Understand geography, ecosystems, people and values for better management of forests in Africa

June 12, 2014

For decades, the fight over logging has had clear trench lines where the environment movement is arguing for biodiversity protection, versus the industry pushing growth, jobs in wood products industry. While there are those confident about the timber industry’s future, others blame it for a combination of environmental, economic and political forces for its terminal decline. There are a lot of conspiracy theories being put forward by some of the environmental groups and I just don’t accept that this is about lessening any sort of environmental standards at all. To me, the industry has been under intense pressure, and the message to governments has been that there is need to secure guaranteed long-term timber access. I expects the industry action plan will trigger upgrades to existing mills, leading to production of higher-value products that can better compete with the import industry. While talking to an industry expert who sought my views on how technology can be used to conserve and preserve forest, it was clear that although African industries have been doing it tough in recent years, they believe there’s a bright future.
Wood is the environmental choice and people have the ability to supply the sustainable building sector, provide quality furniture and other products for the homes and offices of Africans, while storing carbon in their forests and using the waste for energy. For example ”residual” wood in Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo which is mostly pulp logs that become woodchips and also lower-quality timber as well as other waste currently left on the forest floor and burned after clearfelling could be burned for power in a forest-driven biomass industry and alternatively can be used to create cheap products such as particle boards. The industry expert is however concerned that such long-term plans will create a windfall for timber businesses and the conservationists, not surprisingly, cannot stand such a plan and they will fight it tooth and nail. Africa timber industry will morph and change, there is nothing more certain than that, but the pace of change may not please some of the more agitated people.
Economic and social forces, such as rising demand for food and biofuels, and demographic changes, will continue to transform forests globally. Managing forest transformations well is the key to realizing outcomes that are sustainable, and that deliver economic and social benefits without unacceptable environmental or social costs. Orderly, planned processes like those designed by academics in South Africa and Uganda or bureaucrats like in Kenya and Nigeria, and that look good on maps on computer screens, are almost impossible to achieve in practice. There are many competing interests to be reconciled with some of them pressing and urgent, like improving the income of poor folks and some of them are hard to value, like biodiversity and climate change mitigation. And, in all African countries, research has shown there are limits to the actual power of national governments to manage change on the local levels. For African countries to succeed in sustaining their forests, they need to understand the geography, ecosystems, people and values as a whole, and to share and integrate that knowledge across various interests. Bringing all the stakeholder groups together, in conversation and negotiation is critical. There is need for more dialogue between stakeholders, more commitment to action, and more research to support good decisions.

Contador Harrison