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.”
Is it either effective or ethical to sanction legal, large-scale commercial foresters while cracking down on their poor rivals?
The resulting legal black hole suits many people, he says. It leaves the loggers and those who trade in their produce wide open to extortion by local officials and police. In Ghana, I was told that police patrols charged $750 for every truck transporting illegal timber down the roads between forests and markets.
In Cameroon, according to Cerutti, the bribes are seen “as a general ‘cost’ to the operator, and as a general ‘income’ to the state official.” The payoffs are “syphoned into a system that manages careers not by merit but by the price one can pay.” In other words, officials advance their careers by using income from bribes to buy promotion from their superiors.
How should environmentalists address this? Many call for governments in Africa and elsewhere to save their forests by rigorously enforcing forest laws that ban small-time chainsaw logging. This is partly tactical: It avoids asking governments to do anything other than police their own laws. But is it either effective or ethical if it sanctions legal, large-scale commercial foresters while cracking down on their poor rivals?
In a crowded world, where not all of nature can be fully protected, there is a growing recognition that many forests will need to be nurtured within what have been called climate-smart working landscapes, where farmers, loggers, and others operate sustainably, including maintaining large carbon stocks on the land.
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.
“Either we make these loggers an integral part of sustainable management of the forests, or we will lose the forests.”
The government of DRC hopes that helping legalize its forest harvest through community forests will help it seal a deal for better trade access for its timber exports to the European Union.
The EU has been working for years to clean up its timber supply chain from former colonies in Africa. It has imposed tough rules requiring traders to ensure they don’t import illegally logged timber. But in countries infested with illegal timber that is difficult, and the loopholes large. So the EU wants to make things simpler, by persuading governments in Africa and elsewhere to agree to partnership deals under its action plan for forest law enforcement, governance, and trade (FLEGT).
Under the deals, the paperwork requirement for imports would be removed where countries can show that their timber trade is legal throughout — both domestically and for exports. As part of its development agenda, the EU agreement also commits countries to developing new forest rules after consultation with forest communities, environmental groups, and other stakeholders.
It is an ambitious agenda. Combining social equity, environmental probity, and legality in such a lawless environment as tropical forests is hard. Negotiations have been under way for more than a decade. And now may be the moment of truth.
The first EU-African agreement is set to go into operation in Ghana by the end of the year, with others set to follow with Cameroon, Liberia, DRC, and others. But inquiries made for this article show growing concern that the Ghana agreement could easily come unstuck. Plans to legalize the domestic timber market have faltered since 2016, when a new government was elected, says James Parker, project manager at sustainability consultants Proforest in Ghana, and formerly of Tropenbos.
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.”