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Why forest certification is an illusion for Uganda

On World Forestry day today, Simon Musasizi explores Uganda’s efforts at forest certification, and finds that a lot more work remains to be done – meanwhile, the forests are vanishing.

Speaking to Kyenjojo District Forest Officer Onzima L P Badraa recently, journalists were shocked to learn how helpless the country is against illegal logging. Onzima was asked how authorities could verify that people issued with licenses actually cut trees for which the licenses were issued, without encroaching on forest reserves. His answer? Authorities rely on the licensee’s goodwill not to abuse the license.

“If we were fully staffed, ideally, one of us should be able to go on the ground to supervise and make sure that the trees that we issued license for are the ones which are cut,” Onzima said

“But because we are only two people in office, we trust the people we issue licenses that they will not abuse them, and also rely on sub-counties to alert us in case the licenses are abused.”

This, activists warn, paints a clear picture of the failure of DFOs to monitor, trace and label timber, leaving loggers free to abuse their licenses and cut down forest reserves, literally.

“It is a trick they (timber dealers) are using now; they get licenses claiming to cut trees on private land but end up in the forest reserves,” says Sam Nyakoojo, the forest governance project coordinator at the Joint Effort to Save the Environment (JESE). “And DFOs don’t go on ground to verify which trees have been cut.”

Nyakoojo says DFOs routinely complain of understaffing and lack of fuel and other forms of facilitation they need to work.“They say they are not protected to move at night. And since there is no law prohibiting timber movement at night, the vice continues to escalate.”

Responsible forest management in Uganda remains a great challenge. As a result, Uganda’s efforts at developing a forest certification system have all but failed, with little hope on the horizons.

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In his PhD thesis, “Forest certification: Toward sustainable forest management in Uganda”, Anthony Egeru defines forest certification as a mechanism for forest monitoring and tracing and labeling timber, wood and pulp products and non-timber forest products, where the quality of management from environmental, social, and economic perspectives is judged against a series of agreed standards.

Forest certification has its roots in the need to protect tropical woods. In the 1980s, the focus was on slowing deforestation and prevention the destruction of tropical forests. Because tropical wood products were still needed in Europe and North America, instead of boycotting the products, some environmental groups and scientists found an alternative.

This approach involved certifying forest products that were made from raw materials originating from socially-beneficial and environmentally-adequate forests. Certification allowed consumers to buy freely without a feeling of responsibility for the destruction of tropical forests.

After a 15-year break, the need to form a coordinating body for certification was finalised in 1993, with the coming of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), now based in Bonn, Germany.

Other forest certification bodies have emerged from countries such as Brazil and Malaysia. However, FSC – with representation in more than 45 countries remains the internationally recognized trademark for certified timber.

“When timber is certified, you get premium prices. It can be three times the local market price,” says Hassan Muloopa, Panos Eastern Africa’s technical advisor on natural resources.

“Currently, we can’t sell our timber to companies like Roko because our timber is not certified. All international companies want timber from forests that are managed sustainably. That means we can’t get good prices for our timber. Yet trees take so long to mature that they deserve a good price.”

According to Muloopa, Uganda cannot be accorded the FSC certification if the market remains flooded with illegal timber. A 2012 study on timber trade in Uganda, carried out by the World Wide Fund for Nature, established that 80 per cent of the current timber trade was illegal, causing government to lose Shs 23bn ($9.8m) annually.

The study further revealed that the government was also losing an estimated Shs 2.5bn ($1m) in import duties and taxes due to under-declaration of imported timber and low timber valuations being used by Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) customs and district forest services (DFS).

The study recommended that to move towards certification, Uganda needed to come up with its own national standard for forest management. Through awareness creation and consultative processes, the stakeholders expressed the urgency of developing a National Standard, not only for forest certification, but primarily as a yardstick for responsible forest management in general.

With support from the FSC National Focal Point in Uganda headed by Edward K Mupada, a Standards Development Group (SDG) was set up that includes Makerere University’s Clement Okia, NFA’s Levi Etwodu, and Nema’s Francis Ogwal, among the 22 members.

Last year, this group came up with a draft proposal for the establishment of Uganda Forest Stewardship Standard (UFSS), which is an adaptation of the FSC international standard.

While this points in the right direction, Muloopa notes a lot of work remains for Uganda to attain international certification. FSC certification requires respect for environmental laws, and demands for protection of the well-being of workers and the communities surrounding the forests. However, with several cases of communities complaining of being sidelined in the management of forest reserves, Muloopa doesn’t see the certification system coming soon.

His skepticism stems from the fact that before the development of the national standards, the first initiative to try and verify the sources of timber was in 2007 with the formation of the Forest Resources Management and Conservation Programme (FRMCP), funded by the European Union.

This programme saw the birth of the first guidelines for verification of legal sources of timber. Among the things that FRMCP introduced is the famous “Nyondo” (stamp).

“Before NFA issues a license, they are supposed to first go to the forest and count the number of trees ready for harvesting under what is called the Integrated Stock Survey and Management Inventory (ISSMI),” Muloopa says.

After ISSMI, NFA is supposed to engage the local community to fell all the eligible trees before inviting licensed timber dealers to buy the logs and split them into timber, from one place. The timber is then stamped, showing the forest reserve range from where it has been cut. But according to Nyakoojo, due to understaffing and poor funding of the forest sector, this is not what is happening.

“DFOs have abused this Nyondo initiative. What is happening is that because they claim not to have transport, they hand over the Nyondo [stamp] to a timber dealer and entrust him/her to stamp their own timber,” Nyakoojo says. “That is ridiculous because he/she may end up stamping even the illegal timber.”


But even with the certification system, it is not all rosy. One of the overarching challenges to forest certification, especially for small-scale forest developers, is the cost of certification.

The costs involved may deter private forest developers from seeking certification. Egeru gives an example of Mexico, where it is estimated that on average, communities spend $ 12,000 from subsidies or their enterprises annually during the five-year validity of their certification.

There are two types of forest certification that Uganda can tap into: first, is the sustainable forest certification for products harvested from sustainably managed forests, which still remains an illusion for the country; and forest certification as a mechanism for carbon sequestration. With the latter, the country is moving on well, driven largely by foreign firms.

Forests Absorbing Carbon Dioxide Emissions (FACE) company, a subsidiary of Dutch Electricity Generating Board (SEP), which has been in Uganda since 1994, is engaged in two certified projects in Mt Elgon and Kibale national parks. The company is engaged in rehabilitating the deforested and degraded forest reserves of the parks.



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