Dr Nicole Arcilla is the lead researcher of a study published in September by scientists at Drexel University and the University of Ghana on the impacts of legal and illegal logging on Ghana’s tropical forests and birds. We sat down with Dr Arcilla to learn more.
24 November 2015
Sustainability: What are the primary drivers of deforestation?
Dr Arcilla: Deforestation started with colonialism in Ghana, as in many other tropical forest countries, in order to fuel an extractive, export-based economy. The colonial government centralized control of the forests, undermining the traditional authority of forest-based indigenous people whose customs had previously served to protect the forests.
The British began exporting timber from Ghana in the late 1800s. By the 1950s, when Ghana became independent, new technologies and heavy equipment for road building allowed access to more remote forests, prompting a rapid increase in deforestation. In the 1980s, following a slowdown in logging due to a faltering economy, the IMF and World Bank provided Ghana with large loans to promote the expansion of its timber export sector. By this time, Ghana’s forests were being logged at twice the maximum sustainable rate, according to World Bank data.
Today, almost all of Ghana’s forest outside of its protected reserves — about 80% of its original pre-colonial forest — has been lost to logging and subsequent agricultural expansion, especially for cocoa production.
Logging is a key driver of tropical deforestation, due both to the damage logging itself does to the forest, and to the opening of logging roads into forests that then provide ongoing access to illegal logging, farming, poaching, and permanent settlement, completing the forest’s destruction. Mining for gold, diamonds, and other minerals also contributes to deforestation.
Ghana’s population has quintupled over the last 60 years, and human settlements, urban areas, and infrastructure now occupy a significant fraction of what was previously tropical rain forest.
What remains of the forest are fragments in forest reserves designated for permanent protection – on paper, at least. In practice, there are few to no staff with law enforcement authority in forest reserves, and we found evidence of illegal activities – especially poaching and illegal logging — on a daily basis during our field research.
Illegal logging has accelerated to comprise 70-80% of Ghana’s total timber harvest in recent years, becoming a key driver of continuing deforestation. Many other tropical forest countries have similarly high levels of illegal logging, according to the UN. About 92% of Ghana’s remaining forest reserves are managed as industrial logging concessions that are leased by logging companies from the government. Logging companies are mandated to follow strict harvest criteria and then allow logged forests to regenerate for 40 years between cuts. However, Ghana’s logging industry itself contributes substantially to the illegal logging problem by harvesting twice the amount of timber officially reported, according to research by Ghana Forestry Commission staff.
Poor governance, a lack of political will, and widespread corruption in law enforcement agencies enable continuing illegal logging that is resulting in deforestation, according to studies from the Forestry Research Institute of Ghana, University of Copenhagen, University of Ghana, Tropenbos, and others. The current political economy prioritizes short-term profit over sustainability and the political and administrative elite, both at local and national levels, financially benefit from illegal logging.
The existing forestry laws and policies are widely viewed as unfair, and many land tenure and resource rights conflicts that began under colonialism persist in the present legal framework. The result is that rural communities may not have tenure or rights to the land or resources where they live, and no incentive to protect them for the long-term.
The lack of law enforcement in Ghana’s forest reserves means that breaking the law typically not only carries no penalty, but on the contrary, may be very lucrative. All of these factors contribute to perverse incentives fueling illegal logging. Recent research has shown that logging rates in Ghana have increased to six times the maximum sustainable rate, which will rapidly lead to the outright loss of much or all of Ghana’s remaining forest.
Sustainability: Where are the areas of most concern with illegal timber?
Dr Arcilla: Most of Ghana’s forest reserves are forest fragments that are highly vulnerable to illegal logging in the absence of law enforcement personnel, especially areas with road access. Forests can recover from logging given the chance, and restoration efforts can accelerate recovery, but increasingly in Ghana and many other tropical forest countries, they never get this chance. Some of the forest reserves hardest hit by illegal logging that we personally witnessed included Krokosua Hills, Bia Tributaries North, and Nkrabia, which hosts a population of recently rediscovered population of White-necked Picathartes, a distinctive, charismatic bird that is a prime target of many birders visiting Ghana, and like many other Upper Guinea forest endemic species, on the IUCN Red List.
Some of Ghana’s forest reserves have been completely destroyed by illegal logging followed by settlement by immigrant farmers, including Bia Tawya and Sukusuku Forest Reserves. These forests had been intended as a buffer around Bia Conservation Area, which was established to protect rare primates and other wildlife. The conservation area subsequently became heavily targeted by poachers who have since wiped out many of its wildlife populations. We encountered 14 poachers in a single morning of surveys in the Bia Conservation Area. However, the lack of evidence of illegal logging activities suggests that the presence of staffed guard posts deterred illegal loggers, if not poachers.
Closing logging roads after legal logging operations can make an enormous difference in preventing illegal activity. Samartex, the logging company that hosted me for most of my time in Ghana, closed or blocked roads following logging operations in many cases, and we found little evidence of illegal logging in their concessions, for example in Boin River, Suhuma, and Yoyo River Forest Reserves. We also detected higher numbers of bird species in these reserves than in some others, perhaps in part as a result of their being better protected from human encroachment.
