Small-time loggers providing timber to local villages have long been seen as a threat to African forests. But that view is changing, as evidence mounts that these communities can be better forest protectors than the governments that are sanctioning major commercial operations.
BY FRED PEARCE • OCTOBER 22, 2020
The man with the chainsaw paid the farmer $50, as his gang climbed a hillside in western Ghana. The gang passed coffee fields until they came to a giant hardwood tree. The farmer, who was pleased to have the money in his back pocket, watched as as the gang cut down the tree and used the chainsaw to dismember it deftly into quarters and then into crude planks.
The loggers left behind little more than a pile of sawdust, as they put the planks on their heads and walked the half mile back to the roadside. From there, later that day, trucks would pick up the planks, transporting them either to a local timber market or to one of the dozens of furniture workshops between the forest and the Ghanaian capital, Accra.
You can witnesses such scenes almost anywhere in the surviving forests of tropical Africa. The work of local chainsaw loggers meeting local timber needs is a hidden harvest, often illegal and rarely included in national forest or economic statistics. Many regard the gangs as the biggest threat to forests in many countries. Environmentalists have called for a crackdown.
But there are growing doubts among both environmental and development activists about whether this ostracism is fair to rural communities or a sensible approach to forest conservation. After all, it demonizes poor artisans who supply local markets and bring economic benefits to remote villages – and whose environmental impacts are generally much less than those of legal, state-sanctioned commercial logging operations that supply export markets.
In most of Africa, forests are treated as state-owned, and the traditional rights of forest communities are widely ignored.
“Artisanal loggers are often seen as the primary cause of deforestation,” says Alphonse Maindo, director in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) for Tropenbos, a Dutch-based NGO focused on improving tropical forest governance. “But their environmental impact is low, while their social benefits are high.”
They drag no heavy equipment into the forest, require no roads to access the trees, and select single trees, according to a wide-ranging 2010 review of research into artisanal logging in Africa and elsewhere that was published by Tropenbos. These small-scale loggers’ low overheads mean they cut fewer trees to make a living. And any waste wood is left in the forest, where it can nurture the ecosystem, rather than on the floor of a sawmill.
“Whatever people say, illegal chainsaw millers are not contributing heavily towards deforestation,” agrees Alexandra Benjamin of Fern, another European forest conservation NGO that works with forest communities.
In most of Africa, forests are treated as state-owned and often leased to commercial loggers. The customary rights of forest communities, which usually pre-date the emergence of nation states, are widely ignored. But evidence is growing worldwide that those communities are generally better forest protectors than the state.
Like shifting cultivators – who were for many years demonized as forest destroyers, but are now regarded as sustainable users of forests – chainsaw loggers are due a PR makeover. The emerging view, especially in Africa, is that they could be harnessed as a force for good – to enhance community control of forests and become their most effective custodians. “We support formalizing, organizing, and legalizing them,” says Maindo.
This emerging positive vision of small-scale forest harvesters is one reason why a new timber-trade deal between Ghana and the European Union (EU), aimed at ensuring legality of the timber trade and set to be implemented by the end of this year, has been framed around the ambition of bringing chainsaw loggers within the law as a means to protect forests. And it’s why other tropical African countries are hoping to sign their own deals
Chainsaw logging by small-time operators is big business in Africa. Ghana is typical. It has an estimated 100,000 chainsaw millers. Their numbers have only increased since they were made illegal in 1998, in a failed effort to halt deforestation. Today, according to a recent unpublished EU review seen by Yale Environment 360, around two-thirds of the timber traded domestically in Ghana is illegal. But it operates in plain sight, supporting some 650,000 mostly rural people, and delivering more than twice as much economic benefit as the legal commercial sector. Moreover, according to the 2010 Tropenos research review, those benefits “are distributed more widely within communities than those provided by conventional logging.”
After I watched the chainsaw loggers at work, I visited the local village chief, Barfour Kwame Ackom. He received me sitting in his ceremonial robes on a wooden throne. He told me the chainsaw gangs were part of his community and were greatly appreciated. Down the road in Asamankese, the boss of Sethoo Wood Works, a carpentry shop, said that without them, he and his apprentice sons would be out of business, and their customers without beds and wardrobes.
Yet the Ghanaian government, like many others across tropical Africa, shuts its eyes to the industry, says Paolo Cerutti, an Africa specialist for the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). Politicians prefer “to ban and forget it, as if it did not exist, or as if you could brush away thousands of operators and a growing demand for their product.”
Bronson Griscom, director of natural climate solutions at Conservation International, has argued that “loggers themselves can be a critical ally in helping us maintain biodiversity and mitigate climate change in tropical forests.” That means finding ways of harvesting forests for local timber needs, but without trashing the forests or opening them up with roads and other infrastructure for wider exploitation for export markets.
In pursuit of working landscapes, local chainsaw loggers are potential forest saviors rather than forest destroyers, say groups such as Tropenbos. What they need is organization rather than ostracism, a break from bribes, better training, and, above all, to be given legal access to forests and help drawing up management plans to ensure they don’t overharvest them.
One model for this may be found in a country better known for its civil wars than its environmental probity. In the DRC, there is a growing movement to give forest communities control over their local forests, within which legalized chainsaw loggers can work under supervision.
Since 2016, communities in the DRC have been allowed to take control of as much as 124,000 acres of forest, which they can exploit according to management plans approved by authorities, including subcontracting logging rights to local people. By early this year, there were 65 community forests in DRC, covering 3 million acres, an area approaching the size of Connecticut. That is still less than 1 percent of the country’s forests, but it is a start.
Maindo at Tropenbos DRC, who applauds the move, says that “when communities are granted local concessions, then the management of artisanal logging improves, because each concession has a management plan.” Such plans can, and sometimes do, involve requiring the loggers to reforest the landscape when they cut trees, he says.
A central strand of the plan has been for the government to make local chainsaw loggers legal and provide them with access to forests. In exchange, the loggers must agree to change the way they work, in particular by making planks from their felled logs using mobile sawmills, which the government sees as more efficient than chainsaws. But so far, out of the estimated 100,000 chainsaw operators, fewer than 300 have been trained to use mobile sawmills, says Parker. And there remains a severe lack of places where they can legally cut wood, with no new forest areas provided in the past three years, according to the EU review of progress seen by e360.
Furthermore, there is slow progress in other areas: on a system for tracking timber, on ensuring government agencies only buy legal timber, and on allowing other customers to know if the timber they buy is legal or not.
“I don’t see any political will to transition the domestic timber supply chain into a legal one,” said Parker. “It is not a priority for the government.” One longtime European advocate for the FLEGT process, said she feared it was “running into the sand.”
Such a failure, if repeated across tropical Africa, would be a tragedy. A tragedy socially because chainsaw logging and other forms of forest harvesting are “the best option for the 1.5 billion forest-dependent people across the globe to enter the cash economy with long-term prospects,” according to Anna Bolin, of the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development, which has worked with Tropenbos in DRC.
And a tragedy environmentally because, as Cerutti puts it: “We do not have the freedom to choose between a situation with or without these loggers. They exist, they are growing in numbers, and they are cutting forests. Either we make them an integral part of sustainable management of the forests, or we will lose the forests.”
Source: Yale Environment 360