Forest communities rely on a diversity of forest resources to meet their food and livelihood needs. The resources include food, medicines, bushmeat, fuelwood, timber and other construction materials. But the government and the logging companies are undermining communities’ access to forest resources, which is turn is undermining their environmental rights.
For the government’s part, Ghana’s statutes don’t recognise indigenous rights to non-timber forest products (NTFPs) in Ghana’s forest reserves. The rights to all products – timber and non-timber – in the forest reserves are vested in the government. Communities can only get legal access to NTFPs through a permit system managed by the Forestry Commission. But the process in reality is so arbitrary, complicated and expensive that communities are discouraged from applying.
Meanwhile, the logging companies degrade the environment by destroying timber and NTFPs, reducing water availability, degrading the soils and stopping people from accessing the forest’s resources. Agricultural productivity falls together with harvests of forest food resulting in declining food security and incomes. Crops, farmlands and community infrastructure are destroyed by haulage activities. No compensation is given and, instead, farmers maybe threatened with attack by the timber companies.
Communities feel resentful as a result of their exclusion from forest management and the forests’ benefits. They are even excluded from the benefits of naturally occurring timber trees on their own or communal lands because these trees also belong to the government. It is an offence for communities to cut or sell this timber without permission. Rather than care for and nurture timber tree species growing on their farms, they prefer to destroy them before the concessionaires can get hold of them. After all, the concession holders won’t pay any compensation and will destroy the farmers’ crops when they cut the trees, so farmers have no incentive to protect them.
Communities’ exclusion from the forests and their management also encourages overharvesting of NTFPs because they have no incentive to ensure their sustainable use. But this exclusion contradicts Ghana’s forest laws and regulations. They stipulate involvement of forest fringe communities in forest management and also that a share of the forest benefits must be paid to them as compensation for the loss of their resources. This is negotiated for through the Social Responsibility Agreement (SRA) that logging companies are legally bound to enter into with local communities. The communities’ share of the forest benefits are used to fund local development projects. That’s when the SRAs are actually established, which we found out is a rare occurrence.
Working with forest communities over the years, many complain that logging companies ignore the SRA requirement and that it’s also not enforced by forest governance institutions. So the SRAs are absent. If local communities don’t know about the obligation of logging companies then they can’t demand for their rights to be met. Where negotiations have taken place, the agreements can be very inadequate, or the procedure unjust and discriminatory. Chiefs can influence the process to gain personal rather than community benefits, while other chiefs already benefiting nicely from the logging companies have no wish to disrupt it by negotiating for community benefits. Others are discriminatory against migrant farmers. Consequently many communities get little or no share of their forests’ benefits. Collusion, corruption and illegal practices are rife in Ghana’s forestry sector, which have stifled communities’ efforts to have their environmental rights respected.
To address some of these problems in the forest sector, we have been supporting forest communities over the years to know and demand their rights and to build their capacities to negotiate for a fair SRA that brings real benefits to their communities. We have also been working along the whole of the forestry sector production and trade chain to support stakeholders to produce, purchase and trade ONLY legal timber in a bid to remove illegal and corrupt practices from the forest sector.