The Forestry Commission has uncovered a new method devised by illegal chainsaw operators to evade the security dragnet.
According to the commission, some illegal operators set up small sawmills on the fringes of forest reserves where they harvested timber and converted it into beams to manufacture doors, window frames and other types of furniture for sale.
“They do that to avoid arrest and the confiscation of their illegal lumber and vehicles at Forestry Commission checkpoints on major routes throughout the country,” the Deputy Chief Executive of the commission, Mr John Allotey, said.
A joint Forestry Commission and military task force dubbed: “Operation Halt 3”, deployed on September 13, 2018 to check the illegal operations in the Western Region came under attack after the arrest of about 30 trucks loaded with 2,000 doors and quantities of beams in the Krokosua, Sui, Bia North and More Forest reserves.
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Speaking at a press conference to react to allegations of abuses by the joint military team, Mr Allotey denied the allegations and explained that the intervention had become necessary because of increasing illegal chainsaw activities, even in forest reserves.
“Forest and wildlife resources in the region are under serious threat through human activities, especially illegal farming, mining, logging, chain-sawing, commercial collection of non-timber forest products (NTFPs) and poaching.
“These activities in forest reserves in the region are causing serious havoc to the environment and forest resources,” he said.
Mr Allotey said during a rapid field assessment of the extent of degradation, it was discovered that 24,398.96 hectares of intact forest had been lost to forest illegalities.
The region’s current share of forests is 16,408 kilometre square.
Mr Allotey denied reports that carpentry tools were seized from the suspects.
“The manufacturers are illegal sawmill operators but not carpenters. So the task force seized illegal sawmill machines but not carpentry tools.
“The Operation Halt 3 task force hired labour from Asawinso, Adabokrom and Bomaa to cart the seized lumber and doors into trucks and these people were paid for the work done. Nobody carried beams as punishment,” he said.
Mr Allotey said illegal sawmill machines and the illegal lumber and other wood products which were seized by the task force had been kept in safe locations.
“So far, none of the seized timber has been sold. The executive management team of the Forestry Commission will meet and take a decision on the sale and that will follow strict laid-down procedures on the sale of seized timber,” he added.
Mr Allotey said following from the problems bedeviling the forestry sector, the commission engaged stakeholders at a consultative meeting chaired by the Omanhene of the Sefwi-Wiawso Traditional Area, Okatakyie Kwasi Bumangama, and they unanimously agreed that ”there should be military intervention, together with the Rapid Response Team and the forest guards of the Forestry Commission, to stop the illegalities going on in the forest reserves”.
“Operation Halt 3” started on September 13, 2018 and is expected to end on October 4, 2018 in the Sefwi Wiawso area in the Western Region.
According to Mr Allotey, contrary to the allegations, “Operation Halt 3” had been part of a series of initiatives introduced by the Forestry Commission and the military to halt illegalities in the nation’s forest reserves in the Western Region over the years.
He said the operation started with 120 soldiers but the number had been scaled down to 60, adding that the “numerical strength of the military personnel had to be increased because of increasing threats on the lives of members of the joint field monitoring operations in recent months”.
Mr Allotey cited an attack on two forest guards, Bismark Owusu and Richard Somia, on September 11, 2018 in the Tano Suhien Forest Reserve as an example of the threat posed by illegal chainsaw operators.
He said while Somia escaped unhurt, Owusu was severely beaten, locked up in a ‘guard room’, stripped naked and paraded through the streets.
He also cited a June 2018 incident in which the youth of Sankore attacked the joint military/forestry task force at Sankore in which three soldiers sustained severe machete wounds.
Mr Allotey said going forward, the commission would use the military to sanitise the system, but in the long term it would continue to use existing structures to clean the system.
He said the commission would continue to engage communities, traditional and opinion leaders to find sustainable ways of protecting the country’s forests.
Mr Allotey indicated that as part of efforts to speed up the prosecution of offenders of the country’s forestry laws, the commission had trained some of its staff to lead prosecution in the courts.