Five in court for farming in Forest Reserve: --A Rejoinder.

Wed, 20 Jan 2010 Source: Berko, George

My attention was drawn to the Article with the caption to which I am submitting this rejoinder not by the contents of the Article, per se, but the commentaries that some readers on the Ghanaweb.com forum contributed on it. I was shocked by the comments of some individuals that sounded very literally eloquent but displayed abysmal understanding and appreciation of the need to uphold our Laws, especially those laws that protect our Forests.

These contributors I am referring to, in summary, politicized the arrest of some five farmers who, reportedly, blatantly encroached upon a Government protected Forest Estate to create Cocoa plantations and Food Crop farms, comparing their apprehension to how the fallen Minister of Sports, Muntaka Mubarak, was treated by the Government. Some of these commentaries even suggested that the Government had no business arresting these farmers because they were seeking to ascertain their sheer survival.

First off, we should make no unreasonable exceptions to the implementation of our Laws. Where would it all end, if we did? When precedence is set in Law, it is very difficult to change courses. And given the history of corruption in our Judiciary, not excluding undue interference from some powerful entities in Government, we should rather be commending the Law Enforcement Agents and the Forestry Officer that executed the arrest for following the prescription that the Constitution provides for breaking such a law, instead of wishing the culprits go free. We need Government Officials, Law Enforcement Agents and Judges that would stick their necks up for applying the Laws of the land as required. That is a requirement for a truly vibrant and entrenched Democracy.

Yes, it seems unfair that a Minister might have had a slap on the wrist to get away with some crime. But it is not the same crime the farmers committed as that by the Minister. Comparing the two is like comparing apples and oranges, except that both are fruits. And a cycle of Politicization of common crimes could demoralize our Law Enforcement Authorities, undermine any honest efforts by our Law Enforcement agents to regain control of our broken System and their own integrity, and deny us an opportunity rejuvenate of our Judicial System.

Regarding the relative legal assessment of the two crimes, every crime has its prescribed range of punishment. The farmers must be prosecuted and punished if found guilty. But they could have some leniency shown them by the Judge during the pronouncement of penalties due to mitigating circumstances and receive, say, the least stringent punishment allowed under the Laws applicable. So, if the range of penalty for such a crime is between 2 years to 10 years plus or without fines ranging from, say, GC500 to GC10000, the farmers might be given, say, only a fine of GC500 without a jail term, if found guilty. That may well be within the prerogative of a competent Judge. Isn’t how we normally expect crimes to be handled in the Courts? So why throw in a wrench from yonder, in the political sphere, to complicate issues?

We must be able to understand the essence of inflicting different penalties for different laws broken. Just as crimes have degrees of gravity on how they impact on the victims and the society, so do the punishments that go with them. Based upon those comments on this case, it seems many folks are suggesting no one should ever be punished again at all, so long as one Minister had been allowed to go without facing the Courts. We should remember that this Minister, Muntaka, lost his position in the Government and was terribly disgraced by his crime.

It is also very possible that if the Minister had been arraigned in Court for the crime he was accused of, he could have found a lawyer who might be able to argue successfully for his innocence, or get him acquitted based upon some silly technicalities, given what we know about the case. And if that would have happened, would these commentators be amply satisfied with the verdict and have the Minister back in office?

In some cases like that of the Minister, the way he was let go could have a more punitive impact on him than perceived by the general public; and his situation could be worse than if he had been sent to the Courts for formal judicial process and prosecution. The evidence mounted against the Minister might not be strong enough to earn him a jail term, for instance. So, why spend the people’s money to go to the trial?

Moreover, looking at the relative impact of the two crimes upon the Nation, the case of the state of our Forests goes farther to affect the Nation than the few bucks the Minister might have stolen directly or indirectly. One of the reasons is that while the Minister could be made to pay back whatever he stole, even with interest that could be definitively calculated, the loss of our Forest go way beyond recovery in our lifetime. The essence of any good Judicial System is also to serve as a deterrent and exact restitution where applicable, rather than just punish culprits for the sake of revenge.

People do not realize that these Forests have taken hundreds of years to reach where they are now, and demolishing these invaluable, almost irreplaceable Resources means disrupting the Ecosystem that has supported us for many generations. Efforts to recover such an Ecosystem, if we were to attempt at doing so, would also involve very expensive Silvicultural exercises that take away from our scanty fiscal resources available and adds to our financial strains at this time.

The real and full repercussions for losing such a Forest Estate is not readily discernible by a casual observer. If all the various tangible and intangible benefits lost are factored in, the impact of that loss far dwarfs the financial needs of the few that caused the loss and any financial loss Muntaka might have caused the Country. The totality of the benefits lost from that Forest clearance may well be incalculable with monetary currency. A few examples of the benefits that might be lost due to the clearance of the Forest may be seen in the possibility that the area is part of a watershed providing a perennial source of drinking water to a whole community, and is now permanently cut off. Furthermore, what if the area cleared is the last piece of Forest that adds to an adjacent mass to sufficiently maintain the equilibrium in the Climatic elements of the area? How much premium do we place on such a loss? And how do we match up that loss with that of Muntaka's bill for Diapers?