Sustainability: Do you think international efforts that screen for illegal timber are helping enough, for instance EU-FLEGT? What would make them more effective?
Dr Arcilla: Taking the state of Ghana’s forests as our measure of success, it is clear that efforts to control illegal logging to date have not been effective, unfortunately. On the contrary, illegal logging rates in Ghana have increased at the same time that there has been progress on paper, such as Ghana’s Voluntary Partnership Agreement with FLEGT. Moreover, only a fraction of timber from Ghana goes to the EU, whereas the majority of illegal timber goes to supply the domestic market and other African countries that are not subject to FLEGT.
There has been a fundamental disconnect between legislation designed to protect forests on the one hand, and implementation and enforcement on the other.
Task forces charged with combating illegal logging are influenced by corruption, political interference, and fear of violence. Ghana’s forest reserves urgently need protection and law enforcement. Some have even called for Ghana’s military forces to be tasked with bringing a halt to illegal logging.
We need a major paradigm shift to move away from the perverse incentives to destroy Ghana’s forests and toward sustainable management and equitable benefits sharing to protect them for posterity. Social scientists and policy experts have argued for years that comprehensive reforms of Ghana’s forestry laws are imperative. Clearly defined legal rights and responsibilities regarding land tenure and resources, along with access to alternative income options, should help provide economic incentives to protect forests instead of destroying them.
As the last refuges of its forest wildlife, Ghana’s forest reserves are incredibly valuable – arguably much more valuable standing than logged and destroyed. A global initiative for Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation(REDD) is based on this premise and offers some hope; experts also argue that more fundamental reforms and more study will need to accompany such efforts to effectively address deforestation in Ghana.
In the 8% of Ghana’s forests designated as wildlife protected areas, there are active ranger patrols that can be highly effective not only at controlling poaching but also keeping illegal loggers and other illegal actors out of forests. Kakum National Park, for example, enjoys such active protection and consequently hosts many populations of birds and other wildlife, such as large hornbills, that have been made rare or extinct elsewhere in Ghana by illegal exploitation.
Much needed jobs for rural people might be provided through a major new initiative to expand active protection from Ghana’s wildlife protected areas to its forest reserves. Adequate numbers of well-supervised, well-supported staff in Ghana’s forest reserves would lead to more effective forestry and wildlife law enforcement. The Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit in South Africa provides an example of community law enforcement activity with great success in reducing illegal activity.
A forestry paradigm shift in Ghana might also include direct payments to conserve biodiversity, a system in which financial incentives, such as land leases and performance payments, are provided by donors in return for conservation outcomes.
The logic behind this system is that people generally do what is in their own short-term interest; if they can benefit more from protecting a forest than destroying it, they will protect it. In this model, conservation investments might be used to pay people to protect a forest and/or wildlife population, with payments tied directly to conservation success.
As it stands now, timber exports are declining and the end of Ghana’s forests is already in sight. Patrick Alley, one of the founders of Global Witness, makes a powerful argument for a global moratorium on tropical logging because it is so often influenced by corruption and so seldom sustainable, instead often leading to outright deforestation as we are now seeing in Ghana and around the world.
What if, rather than following this trajectory to the end of Ghana’s forests and deeper into the ensuing environmental crisis, some visionary companies were to shift focus from logging to proactive forest conservation? Logging company Samartex, for example, put a moratorium on logging in Mamiri Forest Reserve because of reports of Western chimpanzees, an endangered species on the brink of extinction in Ghana.
Ghana’s remaining forests are a living monument to Ghana’s unique natural and cultural heritage. What if, instead of being marked for destruction, these treasures and their wildlife were subjects of a Pride Campaign, a proven conservation approach that galvanizes pride in natural assets to protect them? Standing up to the forestry crisis would help restore pride in Ghana’s heritage, exquisite forests, and fascinating wildlife, and save them for the future. In addition to potential direct incentives agreements to save the forests, nature tourism could continue to add to their economic value, as tourism in Ghana grows. The recent partnership between Norway and Liberia to save Upper Guinea forests from destruction from illegal logging also provides an exciting example of what is possible; the Norwegian government has agreed to make regular payments contingent upon Liberia managing its forests sustainably.
Ghana has long been a leader in Africa, in independence, peaceful democracy, and successful development. During my time there, I worked with many highly capable, intelligent, educated, and motivated people poised to help save their forests. With the right leadership, planning, support and resources, Ghana could seize this opportunity to take back its last forests from illegal loggers and set an inspiring example for other tropical forest countries in Africa and around the world. In the midst of the current unprecedented anthropogenic extinction crisis, this would be an extraordinary feat – an achievement beyond measure.
Dr Nicole Arcilla is a conservation biologist who studies ecological patterns and processes in response to human impacts including logging, wildlife trade, invasive species, and climate change. For the past 20 years, she has worked collaboratively with people in tropical forests of Africa and Madagascar, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Asia-Pacific region in efforts to improve our collective understanding and protection of biodiversity, the basis of human life and diversity.