Donkor explained that this level presents an opportunity for very innovative initiatives from CSOs.

The Technical Director in-charge of Forestry at the Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources, Musa Abu-Juam, was chairman for the session. He urged the implementers of the CSIFM to sharpen the focus of the project by incorporating lessons from other countries that are already utilizing the tool.

It is worthy of note that the element of transparency in the Independent Forest Monitoring process, is central to reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change   (UNFCCC).

The conference was a collaborative effort supported by the EU, UKAID, the Swedish government, Rainforest Foundation UK, the University of Wolverhampton, UK and the Forestry Commission.

By Ama Kudom-Agyemang, Accra, Ghana

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