Ghana transformed and on target for licensing

Ghana’s confidence in its FLEGT VPA process is underlined by its eagerness to open it to scrutiny. Mike Jeffree reports

A clear example of this came recently when the Forestry Commission of Ghana let UK Timber Trade Federation Head of Sustainability Mike Worrell scrutinise all aspects of its Wood Tracking System (WTS). The WTS technology is key to the timber legality assurance system (GhLAS) Ghana has developed as part of its EU Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade Voluntary Partnership Agreement (FLEGT VPA), with its ultimate goal of delivering only FLEGT-licensed timber to the EU. It has taken time and considerable resources to develop and some aspects are still rolling out.

But Mr Worrell, a former Enforcement Head at the UK’s EU Timber Regulation Competent Authority, was invited to view every aspect, from log barcode printing, to data uploading in the forest. The developers’ faith in the system proved justified. Mr Worrell was impressed. “In a relatively short time they’ve transferred from paper-based timber sector monitoring to electronic," he said. It’s a major accomplishment.” The WTS inspection was part of Mr Worrell's wider fact-finding mission to see the development and impacts of Ghana’s FLEGT VPA programme to date.

“Via field visits and meetings with the Forestry Commission, EU delegation and stakeholders, from NGOs and businesses, to trade bodies, I saw the entire system that will underpin FLEGT licensing,” he said. This left him feeling similarly upbeat that the VPA is progressing well and on track to start licensing "in the not too distant future". “I was taken aback by the size and complexity of reforms,” he said. “The tracking system has digitised the entire cartography process, undertaking real-time reconciliation of information throughout the supply chain.

The FC has also created a Timber Validation Department (TVD) to monitor Ghana’s whole FLEGT system, backed by third-party audit and NGO testing. The VPA has transformed the entire forestry industry.” This positive outlook is shared by the Ghanaians themselves, from the Forestry Commission and industry to the civil society organisations (CSOs) central to the multistakeholder implementation approach the VPA demands. Timber Validation Department Director Chris Beeko agreed the VPA had already made significant impact. And, having taken corrective action raised at the last EU/Ghana joint assessment of the GhLAS, the country was accelerating towards FLEGT licensing. “Legality auditing is now operational as well as the WTS and new guidelines for government issue of timber rights [safeguarding all stakeholders' interests in natural forestry] are being drafted," he said.

VPAs ensure business transparency

One key effect of reforms has been also to expose timber and forestry businesses to more scrutiny. “Legality compliance audits and improved reconciliation of wood flows via the WTS have created greater transparency in management processes,” said Mr Beeko. “That’s strengthened adherence to forest management principles, which, over time, could contribute to sustainable forest management.” 

The VPA has also given more influence to trade bodies, according to Ben Donkor, Director of the Timber Industry Development Division (TIDD), which will issue FLEGT licences. “Timber trade associations have been involved in piloting the GhLAS and in VPA implementation committees,” he said. “The result is high levels of interest across the industry.” The VPA process has also largely ended big business reluctance to deal with civil society groups, including NGOs. “Multi-stakeholder discussion platforms have made broad participation routine, becoming the accepted birthplace for policy,” said Mr Beeko. “All actors recognise the legitimacy of others having equal say.”

That’s a view shared by CSO representative Obed Owusu-Addai, who has been deeply involved in the stakeholder communications and education drive to ensure the VPA benefits wider society. Thanks to the VPA process, he said, CSOs themselves now wield greater influence in policy making. “Previously we had NGO coalitions, in Forest Watch and National Forest Forum Ghana, acting as mediums for CSO involvement. But for greater coordination in discussing FLEGT VPA issues, we formed a legal working group, involving other CSOs too. Where authorities previously selected who they engaged, we now initiate joint engagement teams.”

CSOs have subsequently been involved in ‘’achieving VPA deliverables” on the ground, ensuring community land and tree rights are respected, logging companies fulfil Social Responsibility Agreements (SRAs) and new rules and crosschecks under the GhLAS are enforced to verify logger operating rights. They’ve made technical VPA processes more ‘forest fringe community-friendly’ too.

“We identified areas communities could relate to, then mobilised discussions via forest forums,” said Mr Owusu-Addai. “These focused on issues, such as forest access and non-timber forest products rights, covering hunting and gathering for domestic use.” In turn, community engagement has improved VPA implementation “It has been explained to community representatives that their SRA rights to forestry benefit sharing bring responsibilities to protect the forest against illegal logging. The result is joint authority-community forest monitoring task forces.” It is acknowledged that Ghana’s VPA has taken longer to complete than anticipated and Mr Worrell said false expectations and missed deadlines had, to an extent, undermined EU market confidence in the project.

But it is also highlighted that it was a demanding undertaking from the outset, and developments to enhance systems since have increased the workload. “The task of reengineering processes to conform to the new legality assurance system and jumping the technological gap from paper-based to electronic tracking were underestimated,” said Mr Donkor. “But we had no examples to follow.” Mr Owusu-Addai accepted that extensive stakeholder involvement may also have slowed VPA implementation. “But it has ensured FLEGT licences will be credible, transparent and acceptable to all,” he said.

Gathering pace towards licensing

And, after a slow start, it is reported that increasing understanding of the FLEGT VPA across the Ghanaian industry, including the domestic trade, where it also applies, is now helping speed the process. “Trade associations, CSOs and enforcement agencies have all engaged in awareness raising and capacity building ,” said Mr Donkor. “Institutional level communication between Ghana and the EU have also been increasingly effective and we’ve been given several platforms by the EU to dialogue on speeding up implementation.”

But one area that still needs addressing, it is felt, is relatively low awareness and interest in the EU trade and marketplace. This is partly attributed to time taken for FLEGT licences to materialise, during which the alternative route to timber legality assurance, EUTR due diligence, has become ingrained. But, said Mr Worrell, "piecemeal communication from a Ghanaian perspective and around the VPA process generally" has also contributed. “We need to enthuse and spark interest,” he said. “In Ghana I met people proud to show off the legality assurance systems and we need to broadcast the substantial and transformative work they’ve undertaken.

After all, the real incentive for Ghana is a demand market ready to trade in FLEGT licensed timber and that requires demand market engagement.” With this proviso, the consensus is that the start of Ghanaian FLEGT-licensing timber is now on the horizon and that it will be good for Ghana-EU trade. “Some legislative reforms, notably around conversion, should be the last hurdle," said Mr Worrell."Strong commitment from all sides means we’ll see FLEGT licensed-timber from Ghana sooner rather than later." Mr Beeko agreed that the ingredients are in place to begin licensing soon. “We’ve successfully baked the cake,” he said. “Licensing will be the icing on top.”