Marketing Ghana's forests with care

Posted: 5 June 2006

Author: Julia Cass

Less than 10 per cent of Ghana rainforest - part of one of the world's richest and most diverse ecosystems - survives. And what is left is under grave threat, jeopardising the country's economic future and the wellbeing of its people. But now an effort is being made to manage what is left in a sustainable way, as Julia Cass reports. _

Where are the trees? The ride from Accra, Ghana's capital, to Samreboi, a sawmill town in the southwestern part of the country, reveals the impact of 50 years of indiscriminate logging and clear-cutting at the expense of the once-extensive forests of this West African nation.

Stacking of timber products. Mim, Ghana.© WWF-Canon / Wale Adeleke
Stacking of timber products. Mim, Ghana.© WWF-Canon / Wale Adeleke
Stacking of timber products. Mim, Ghana.© WWF-Canon / Wale Adeleke
Likewise, very little forest can be seen on the five-hour drive northwest from Accra to Kumasi - Ghana's second-largest city. Rainforests once covered more than one-third of Ghana, but today less than 10 per cent of the original forest survives as a result of deforestation and poor forest management. This loss of forest is not only threatening Ghana's fragile economy, but the livelihoods of people who depend on forests.

Ghana's forests are part of the Guinean Moist Forest Ecosystem, identified by WWF as one of West Africa's and the world's most biologically important and diverse areas. Home to chimpanzees and pygmy hippos, these species and many others are being threatened by shrinking habitats.

Birds in Kakum National Forest, Ghana
Birds in Kakum National Forest, Ghana
Birds find sanctuary in Kakum National Forest, Ghana© JMU-UCC REU Program
"It would be hard to overstate the threat because when it's gone, it's gone," said George White, responsible purchasing coordinator for the Global Forest and Trade Network (GFTN).

Joining the network

The Global Network, set up by WWF, aims to eliminate illegal logging and improve the management of valuable and threatened forests. By facilitating trade links between companies committed to achieving and supporting responsible forestry, the GFTN creates market conditions that help conserve the world's forests while providing economic and social benefits for the businesses and people that depend on them.

Kakum National Forest, Ghana. Photo: JMU-UCC REU Program
Kakum National Forest, Ghana. Photo: JMU-UCC REU Program
Kakum National Forest, Ghana© JMU-UCC REU Program
The aim is to form forest and trade networks (FTNs) in markets and production areas where they can have the greatest beneficial impact on valuable and threatened forests.

Since 2003, WWF and Friends of the Earth-Ghana (FOE) have been working with logging companies in Ghana to help improve their forestry practices, and by extension, to conserve more forests and their wildlife.

A breakthrough for forest conservation in West Africa came in December 2004 when Samartex Timber and Plywood Co. Ltd, one of Ghana's leading producers of forest products, signed an agreement with WWF and FOE to work towards independent certification of environmentally-sound forest management practices on 159,000ha under its management. The agreement made Samartex the first participant in the Ghana Forest & Trade Network (Ghana FTN). Since then, eight other companies in Ghana have applied to join the network, six of which have undergone baseline audits of their operations.

Samartex took this important step with the encouragement of two of its major buyers: Timbmet Silverman, a UK timber importer, and Travis Perkins, a UK building materials supplier - both members of the UK Forest & Trade Network (UK FTN). The two buyers also pledged to increase the amount of timber they buy from legal and sustainable sources. "The Samartex story represents an achievement we envisioned when the GFTN was formed," said Darius Sarshar, the Global Network's responsible forestry coordinator.

"With a push from environmental groups, demand for wood from legal and well-managed forests has been increasing. But rising market demand alone is not enough. What we have added through our new partnerships with logging companies like Samartex is much needed help on the supply-side of the equation."

Building demand The demand chain affecting forests in Ghana begins with Travis Perkins, a publicly-traded company that is a main supplier to the building and construction market and one of the largest companies in the UK. In recent years, the company has been criticized for the sources of wood used in some major government building projects, including renovations to cabinet offices in Westminster, the British parliament.

"We came under pressure from some of our shareholders such as the large pension fund holders who made a point of investing in companies that are seen as environmentally and ethically run," said Steve Ford, Travis Perkins' environmental manager.

About 15 per cent of the company's clients are builders involved in contracts with the central government, which now requires the use of timber from legal and sustainable sources. Its other clients are large home builders that also have shareholders who are disturbed when their company's image is tarnished.

One of Travis Perkins' major suppliers is Timbmet Silverman, a family-owned company that is the largest importer of hardwood in the UK, with 40 per cent of its supply coming from the tropics, including Ghana. "Timbmet was bombarded by its customers asking questions about its sources and wanting certified timber," George White said.

Mike Packer, Timbmet's director of responsible solutions, said that the company is committed to minimizing its environmental footprint and welcomes the demand for responsibly-harvested timber.

"Without market demand, no amount of goodwill or desire to save the world's forests will have much of an impact," he said. "Our difficulty is a lack of supply of certified wood, especially hardwoods from the tropics where many of the world's most valuable and threatened forests are located." Creating supply Timbmet has long had a commercial relationship with Samartex Timber and Plywood Co., a Samreboi-based company with long-term logging concessions on government-owned timber reserves in western Ghana. Samartex's sawmill, employing over 2,000 people, is the largest in the country.

