The SRA that the community has negotiated with the two timber companies operating nearby hasn’t broken this cycle — and couldn’t realistically be expected to. It has, however, brought notable gains.
“Previously we saw no benefits [from the timber companies],” says cocoa farmer Solomon Dziwornu. “Now because of revenues from our agreement with one of them we have built a toilet for our school [which previously had none], and constructed this building [where we are seated]. We’ve also been promised a computer lab.”After the meeting, Solomon and three others walk a couple hundred meters to proudly show us the new toilet. In the small brick classroom opposite, children in intricately patterned green uniforms are engrossed in their studies.
Beyond such material advances, the SRA has brought something less tangible — but surely more far-reaching — to the people of Aboagyekrom.
In the past, any agreements between timber companies and local people would be conducted by the local chief. This left the door open to chiefs enriching themselves by capturing rents at the expense of their communities. But an SRA needs the consent of the entire community, and when people have a voice in the decisions that effect their lives, the power starts to spread.
This is evident on our next stop, a small farming community 40 minutes’ drive away, nestling in the shadow of the rolling hills of the Sui forest reserve.
This time, the group of residents we speak to is smaller, but the message is the same: “Before the companies would give money to the chiefs,” explains cocoa farmer Emmanuel Gyebi, “now it goes to the community.”
The community has spent the money they’re entitled to under the SRA on buildings that will significantly improve their lives: accommodation for a midwife, renovating the village market stall, and completing work on a previously abandoned police station. Yet the negotiation process has not been entirely smooth, and challenges remain.
“We are educating the community, but the Forestry Commission [responsible for regulating forests and wildlife] aren’t responding when we tell them that contractors are harvesting more timber than they should,” says Gyebi.
If, as Gyebi suggests, some timber is being illegally logged, then the rules governing the protection of the forest start to break down. Yet the fact that he — and the rest of this community — not only know their rights, but are trying to exercise them, marks a radical departure from the past. It is part of a democratic wind blowing through the villages around Ghana’s forests. One which, if properly nurtured, can signal the end of the illegality and corruption that have defined Ghana’s timber industry for so long.
Mark Olden is a press advisor for the NGO Fern. He has been a journalist for more than two decades and has written for UK national newspapers and formerly worked for the BBC and Channel 4 News.
This article is from Voices from the Forest, Fern’s forthcoming publication featuring reports from various tropical forested countries.