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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 October 2007, 23:47 GMT 00:47 UK
Ghana hopes for EU timber deal
By Orla Ryan

Giant trucks thunder out of Ghana's tropical forests, loaded high with huge logs.

Timber truck in Ghana
Raw logs cannot be exported under Ghanaian law

Chopped, sawn and milled, these logs bring in valuable foreign exchange revenue for the West African country. Timber is one of its biggest foreign exchange earners.

But Ghana is losing its forests, as a result of gangs of unlicensed chainsaw operators that devastate the country's forests, depriving the government of revenue in the process.

Ghana is currently negotiating a timber trade agreement with the European Union, its biggest export market for timber.

The hope is that the deal will reduce illegal logging, reverse the devastation of its forests and halt the slide in timber sales to Europe.

Let's talk timber

The EU is in talks to establish bilateral timber trade agreements with a handful of countries, three of them in West Africa: Ghana, Liberia and Cameroon.

In 10 years' time, they will lose their jobs because the trees aren't there
Chris Beeko
Ghanaian Forestry Commission

Agreement with Ghana is likely to be reached by early 2008.

Once implemented, timber products covered by the agreement can only be sold in Europe with a license certifying their legality, says the Ghanaian Forestry Commission's Chris Beeko.

But sceptics warn that high domestic demand for timber and a growth in non-European markets may limit the impact of the deal, which is called a voluntary partnership agreement or VPA.

Cautious buyers

Some European government buyers have already tightened timber procurement policies. They only want to buy timber that is clearly certified.

"Any country that considers the EU to be a major trading partner has to take (VPA) seriously," Mr Beeko says.

Ghanaian timber makes up just 6% of European imports, though roughly half of all Ghanaian timber exports are destined for Europe.

In 2004, some 60% of Ghana's timber exports went to Europe. These days, European buyers take just 42% due to both the growing wariness amongst European buyers and the growth in markets elsewhere in the world.

There is a danger that timber exporters will buy illegally-harvested timber and sell it to less closely-regulated markets, but Ghanaian law prohibits the export of raw logs, favoured by China, whose demand for commodities can shadow environmental and other concerns.

Reliance on timber

Ghana also wants to ensure only legally-harvested timber is sold locally.

Peter Adjei
Peter Adjei says the people of Ghana rely on the timber

In a country with chronic power cuts, trees provide far more than just shelter from a hot sun.

With a chainsaw balanced on his head, Peter Adjei steps out of a forest reserve in Ghana's Ashanti region. He has just cut dead trees for firewood.

"We use it for charcoal, for light, for roofing our houses," he says.

While many communities see little or no benefit from the business of illegal operators - run by organised syndicates - the flood of timber, much of it illegal, on the domestic market means they benefit from cheap prices.

Reducing illegal timber harvesting is likely to force mills to close and lead to a shortage of timber for domestic demand.

But illegal chainsaw operators need to take the crackdown seriously.

"In 10 years' time, they will lose their jobs because the trees aren't there," says Mr Beeko.

Weak enforcement of current laws have made some activists sceptical that change can be made, but they stress change is needed.

"We have to stem the tide," says Friends of the Earth Ghana's Nana Darko Cobbina.

"The forest should be managed sustainably."

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