The politics and economics of rosewood timber

Many Ghanaians believe that “everything is politics” – be it water and sanitation, illegal mining, pollution of water-bodies, all types of environmental degradation, crime and even education and the food we eat, and many a time assume political colourations.

It came as no surprise that over the past few weeks the harvesting and exporting of rosewood timber became not only an environmental and economic issue, but quite naturally assumed political undertones – with accusations and counter-accusations between the ruling New Patriotic Party (NPP) and opposition National Democratic Congress (NDC).

The rise of rosewood timber on the national and international media agenda was prompted by a report from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a United States-based NGO which noted in the report that the illegal trade and felling of rosewood has continued despite a ban since 2012. The report said Ghana is a victims of China’s insatiable demand for rosewood. The question on the lips of many Ghanaians is, why is this specie of timber so special and in such high demand?

According environmental experts, it is a finely-grained timber used mainly in the production of very expensive furniture for the billionaires and elite class in Asia. It is used also for making chess pieces, parts of other creative and musical instruments, and as such is very highly prized in Asian countries – particularly China and the oil-rich Arab countries. It is estimated that China alone imports close to 96% of all rosewood lumber exported out of Ghana and other parts of Africa.

Though rosewood exports from Ghana actually began in 2005, it is only in the last 3 years that the trade has increased significantly, making it the fastest-selling and most expensive commodity in Ghana today. According to records from the Timber Industry Division of the Forestry Commission of Ghana, the trade in volumes of rosewood has increased from 125 cubic metres in 2005 to over 40,000 cubic metres in 2013 and still higher, judging from the current trends in its demand.

The EIA indicated that since 2012 over 540,000 tonnes of rosewood – the equivalent of 23,478 twenty-foot containers or approximately six million trees – were illegally harvested and imported into China from Ghana, while bans on harvest and trade have been in place. This has been disputed by officials of the Forestry Commission.

The EIA report found that “a massive institutionalised timber trafficking scheme, oiled by high-level corruption and collusion”, has rendered ineffective the 2012 and 2014 ban on exports of rosewood. In fact, the recent seizure of several truckloads of rosewood bound for Tema Port have been traced to some opposition members of Parliament from some constituencies in the Upper East and West Regions. But the opposition members have in turn accused some members of government of fuelling the harvesting and exporting of rosewood.

 

Salvage permits

The EIA report cited the fraudulent use of ‘salvage permits’; mis-declaration of timber species; use of ‘escorts’ to deal with control points; forging of official documents, and retrospective issuance of permits as among the mechanisms used to conduct the illegal timber harvesting and trade.

Even more disturbing is the absence of any monitoring activities on the ground by the Forestry Commission to ensure that allocated volumes are what is being collected. This raises the critical question of why and how these logs were felled in the first place to warrant the issuance of continuous exemptions for new logs to be collected.

Unfortunately, rosewood is found in open forest and wooded savannah; mostly in the forest savannah transitional zone and parts of the northern savannah woodland ecological zone. Rosewood occurs in six of the ten regions in Ghana: namely Ashanti, Brong Ahafo, Northern, Upper East, Upper West and Volta Regions. But it is in the north, especially savannah regions, that the harvesting has become so destructive.

Rosewood harvesting and trade in Ghana started with salvage logging during construction of the Bui hydro power dam, and then more recently during construction of the Fufulso-Sawla Road, both in Northern Ghana. The road was constructed by a consortium of Chinese companies, with close links to top officials of the previous administration.

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So, what started as a legal salvage regime for removing trees of commercial value within the catchment of the Bui dam and Fufulso-Sawla road construction zones has become the biggest illegal harvesting and trade in any timber species in the history of Ghana.

The law

According to existing Acts and Legislative Instruments regulating forestry and the timber industry, for timber to be legal in Ghana, it has to meet certain criteria covering the (1) source, (2) resource allocation, (3) harvesting operations, (4) transportation, (5) processing, (6) marketing, and (7) fiscal regulatory systems.

In terms of resource allocation, three modalities are specified and approved by legislation. These are: Competitive Bidding, Timber Utilisation Permit (TUP) and Salvage Felling. With respect to Salvage Felling or permit, current legislation allows the issue of permit for salvaging trees from an area of land undergoing development – such as road construction, expansion of human settlements or cultivation of farms.

Curiously, however, since 2005 the harvesting and trade in rosewood has been mainly through the Salvage permits, ordinarily used for the collection of abandoned logs/billets.  Disturbingly, these permits never seem to expire, as new ones are issued regularly to avoid the situation where they are destroyed by fire during the dry season.

The legal timber regulations of Ghana indicate that for someone to fell trees with a chainsaw, the operator should have a licence from the respective District Assembly and a timber permit from the District Forest Office. All these regulations have been grossly abused, and as result fresh cutting of rosewood continues in all the worst-hit areas, despite the fact there has not been a single permit authorising the cutting of fresh wood since 2014.

Contrary to what is stated on various salvage permits, timber operators are busily funding fresh logging activities in order to ask for salvage permits from the ministry and also from the Forestry Commission. This needs to be seriously investigated.

 Weaknesses

One commentator has noted that the harvesting and trading in rosewood has exposed the weaknesses and dishonesty of leadership, both within the traditional administrative system and the decentralised institutions and agencies responsible for securing our natural heritage.