Hundreds of species of flora and fauna inhabit the Guinean moist forests like the ones where Samartex extracts timber, including chimpanzees, forest elephants, and rare red colobus monkeys. Several forest blocks in the Samartex concession contain forest that has never been logged, and some have been withdrawn from production and set aside by the government as "globally significant biodiversity areas".

The company's commercially-valuable timber species, however, include iroko, African mahogany, utile, and sapele. In an effort to increase its supply of sustainably-produced wood, Timbmet encouraged Samartex to join the newly established Ghana FTN.

"It's a good network, providing a stepwise framework and technical assistance to help companies like Samartex move towards certification by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)," Packer said.

"We wanted independent checks and verification so there would be no question when we sell to Travis Perkins where the timber comes from." The Ghana FTN was launched in 2003, based on the need of Timbmet and other buying members of the GFTN's international network. Abraham Baffoe, a Ghanaian forester who worked for FOE, became its coordinator and began trying to recruit timber companies and explaining how FSC certification worked.

"The level of awareness and understanding of certification was very low," said Baffoe. "Company operators did not understand what forest certification meant and how to get there." "The breakthrough with Samartex and the other Ghanaian companies that have applied to join the network came through the encouragement of its major buyer. If one of their key buyers comes in and says that they want certification, then local forest companies will get interested." For Samartex, Timbmet is one of its biggest customers and its request for certified productions was taken to heart.

"Right from the beginning we said that there is an increased cost factor and if we get our forests certified we should receive a cost benefit," explained Gilmour Dickson, Samartex's forest coordinator.

Timbmet pays a premium for Samartex wood and is favouring them with additional business. Improving practices

The GFTN provided technical assistance and paid some of the costs of the experts and audits required in the certification process, using funds provided by the US Agency of International Development and the UK's Department for International Development.

"To be honest, if you went off on your own seeking FSC certification, there are so many consultants offering services that there is the danger that it would be a long and expensive process," Dickson said. "Thanks to the GFTN, we were able to accomplish this process efficiently."

Since it joined the GFTN, Samartex has received about US$2 million in new business inquiries from buyers in the network.

"There is a big demand for FSC certified tropical hardwood and not many companies are in a position to supply it," Dickson added. In joining the Ghana FTN, Samartex declared a moratorium on logging in 20,000ha of its primary forests, developed benefit-sharing plans with local communities within Samartex-managed concessions, and put together a comprehensive road map for achieving FSC certification by 2007.

"A serious problem in Ghanaian forestry is the collateral damage done by poor felling and hauling practices," Baffoe said. "For every tree taken, four or five often go down with it."

Since Samartex joined the FTN, this problem has been dramatically reduced in the company's forests. Samartex has also improved its roads and replaced outmoded hauling machines.

As another part of its commitment to the GFTN, Samartex signed social responsibility agreements with communities on the fringe of its forests. It set up a committee, consisting of Samartex managers and village leaders, to determine what the communities needed - school buildings, water systems, a community center - and what the company would provide. The company, which employs thousands of people in its forestry operations and mills, is also helping develop alternative sources of income for people living in the area.

Some 300 households adjacent to one of the company's concessions are now involved in an agroforestry project that includes planting fast-growing timber species for future sale; cultivating a native plant species from which they extract a natural, low-calorie sweetener; beekeeping; and fish and snail farming. The company also trains and employs 30 professional wood carvers who make bowls and animals out of leftover wood that are sold at international craft fairs and on the internet (See:www.ecocraft.org).

"Obviously, to be successful we have to find other forms of income generation," Dickson said.

Membership drive

Since Samartex became the first member of the Ghana FTN, eight other companies have followed its lead and applied for membership. Two of them have prepared action plans to achieve FSC certification based on the baseline audits of their forests totaling over 85,000ha. In January 2006, Baffoe and an auditor from SmartWood, an FSC-accredited certification body, conducted the baseline audits of the operations of three additional Ghanaian timber companies that are seeking certification and membership in the FTN. A fourth also has had an audit of its forest holdings.

"There are just a handful of big Ghanaian timber exporting companies, and most of them are now either members or applicants," said GFTN's Darius Sarshar, adding that the Network will now focus on enlisting the country's numerous small- and medium-sized companies. Because Samartex has large-scale timber harvesting concessions, its membership in the GFTN puts more than 22 per cent of Ghana's production forests on the path to responsible management. When the other companies complete their audits and action plans for certification, that figure will reach nearly 60 per cent. "These percentages demonstrate the significant contribution the GFTN is making to retain the rich biodiversity of Ghana's remaining production forests and ensure that they generate economic value for the country for years to come," said Sarshar.

Source:WWF

Julia Cass is a US-based journalist who works as a writing consultant for the Global Forest & Trade Network (GFTN).

NOTE: The GFTN consists of 53 forest participants and 263 trade participants. The forest participants manage nearly 15 million hectares of forests committed to FSC certification throughout Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas.