Contrary to stakeholders’ high expectations in Ghana’s forestry sector, the scheduled issuance of the country’s first Forest Law Environment Governance Trade (FLEGT) licences or Timber Legality Licences in December 2020 will not happen. This is because the country’s state of readiness for the licenses to be issued is incomplete.
For instance, still outstanding is the conversion of Timber Leases or Concessions into Timber Utilisation Contracts (TUCs) in line with the sector’s legal requirements and provisions under the Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) that Ghana and the European Union (EU) signed in 2009.
The conversion process involves preparation of the application documents by the Forest Services Division (FSD) of the Forestry Commission (FC), submission to the Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources (MLNR), signing of documents by applicable Timber Firms and onward submission to Parliament for ratification.
The thinking was that the MLNR could have finalised the process and submitted to Parliament before the year ends. But this was not to be, for obvious reasons including the impact of COVID-19 in eroding working time and the timing coinciding with the on-going election campaigns and eventual voting procedure. Others also attribute the miss to non-prioritisation of the conversion of the extant leases.
Issuing Mock Licenses to test FC Readiness
So in the interim, “we decided to issue mock FLEGT licences, which are not for the market at this time, but for every consignment that we are able to clear legally,” says Director of the Timber Validation Board (TVB), Chris Beeko. He explained that “the rationale is to ensure that FC is in a state of readiness, for the actual licences to be eventually issued.”
This means that consignment should have met all the requirements within the systems mandated under the Agreement, and which the FC has put in place. One key establishment is the Timber Legality Assurance System (TLAS) comprising the country’s definition of legal timber, chain of custody to track the movement of legal timber backed by the establishment of the Ghana Wood Tracking System, appointment of an Independent Monitor, and formation of the Timber Validation Department (TVD) and Timber Verification Committee (TVC) to verify the legal origins of timber products for export to the EU. The Timber Industry Development Board (TIDD) is the FLEGT Licence issuing authority.
Updating members of the Legal Working Group at one of its fourth quarter meetings organised by ClientEarth in Accra on Tuesday October 27, 2020, Chris explained that “the new system has been establish to ensure that unless a timber consignment has been adjudged to have respected all legality requirements, it cannot be issued with a FLEGT Licence.”
In other words, a consignment should be sourced from a proper TUC or with the proper legal permits. While, the timber in the consignment should also be legally harvested, in accordance with Legal Standards including respect of environmental rules or regulations regarding harvesting. Thus, every aspect of the process is verified.
“So, from allocation, harvesting, transportation and milling including payment of the associated taxes for the different processes such as stumpage and land rent as well as honouring SRA obligations, everything is put together to see that, that consignment is clean or legal. That is what enables TIDB to issue one with the mock licence.”
But getting to this point has been a long, slow and tedious development, So, what has kept the Director of the TVB, who has been the scheduled officer on his toes all these years?”
Responding to this question in an interview, Chris stated: “My motivation is that, first of all, 10 or 12 years ago there was no electronic Wood Tracking System that collated and analyised data to flag out red flags. Today, there is an electronic tracking system that enables us to systematically reconcile timber flow data and flash out inconsistencies.”
He emphasised: “…and that has become our working tool and our business processes enabled by this very thing. So there has been a change in practice.”
Providing more details about how far the preparation on the ground has reached in relation to the country’s preparedness towards issuing FLEGT Licenses, he noted that 10 years ago, there was no forest audit that was measuring compliance. Therefore actors in the regulatory system which is FC and its divisions, specifically – TIDB, FSD and the Resource Management and Support Centre (RMSC), could not effectively measure industry’s compliance and report in a transparent manner that allows them to apply corrective measure requirements.
“Today there is a Forest Audit System that generates Legality Audit Reports that are respected and attended to and I think this is a huge step forward,” Chris stated, noting that “…because these things are now part of our standard operating procedures, if you look at what is required to issue the FLEGT Licences, we are operating them all. The only thing left really, is for us to show that we have a policy process that is able to convert leases and permits to TUCs. That’s all.”
At the moment, Chris feels like he is waiting to exhale. “It’s like I’m doing a 400 metre race and I have done 350 metres and I still have some energy left and you ask ‘do you think this guy can finish,’ that’s definitely YES. Once the conversion is done barring any unseen legislative or political process in Parliament, the process is on.”
However, a feeling of disappointment on Ghana missing the December target can be sensed in the European Union, the initiators of the FLEGT VPA process and its major funder. Touching on this issue, Chris said, “…I know that the anticipation and desire would have been that having worked with us all these years on these processes, we could have finished it.”
He pointed out that the delay has been due to certain national conditions, which could not be by passed. “But this is what the local or national conditions allowed and I think disappointed as they are, they will have to live with it and hopefully, continue to give their support to those that they can support in the system to help us to finish the process of coming out with the licenses.”
Stakeholder concerns and next steps
All the other key stakeholders particularly civil society organisations (CSOs) such members of Forest Watch Ghana and the Legal Working Group are equally unhappy about Ghana missing the December target. This is because of the energy they pumped into activities towards it. For instance EcoCare embarked on a campaign to prompt the Ministry to hasten the process towards converting all extant leases.
However they are also hopeful that Ghana will make it this time, come March 2021. So they still want to be part of the on-going Joint Monitoring Assessment of the TLAS, so they can make an input into the report.
Per the FC’s outlined timetable, the final Assessment Report should be ready before the end of December. Subsequently, a Joint Monitoring Review Meeting (JMRM) will be held to discuss the Report, after which Ghana’s readiness to issue a FLEGT License by March 2021, will be announced.
The other outstanding activity, which should be completed by then, is the on-going preparation of updated management plans for all productive forest reserves. From the FSD perspective, the idea is making them more robust to respond to current and anticipated challenges as well as give them a longer life span of 20 years instead of the current 10 years.
By Ama Kudom-Agyemang