ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) -- New documents on logging permits in Ghana indicate most timber exported from the country is likely illegal, exposing purchasers to possible jail time under a new European Union regulation, the environmental watchdog group Global Witness said Tuesday.
In February, Ghana's Forestry Commission gave Global Witness lists of permits covering more than 15,000 square kilometers (5,800 square miles), or nearly 15 percent of the country's land mass, the group said in a new report. Permits for more than 12,000 square kilometers (4,600 square miles) were not covered by the country's 1998 Timber Resources Management Act, calling their legality into question.
"Ghana's logging permits are in a mess. Of six types of permits issued by the authorities to logging companies, only two fall within the government's own definition of what is legal," said David Young, forest sector transparency campaigner for Global Witness.
"Until the government gets its house in order, European buyers should consider all Ghanaian timber products as extremely risky, and make sure they are doing thorough checks along their supply chains," Young said.
The EU Timber Regulation, which went into effect on March 3, prohibits the import of illegal timber and holds importers responsible for ensuring it has been legally sourced. Penalties vary among European countries but could include up to two years in prison and a fine of 50,000 euros ($64,500), according to Global Witness.
In 2010, Ghana entered into a voluntary partnership agreement with the EU that covers permit allocation as well as transportation and processing. The release of the new Global Witness report coincides with a biannual meeting this week assessing implementation of the agreement.
Young said that while such meetings usually focus on technical aspects of tracking timber, officials should address problems surrounding how permits are granted. For example, while Ghanaian law requires that permits be obtained through open and competitive bidding, this has not been documented in the vast majority of cases, he said.
"You can't have a beautiful, perfect timber tracking system using computer databases and everything else if you haven't got any guaranteed legal logging permits that trigger the cutting of the timber in the first place," Young said.
Officials with Ghana's Forestry Commission were not immediately available for comment.
The Forestry Commission published a separate list of permits in March "to show proof of the legal sources of wood and wood product imports." Global Witness said inconsistencies between the lists from February and March raised further questions about the legality of timber permits.
According to EU figures, Europe consumes 33 percent of the total volume of Ghanaian timber exports and 43 percent of total value. The EU said the forest sector was the fourth-largest contributor to Ghana's GDP in 2008.
Last month, Global Witness included Ghana on a list of four African countries where political elites, logging companies and forestry officials were colluding to use "shadow permits" originally intended for small enterprises for commercial purposes in a bid to avoid tightening timber regulations.