Ghanaian forestry student wins Van der Plas award
"Forestry is a political field, but most forestry researchers ignore the political aspects," says Marfo. He is convinced that politics in its widest sense is very important in forestry. During his study in Central Ghana he found out that improved negotiations between forest communities and timber companies can benefit both parties.
"There have been a lot of conflicts in Ghana between timber contractors and local people who depend on the forest for their livelihood," explains Marfo. Timber companies often deny local people access to the forests for gathering non-timber products such as fruits and they do not always respect the cultural values of the forest. In order to prevent conflicts, the local people negotiate with timber companies about the use of the forest, but this process often does not go smoothly, concludes Marfo.
The problem is that the representatives of the communities, often the traditional leaders, do not do their job well. They do not defend the needs of the whole community and do not report about the negotiation results. Marfo looked at four villages. "The leaders did not consult their own community before sitting round the table with the timber companies. What's more, in three of the four villages the leaders did not communicate the outcome of the negotiations with their own people."
It became clear to Marfo that the local people could improve their position if their representatives were to communicate better with the rest of the community. He also expects improvements as a result of a new policy strategy of the government, which forces timber companies to make a 'social responsibility agreement'. This agreement is meant to be drawn up to safeguard certain functions of the forest for the local people. Timber companies can promise for example to maintain roads for the local people, allow extraction of timber for local use and non-timber products such as medicinal plants and fruits. The local people in turn have a responsibility to cooperate with the logging companies, says Marfo. For example they could help check for illegal tree felling the forest. Good agreements can benefit both timber companies and local communities, says Marfo, but the fact that the Ghanaian Forest Agency facilitates the negotiation process, makes a positive outcome more likely.