There needs to be a different attitude towards our timber industry
Stabroek News
September 23, 2001

Dear Editor,

There appears to be a need to bring to public notice in more detail than has hitherto been done, the problems of Guyana's timber industry.

(1) The function and actions of the Guyana Forestry Commission

Constituted as it is (its term of office expired on December last, but its life has been extended to September 30, 2001) the Commission cannot, and indeed does not function in the best interest of the local concessionaires. It consists of the Commissioner of Forests, the Chairman of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), ten directors and three observers. The ten directors include one representative each of the Forest Products Association (FPA), the EPA, the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Livestock, Fisheries and other Crops, the University of Guyana (UG) Faculty of Technology, another UG representative, the Guyana Manufacturing Association (GMA) a sawmiller, an accountant and one other. Additionally the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Tourism, the Lands and Surveys Com-mission, the Guyana Furniture Manufacturing Association are represented by persons holding observer status.

It may be remarked that the commission lacks directors who by reason of training and experience, are capable of bringing to the directorate intimate knowledge of the timber industry. Such directors might be found in Dr K King and Mr Ivan Welch.

As the principal stakeholder involved, the FPA is patently under-represented and as a consequence, the commission lacks the weight of knowledge of the industry necessary to function as a facilitator, which is the principal object of its existence. Its attitude and approach lack the understanding and concern for the welfare of the industry by which its decisions should be informed.

Accordingly we get:

(i) The sudden imposition of crippling and unrealistic increases in acreage and other fees on concession holders in 1996 resulting in the industry owing some $600 million in arrears (later reduced by 50%). These increases, even as deemed reduced, were, to say the least, ill-advised and need to be reconsidered and a system of write-offs and credits implemented. Indeed, the head of the committee appointed to review fees and royalties was a former professor at UG who, on several occasions made it quite clear that he had never met a poor logger in his life.

(ii) The commission is strongly recommending that the industry adopt a certification scheme, whereby timber exports would be able to access certain European and other export markets concerned about the sustainability of tropical (and other) forest exploitation. The commission's technical committee, established in August 2000, to study this matter has been notable for its lack of activity. The position of the FPA in this regard has long since been made clear, and it questions the basic terms of reference on which conclusions on sustainability are made. It is not known what, if anything, has been done by an Interim Working Group, established on June l8 last, to work out whether certification should be by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) scheme or by an International Standards Organization (ISO) scheme.

(2) The local timber market

The timber industry is seriously affected by the preference for building in concrete which has been steadily increasing for the last 30 years at least. Concrete construction requires considerable inputs of imported materials in the form of cement and steel, and calls for the minimal use of timber, including inferior species for form-work, the supply of which is met chiefly by chain-saw operators.

This accessing of cement and steel, it need hardly be said, depletes foreign currency reserves and contributes to the depression being experienced in the timber industry. Construction of multi-storey structures no doubt calls for reinforced concrete or steel frames, but there remains the question of whether the vast quantity of residential construction of all sizes being promoted to house the nation at all levels should also be, more or less, entirely of concrete. It should be the duty of the relevant authorities - the Ministry of Housing, municipalities, and the forestry commission to promote the use of timber in house construction. Timber housing is what practically all Guyanese were accustomed to living in, at least up to the mid-20th century; there is, or used to be an instinctive preference for a wooden house which had to be overcome before a concrete house was acceptable, and, since a timber house had to be on pillars, it afforded `bottom house' space which, if or when necessary, could be enclosed without encroaching on yard space. The feeling that a timber house costs more to maintain than a concrete one is an illusion; protection from termites is a matter of initially treating the site, also of designing to minimize the effect of our humid climate, and of periodic painting. One might go so far as to say that one of the functions of the GFC, maybe in conjunction with the FPA, should be to undertake a campaign to promote the use of timber in housing.

Habitat for Humanity has been observed to be constructing ground-floor concrete houses in their work of helping Guyanese house themselves. It is difficult to see why they cannot offer a timber house as an alternative to their concrete model.

Another area where work might usefully be done to help the timber industry in its fight for survival is with the building society and the other financing institutions that facilitate site holders in their efforts to obtain funds to help build their homes. They need to appreciate that timber is as good a material as concrete to qualify for a mortgage and will ease the pressure on our hard currency reserves.

(3) The export market for timber

It is GFC policy to promote `downstream' processing of our timber and to refuse licences for the export of logs. This is manifestly to the disadvantage of many forest operators, particularly the smaller ones, who manage at great cost, to maintain more or less efficient logging operations, but are in no position to make the investment necessary to go into sawmilling, much less any processing beyond that. If such operators can arrange to sell their products overseas, there would appear to be no good reason why they should be denied the opportunity to do so and thereby earn hard currency. This might make it possible for them to install or upgrade milling equipment or to service loans from banking institutions.

In general, the GFC ought to turn to promoting, investing, and researching all aspects of timber to make it a product fit not only for the local market but also for export. The GFC is now loaded with bright, young academics, who, associated with experienced older heads should produce the perfect marriage necessary that could result in the sustainability of the industry. The GFC must take cognisance of the peculiarities of our tropical timbers and not be guided almost exclusively by experts with knowledge of timbers found in other regions of the world. The question of strength, durability, dimensional stability, curing, preserving and fabricating, etc, must be an effort spearheaded by the GFC. The imposition of foreign standards, except of course where specifications for specific products are concerned, ought not to be slavishly followed.

We have all heard reports of extreme difficulties being experienced by Barama, Caribbean Resources Limited, Demerara Timbers Limited, Unamco, Mazaharally, Willems Timber and Trading Company, to name a few. It is not inconceivable to see a fresh and creative outlook adopted for our forest industry.

Yours faithfully,

Nan S. Klautky