Blog post

Forest governance in the tropics

Published on
February 7, 2018
“Ghana is on the brink of fully rolling out their Forestry Law Enforcement Governance and Trade (FLEGT) certification to produce legal certified wood for the domestic and international markets”… is something that has been said for a couple of years. Right now, this has become more true than ever. But why has this been taking so long? What does it entail to produce timber legally and how do you implement such a system?

Ghana ratified a Voluntary Partnership Agreement with the European Union in 2009, under the name of Forestry Law Enforcement Governance and Trade. The agreement means that Ghana should ensure the legality of all timber that is either being used domestically or being exported to EU or non-EU countries. The idea of FLEGT is that the partnership countries negotiate with the EU on the terms and conditions under which they can deliver the timber to be certified.

The system that Ghana has agreed upon is called the Legality Assurance System. This system has five elements: a legality definition of what it means to produce legal timber; a chain of custody system called the Wood Tracking System (WTS) to electronically track the documentation trail of the timber as it moves through the production chain; a verification department to verify both the legality and the WTS; a licensing authority to grant the FLEGT license; and lastly an independent monitor who checks if all the previous elements are working accordingly.

As part of my Master’s thesis, I went to Ghana to experience the implementation of this legality certification. To see how the concepts of legality, traceability and transparency are (dis)connected, and how they enforce or constrain each other. Data collection was done by interviewing custodians who are responsible for all the critical control points along the chain of custody of timber production. I had the opportunity to join an audit group of the verification department on a field audit. We would go into the forests and check the compliance of both the logging operators and the authorities who enforce the legality standard. With this blog, I want to share my first thoughts and revelations on implementing this new forest governance system in Ghana.

Two things struck me most. Firstly, the sheer effort and tediousness of working in forest reserves. To get to the operating sites, we often had to travel for three to four hours, along dirt roads, flooded paths and steep hills and holes, before even getting to the logging site. This was all done with a team of auditors, staff from the local forestry authorities and (representatives of) the auditees. When we eventually got to the destination, the group set off into the tropical forest to check on stumps and logging sites. On a day, we visited two to three logging sites, with working days of ten to eleven hours. To my surprise and delight, there was a high compliance of the legality standard, even deep in these reserves. This is possible, because local forestry authorities work in the reserves on a daily basis, and the logging operators put a lot of effort into compliance, despite tough tropical working conditions. This made me very proud of my colleagues and they earned my deepest respect for their work.

The second aspect of this work in tropical forest governance that was a revelation, was the experience tropical deforestation. While driving to the reserves, we were continuously surrounded by endless green forest landscapes, with the occasional village in the midst of it. The moment you drive into the reserve, it hits you. I’ve never felt so small, being in this gigantic tropical forest. I had read so much on the extreme deforestation rates in Ghana (see for example a 2016 IUCN assessment). Knowing that all the landscape we had driven through for hours was once like this, made me realize the scale of deforestation. Luckily, Ghana still has 266 forest reserves, and hopefully they will be able to keep it that way.

Learning about these two aspects of the forestry work in Ghana, helped me understand why the implementation of a new nationwide system to manage and monitor forestry takes so long. A lot of collective action by government, industry and NGOs was needed to develop and build capacity and get everyone on board.

Lastly, I noted that people in the forestry sector have a lot of faith in the new electronic traceability system. If timber is traceable to be correctly sourced and documented, there is a credible and robust system for legal timber. There is still some debate though, on how transparent this system should be. Although the idea is that a transparent system will decrease non-compliance, corruption and political influence, the data generated through the Wood Tracking System is sensitive. NGOs would like full access, believing that if there is nothing to hide, there is no need for secrecy. Forestry staff however express caution about full-disclosure, fearing that information in the wrong hands can lead to misinterpretation.

These beliefs mirror the recurring debates on the benefits and challenges of governance by disclosure. When the Ghanaian Wood Tracking System is fully up and running, it will be an interesting case of traceability and transparency in forestry policy.

All in all, it was an amazing experience living, working and studying in the tropics, which I would recommend to anyone studying forestry. It made me develop better understanding of the world, both as a scientist and as a human being.