Some people were arguing for the farmers with the excuse that they might be poor and needed land to live on. Hmmm!! To that I would say, many thousands of Ghanaians need and are looking for land to farm for sheer survival. And if I may rhetorically ask, if all of them were to encroach upon our existing Protected Forest Estates to satiate their personal needs, how much of our Forest Reserves would be left? Again, are our Protected Forest areas the only places available in the Country for satisfying the financial needs of these farmers? The Nation is replete with stories of people migrating from one part of the Country to another to seek available lands to farm on. And these migrating farmers do get land that is not legally protected by the Government to work on. Even as such migrant farming pressure also contributes to the loss of our Forest Estate, in general, our land-use classification and assessments do not suggest the loss of such available Forests, outside the Protected Forest Reserves, as posing any imminent and immediate danger to our sheer survival. In other words, the strategic location of such Forests available to migrant farmers does not pose as much threat to the equilibrium of our Ecosystem as the loss of the Forest Reserves.

This brings me to the very basic quandary of whether these folks opposing prosecuting the farmers really know or understand the purpose for our Forest Reserves, and the need for even private land owners to wisely manage their Forests sustainably.

The answer to the above may not be very certain to many of us. But I strongly believe those oppose the prosecution of the farmers, and telling the Government to back off, surely do not appreciate the concept of Forest Reservation and Management. We therefore have to educate ourselves more in understanding the purposes of this vital aspect of the Government’s responsibility to us—managing our Forest Resources, which includes permanent, protective Reservation of some of them.

Our Forests have long been the most undervalued Natural Resource, even as we have been, since Independence raking in Billions of Cedis (and Dollars and Pounds, if you will) from them. Timber extraction alone, which is only the major physical product we extract from the Forests, have long been only second to Cocoa in earning Ghana our much needed foreign exchange. The other physical benefits from the Forests, including the various sources of Meat and Plant materials that locals extract for uses are of greater import to the sheer existence of the locals than even the Timber. Let anyone talk to the people of our Rural areas and find out if they would rather have their Canes, Snails, Awonomo leaves, vines for numerous purposes like sponge, building structures like some houses, Raffia for similarly numerous uses like mats for drying Cocoa, Tweapea and Nsokodua for chew-sticks taken away in order for a few individuals to own Cocoa Plantations. My belief is the people would vehemently oppose such a notion.

In considering the full environmental impact of losing such an area of Forest, we should not overlook the desiccation of any adjacent arable land. Have people also forgotten the acceleration of Wild Fires with the increased dwindling of our Forests and their accompanying desiccation? The expansion of the Sahelian conditions down south has all too well been talked about. But we tend to look away from the imminent consequences of failing to keep them in check because we are being utterly complacent with the lushness of the environment yet to be usurped by the effects of the Desert. The people in Mali and Burkina Fasso by now would love to have our current status of Forests to begin fighting off the Desertification. But we should not take so much for granted and recklessly enshroud the issue of the need to protect the Forests in our constrained mindset of Partisan Politics. The issue transcends the pride of any particular Party for gaining the Political control of the Country.

The list of evidence supporting the need for protecting and managing our Forests well is long, and I cannot suffice discussing them here on this forum in one piece of writing. Besides, others out there have even better and more compelling expertise relating to the topic and could help make a stronger case to support the need to strictly protect our Forests. So, I hope these experts will more intrusively reach the Public to bring it home to all Ghanaians that our Forest Laws are among, probably, the few of our Laws that we need not mess with, for sake of showing some Political balance.

I hope we intensify efforts to save our Forests and refine sustainable practices in and around them to provide lasting benefits to our Nation from which our posterity could also come to enjoy. We need to be careful not to whip up Political missteps for any selfish or shortsighted reliefs and transient gratification. Our Forests should not be targeted for sheer political expediency. Any Chiefs or individuals that promote any forms of unwise loss of our Forests, really, do not deserve to be on the Stools.

The Royalties from our Timber exploitation, like those from other major forms of National Resource extraction, hardly make any dent in the lives of the ordinary folks because the Chiefs that receive them largely keep them for their personal luxury. Lands have been given up under the Powers of the Chiefs for Mineral extraction and other uses with little or no inputs from the Citizens, in return for narrowly directed returns to, mainly, the Chiefs at the expense of the people. This phenomenon has exacerbated the poverty of the people as suggested for the five farmers whose encroaching activities on our Forests we are discussing now. The whole Nation should seriously address that phenomenon within our corridors of Authority, especially in our Regional and National Houses of Chiefs. But the resultant poverty from such wanton misuse of people’s land should not justify further laxity in the execution of the Laws protecting the land, and allow others to invade our Forest Reserves with impunity.

With the population rapidly growing, and the size of family lands remaining static, the pressure of eligible stakeholders on the lands keep escalating and we should expect a surge in forceful and illegal encroachment on the land. It would take vibrant, vigorously and fairly adjudicated Laws and continuous Environmental Education among our communities to protect and manage the lands for the best utilization indices.

To ignore the laws that protect on our Natural Resources or implementing those laws haphazardly, would be signing off one of our few most vital and precious life supporting Resources. We would, thus, be endorsing the eventual demise of our multi-floral, diverse-vegetational Ghana as we know it. So, let's be practical and yet wisely resourceful in providing for our folks for eternity by ensuring and appreciating abiding by our Constitutional precepts regarding our Forest Estates.

Protect the Forests! They are an inalienable legacy from our Ancestors who struggled, fought and shed blood to save it for us. The Green color in our National Flag should not be erased for any reason. Losing the Green color in our National Flag would also fade the Red color in it, since the Red was depicts the blood that our Ancestors shed to procure us the Land (Vegetation and all), represented by the Green. Without it the Green color our Flag does not stand for what our forbearers meant our Nation to be.

Long Live Ghana!!! George Berko

Columnist: Berko, George