* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.Benefit sharing agreements between timber companies and local communities are helping meet people’s basic needs in Ghana
The often-marginalised communities who live in the vicinity of Ghana's forests have often had little or no say in how they were run. What’s more, until fairly recently, locals would watch as vast profits from razing the tropical forests flowed out of their areas without a trace. No longer.
Today timber companies must share the benefits of the forests they log – either in cash or in kind – with communities who live within a five-kilometre radius of their operations.
Although for a number of years companies have been obliged to commit some money to local forest communities, in truth this rarely happened. The catalyst for change was the Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) timber trade deal that Ghana signed with the European Union (EU) in 2009.
As part of the process of establishing the legality of its timber imports to the EU and elsewhere, Ghana overhauled its forest laws, passing regulations requiring companies to negotiate Social Responsibility Agreements (SRAs) with communities.
Fundamental to these agreements is gaining the consent of the whole community, not just the local chief, as often happened in the past. The impact of this change is now reverberating across Ghana - and people’s lives are being transformed for the better as a result.
Alleviating nature's call
Take for example the village of Aboagyekrom, eight hours drive west of Accra, in the Sefwi Wiawso district, an area noted for its rich, fertile soil and lush forests. Here the SRA the community signed with a timber company has helped alleviate an age-old, widespread health hazard.
Aboagyekrom was once a community where school truancy was rife. The reason wasn’t that children were lazy or didn’t desire education. It was simply that the only junior high school around did not have a toilet.
The absence of toilets – which drives people to openly defecate - is of course not confined to Ghana. Yet it is an enduring issue in a nation where, according to the World Health Organisation, about 5.7 million people are forced to relieve themselves in the open, and the lack of access to basic sanitation is considered one of the biggest threats to the nation’s socio-economic development.
But, following the astute use of money the community received from an SRA, Aboagyekrom now has a toilet for the school that serves four additional communities: Odjobikrom, Mensahline, Gyampokrom and Tutucamp.
The toilet’s construction has removed parents’ worst headache: getting the children to stay in school and focus on learning.
“Before this, we suspect the children were using the situation to play truancy, but there was nothing we could do about it,” says Solomon Dziwornu, Chairman of the Aboagyekrom SRA Committee. “You see, we didn’t get proper education and we expect our children to do better than we have done in our lives.”
Since the school got the new toilet, pupils have stopped defecating on nearby farms, a practice that polluted the stream that people rely on for domestic water.
But answering the call of nature is not the only problem being alleviated by SRA money. Aboagyekrom now also has a new storehouse with a second timber firm operating in the area, while the Sayerano township, which is around 40 minutes’ drive away, has constructed a one-room quarter for a midwife to attend to the community’s health needs.
Benefit sharing across Ghana
Developments in Aboagyekrom fit into the wider story of Ghana’s attempt to rid its timber industry of corruption and instead share the spoils of the nation’s forests equitably, while increasing public scrutiny of how the sector is run.
A local environmental NGO, Civic Response, are working in partnership with the government’s Forestry Commission, to play a key role.
Civic Response is currently documenting the benefits SRAs are bringing to forest communities the length and breadth of Ghana, to feed into the public portal of information on forest governance. A website, launched by the government in March 2018, also provides updates on various aspects of Ghana’s timber sector, including logging permits, companies’ areas of operation and exports.
Since 2017, about 299 communities from 11 forest districts across the country have received a total of 758,380 Ghanaian Cedi (USD$138,146) from SRAs.
This is not only making a difference to people’s lives but means that Europeans and others exporting timber from Ghana, can be secure in the knowledge that the people at the other end of the supply chain - in the tropical forests where the wood is from - are prospering from their natural resources.
Ama Kudom-Agyemang is a writer and broadcaster and has won numerous awards for her coverage of Ghana’s environmental challenges. Ama is based in Accra, where she is a columnist for the Business and Financial Times and The Finder.
This is an abridged version of an article that will appear in Our Forests, Our Lives, a report published later this month by forests and rights NGO Fern, featuring articles by local journalists in forested countries