A study has ascertained that, of all the factors driving deforestation in Ghana, agriculture is prime with cocoa cultivation being the leading cause of forest conversion in the high forest zone, while oil palm and rubber are becoming major threats. The study revealed that logging itself does not convert forests, but it opens up the forest for potential encroachment by farmers and illegal miners.
The study, titled, “A Rapid Assessment of Forest Degradation in Ghana,” was carried out by a civil society organisation, Nature and Development Foundation, on behalf of Clientearth, a group of environmental lawyers.The findings of the study are significant as it establishes the need for a strategic and well-coordinated approach to addressing this delicate driver of deforestation. Cocoa cultivation is lucrative for farmers and one of the leading avenue of revenue generation for the country. The industry is powerfully situated in the national economy and so over the years, due attention was not given to the problem of encroachment into forest reserves to expand cocoa farms.
From hindsight, the country has been pursuing an aggressive cocoa production policy that seeks to increase yields, better a lot of farmers and sustain foreign exchange revenues from cocoa. To this end, illegally cultivated farms have often not been touched. Thus, cocoa cultivation in forest reserves has become prevalent in the Western region in particular, where reserves have been virtually turned into cocoa farms.
While the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, the Ghana COCOABOD and other cocoa-related public institutions appear to be succeeding in their efforts, the Forestry Commission (FC), which is the public institution mandated to manage the nation’s forests (especially forest reserves), is overwhelmed by all of these issues.
The FC’s initial attempts to reclaim such forest reserves were met with a huge public outcry, particularly from civil society organisations. Representatives were of the view that once cocoa farmers have been allowed to cultivate cocoa to maturity level, it is morally unethical to destroy them. But the question is what does the FC do in the face of this irony of policies implementation?
Michael Akowuah, a legal expert at the FC, says: “The problem is big because the national support for such farmers in a way legitimises their illegal activities in forest reserves.”
He explained that while the FC has the mandate to protect forest reserves and plant degraded areas under the National Afforestation Programme, “it seems the public does not understand the issue about illegal farms and settlements in the reserves and when we destroy them, we are taken to court.”
To address the situation, Mr. Akowuah called for collaboration among all the concerned institutions whose activities are conflicting with the FC’s mandate.
The former Director of Legal Affairs at the FC, Urias Kwaku Armoo, noted that the conflicts affecting the forestry sector have become entrenched because “the real value of our forests has not yet been captured in terms of its environmental services including providing the right humidity for cocoa production to thrive.”
He added that the problem can only be resolved “if as a nation we set our priority right in terms of land use.” Such prioritisation is essential and has to do with the nation’s land tenure system. In times past, tenurial arrangements in a traditional community ensured that all members were catered for in terms of access to land.
But according to a study on Ghana’s land tenure system, “The traditional customary land tenure system in times past ensured that each member of the community was guaranteed the right to access land for farming, housing and the enjoyment of other tenurial benefits . . .”
The Report of the study said, “This egalitarian tenurial regime sustained the social security of most Ghanaians in the absence of any insurance benefits, as well as providing them with a sense of community.” The study, titled: “Land Tenure in Ghana: Making a Case for Incorporation of Customary Law in Land Administration and Areas of Intervention by The Growing Forest Partnership,” was conducted by a team of researchers contracted in December 2009 under the Partnership.
It notes, “The present tenure arrangement in a plural legal context puts pressure on land which leads to effects that adversely impact the livelihoods of local communities . . . as a decline in agricultural production for domestic food and industrial needs; food insecurity and insecure tenure, which manifest in the unequal distribution of land, sub-optimal utilisation of land and landlessness.”
Some legal specialists on land say that the pluralistic legal system of land tenure has come to stay and it would take a revolution to undo it. But to address the issue, the Report recommends a “holistic approach that takes into consideration the various political and economic relations that support the country’s land tenure regime and addresses the various distortions in the land tenure including dichotomies of statutory, customary law and institutions.”
Some experts are also of the view that resolving the problem of conflicting land tenure systems in the country can help address deforestation and forest degradation, which have severely depleted Ghana’s forest cover in the last 20 years. Forest economists say that about 85% of the forest area has been lost in the last century.
The country once boasted of over 1.83 million hectares of pristine forests known as “Upper Guinea Forests” that stretched from Senegal to Cameroon. But now the resource has been reduced to fragmented blocks as a result of all kinds of human activities primarily agricultural expansion, wildfires, commercial logging, surface and illegal mining, fuelwood harvesting and charcoal production, and infrastructural and industrial development among other things. Forests in both on and off reserves have not been spared from these activities.
Consequently, these activities are undermining the effective functioning of forest reserves established purposely to supply raw materials to the timber industry, conserve unique plant and animal species, and provide environmental services including the protection of the sources of major water bodies.
A closer examination of the situation reveals that these activities are fanned by land use conflicts resulting mainly from customary land tenure systems and conflicts in policies regarding the management and exploitation of both renewable and non-renewable natural resources.