Between 1990 and 2005 Ghana lost an estimated quarter of its national forest cover. Illegal timber harvesting was rife, and poor governance and a lack of transparency plagued the forest sector.
Things began to change for the better from 2008 with the introduction of the Natural Resources and Environmental Governance programme, an initiative supported by international donors on the basis that Ghana agreed to reform its forest sector, and improve the governance of its natural resources more generally.
One of the commitments Ghana made was to embark on a Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) with the European Union (EU).
The VPA is a timber trade deal that – uniquely - tackles the causes of illegal forest destruction by involving civil society groups, forest community representatives, the timber industry and governments in shaping more just laws. As such, the definition of legality is reached through the consensus of all who have a stake in the country’s forests.
After years of often painstaking negotiations involving the Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources, the Forestry Commission and civil society groups such as Forest Watch Ghana, reforms to the country’s forest laws and policies are close to concluding.
Ghana is set to become only the second country in the world (after Indonesia) to issue a so-called FLEGT license for timber exports. This guarantees that timber has been harvested, processed and exported legally.
Already, institutional change in our forest sector is reaping benefits for forest communities across the country.
In the past, when a company was awarded a contract by the government to harvest timber in a specific area, the people who lived around it would see none of the wealth generated by the forests’ exploitation. All too often their lot worsened, as the logging disrupted their lives and limited their access to the forest resources they relied on. This was despite Ghanaian law saying that local communities, represented by their chiefs, owned their forests.
Now however, companies are required to show proof of a social responsibility agreement, which requires them to pay benefits to communities in the area, or build local services like schools or water pumps.
Yet, just at the point that the threat to Ghana’s forests from illegal timber harvesting has receded, and their benefits are being more equitably spread, the danger from mining has grown.
Hunger for bauxite, one of the world’s main sources of aluminium, which is also used - among other things - in hydraulic fracturing (fracking), is threatening precious forest reserves such as the biodiversity-rich Tano Offin, Atewa and Fure River. Campaigners have united in protest.
Over the past few years, as the price of gold has soared, people from China and elsewhere have sought riches in Ghana from open cast gold mining, particularly in the densely forested areas in the west of the country.
Local miners, known as ‘galamseys’ (from the phrase: gather them and sell) have scraped a living for decades this way. But because politicians have got involved and regulators have turned a blind eye, it’s now happening on an unprecedented scale, with heavy equipment, and is causing conflict within local communities, destroying local water supplies, and turning landscapes and forests into wastelands.
There was optimism when Ghana elected a new government in December 2016: at the heart of their election manifesto was a promise to deal with galamsey mining. They are keeping their word -but, unfortunately, by cracking down on the local-level miners themselves, rather than the more serious sources of corruption at the top.
No heads have rolled at the regulatory authority and no politician is being prosecuted or investigated for this mess, despite reports that some of them invested in and benefitted directly from the mining boom.
Meanwhile Chinese nationals - involved in small-scale operators - are being vilified for the part they play. China has protested about how it has been portrayed, and declared its support for the rule of law in Ghana. Though there is a general consensus on the need to halt the environmental destruction, the news of China’s intention to invest about 15billion USD to destroy two important forest ecosystems: Tano Offin and the Atewa Forest Reserve, for bauxite sends very worrying signals.
Ghana must indeed make sure it has the right laws to halt this destruction, that these are being followed, and that the powerful businessmen and politicians helping drive this industry are held to account.
And China needs to assume greater environmental responsibility as a global powerhouse and climate leader.
If this doesn’t happen, then we risk squandering the advances Ghana has made in tackling illegal logging through the VPA.