Forestry sector in crisis

Earlier this week the Stabroek Business conducted an interview with two officials of the Forest Products Association (FPA) in order to secure a perspective on the state of the sector. We did not speak with the Guyana Forestry Commission, not because we felt it might not have something enlightening to say on the issue but because our experience with the commission has been that even the most mundane enquiries are usually fed into the bureaucracy for responses and, frankly, there are times when the responses are tangential, not at all connected to the questions and, if the truth be told, a waste of time.

The current President of the Forest Producers Association, Khellawan, and a former president, Hilbertus Cort, spoke with us at length about the state of the industry and what they had to say made it clear that the sector was facing an acute crisis.

The litany of woes would fill twice the space allocated to this editorial. Those that come to mind, however, bespeak an industry in which traditional investors have fled having been unable to recapitalize companies that run on obsolete equipment. More than that, it is simply a question of the sector not being able to afford to keep itself going, given, for example, the costs associated with building roads to logging sites.

Beyond these problems what is clear is that the sector has lost its appeal, the perceived risks of logging have caused the lending institutions to become ultra cautious and as Mr Cort put it when we posed the question of access to commercial bank loans, the sector has simply not been able to produce the “bankable proposals” which potential lenders are looking for.

And while the authorities may be loathe to admit this, both Khellawan and Cort were only too willing to state that the forestry sector continues to lose ground to gold mining. It seems that while a great deal of the burden associated with creating infrastructure – like roads – is left to the forestry sector, the government is not particularly willing to engage that sector with a view to easing some of its tougher woes.

The two FPA officials went on to say that even as most of the bigger players in the industry grind to a halt only to be replaced in some instances by smaller, even less well-capitalized companies, the sector continues to lose much of its skills to the gold industry. An excavator operator in the mining sector can earn up to four or five times what he is paid in the forestry sector. Cooks too do well in the gold-mining sector compared with the forestry sector.

If the FPA officials do not appear to have completely lost heart over the state of the industry, they are not exactly bubbling over with enthusiasm. Khellawan and Cort are not persuaded that the sector has the government’s ear at this time and both of them are of the view that unless the government can share with the industry the challenges associated with fixing it, the prognosis for the future is grim.

They make some additional points, like the implications of the LCDS for the future of logging; the new technologies associated with building construction that require a lesser timber input; the lack of emphasis on the science of the sector that leads to confusion on issues like the use of non-traditional species and the failure to take any real advantage of the value-added potential of the sector.

On the whole Messrs Khellawan and Cort—without seeking to be excessively alarmist about the situation—painted a worrying picture of the forestry sector and somehow we believe that in the course of the interview they were doing their best to enquire as to whether, perhaps, the media might not have a duty to help advocate some kind of serious sitting down between themselves and the subject minister for the purpose of searching for solutions that might help heal a badly ailing forestry sector.

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