In fact, the trade and export of rosewood is shrouded in a lot of secrecy – to the extent that even regions which are not timber concession areas such as the Upper East, Upper West and Northern Regions of Ghana have become the targets of current logging and salvage permits for ‘abandoned logs’ that inexplicably keep replenishing.

Ineffective bans

As stated earlier, despite two official bans on the trade and export of rosewood, increases in the volumes traded are on the rise. The first ban in 2012 was issued by late President Prof. John Evans Atta Mills. This ban was followed by the famous confiscation of illegal rosewood by a taskforce set up to combat the illegal trade.

Strangely, confiscated containers mysterious disappeared from the Tema Port. The second ban was announced in January 2013 by the Minister for Lands and Forestry, Alhaji Inusah Fuseini, to take effect on January 1, 2014. Since 1st January 2014, however, seven companies were partially given permits to continue to exporting this ‘commodity’.

Agrarian economy

The hardest hit districts are North Gonja, West Gonja, Central Gonja, Bole and East Gonja districts; as well as a few others in the Upper East and Upper West Regions, where poverty is the highest in Ghana. From 2012 onward, these areas recorded a boom in chainsaw activities, with rosewood being felled in the dead of the night.

Articulated trucks are being loaded at mid-night, while chiefs and elders happily take a paltry GH¢1,000 (thousand cedis) per articulator truckload of rosewood.  What’s worse is that natives from the regions, especially Gonjaland (now Savanna Region), are the force and financiers behind devastation of the few trees God endowed the area with.  In fact, before the change of government in 2016, top politicians from the Gonja areas of Northern Region (now Savanna Region) were the sole source of exporting the commodity to China.

Due to the uncontrolled harvesting of rosewood, the agrarian economy of the current savanna region has come under increasing threat. In fact, District Assemblies from the Savanna have been so overwhelmed by the demand for rosewood that they have no option than to take revenue from the timber traders.

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Police and staff of the Forest Service Division have also been cited for taking bribes and compromising their surveillance over rosewood harvesting. As a native of the Savanna and the entire Northern Region, I am unhappy about wanton destruction of the savanna forest. I remember that, in 2013, one of my nephews asked me to buy a chainsaw for him to engage in rosewood harvesting.

On principle, I rejected his suggestion and explained to him that our environment needs to be preserved for future generations. He labelled me a ‘wicked’ man in the village, who did not want to get rich and help him to get rich. He has since not spoken to me.

Traditional authorities

The EIA report alleged that despite the ban on rosewood, the Forest Services Division, the Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources and traditional authorities are still awarding licences to rosewood merchants.  As a result, several communities from the north have been besieged by chainsaw operators.  Both young and old are now involved in this thriving trade, with teachers and students abandoning the classrooms to join the plundering of our environment.

As you read this article some forest reserves in the Savanna Region are scenes of serious rosewood felling; a trend that is threatening the Mole National Park, one of Ghana’s few protected reserves. As a result, poor communities have become victims of market forces; and through a combination of coercion and trivial payments, these poor people are compelled to connive with the merchants in the destruction of their own environments.

Questions

Several questions have been asked by previous commentators, which remain unanswered by responsible state institutions and agencies. These questions are so pertinent that I will repeat them and join other stakeholders to demand answers.

  1. Why do the authorities, particularly the Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources and also the Forest Services Division, continue to issue salvage permits for abandoned logs in areas where there is no road construction?
  2. If Salvage Permits are issued to enable the collection of abandoned logs, how did these logs fall to the ground?
  3. Can we as a nation keep our part of the bargain under the Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) and Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade (FLEGT) in our partnership with the European Union?
  4. Are the authorities really concerned about the long-term implications of this massive logging in critical ecosystems like the savannah zones of this country?
  5. Is the country truly committed to the Convention on Biodiversity, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and to stopping desertification – or are we as always paying lip-service to all of this?
  6. If rosewood export has become central to our economy, should government not consider setting up one district, one factories in the affected areas, so the trade can at least improve the local economy?

Perhaps, all stakeholders should advocate the establishment of a national taskforce to investigate why the harvesting and trade in rosewood has gottin out of control? The taskforce could investigate the ongoing issuing of licences, despite the ban; the sources of these licences; and the actual revenues lost to the state and local assemblies.

In fact, the EIA has also welcomed the decision by the Office of the Special Prosecutor to investigate ongoing corruption and collusion in the rosewood sector of Ghana.  EIA said it can provide video, audio, and photographic evidence to the Special Prosecutor to aid the investigation.

All said, there are serious allegations of political connivance at the root of this illegal harvesting and trade in rosewood – to the extent that all permit holders are connected to politicians and public office holders, be they in government or opposition.

References

Bosu, D. (2019) “Rosewood, the most expensive and fastest selling commodity in Ghana today.” Modern Ghana. Available (https://www.modernghana.com/news/548705/rosewood-the-most-expensive-and-fastest-selling.html)

BBC (2019) EIA Report on the Illegal Rosewood Trade in Ghana

EIA (2019) Illegal Rosewood Trade in Ghana.

(***The writer is a Development and Communications management Specialist, and a Social Justice Advocate.  All views expressed in this article are my personal views and do not represent those of any organisation(s). (Email:safoamos@gmail.com

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