GFC, Ministry of Natural Resources claims of sustainable management of Guyana’s forests are false even for purpleheart

Dear Editor,

I am writing coincidentally on a day when Kaieteur News’ front page banner says ‘Indian coffee company ships out 50 containers of logs in 2 months – contrary to agreement with Forestry Commission’ (April 5).  I wish to respond to a section of a letter in Guyana Chronicle signed by Peter Persaud and titled ‘IUCN appointment of Jagdeo an excellent choice’ (March 29).  Peter Persaud wrote that my “analysis that Guyana is harvesting 30 times more than the regeneration limit is totally flawed and cannot stand up to constructive scrutiny.  I challenge him to show his justification for his flawed and misleading analysis.“

What I actually wrote to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) included the phrase “prime commercial timbers are being overcut by 30 times the natural rate of regeneration,” this statement having been in the newspapers in Guyana since 2008.  See, for example, the letter in Stabroek News on November 15, 2008 ‘The GFC’s data on forestry in Guyana are misleading.’  That letter referenced the prime commercial timber purpleheart (botanical name Peltogyne venosa).  This hard, heavy but easily sawn timber is prized in Asia for flooring and furniture.  Although technically superior to merbau (Intsia bijuga), the declared FOB price for purpleheart exported as unprocessed logs from Guyana to Asia has been astonishingly much below the price for merbau in Asia, by hundreds of US dollars per m3.  That persistent difference in itself should have alerted the Customs and Trade Administration of the Guyana Revenue Authority about the likelihood of transfer pricing by log export traders, especially when the Guyanese shippers state low rates for ocean freight between China and Guyana.

The Guyana Forestry Commission (GFC) has a mass of pre-harvest forest inventory data including purpleheart.  The forest botanist/ecologist D B Fanshawe summarized field surveys in 1953 by six regions of Guyana.  Stocking of purpleheart was at best 0.49 m3/ha in the Cuyuni-Supenaam area (equivalent to one tree of 40 cm diameter (dbh) and larger per 5 ha, and 0.8 per cent of the commercial stand volume).  Worse was 0.04 m3/ha in Demerara-Mahaica (equivalent to one tree per 58 ha, and 0.2 per cent of the commercial stand volume).  Fanshawe estimated 2.3 m3 as the average volume of purpleheart trees greater than 40 cm diameter.

In 2000, forest ecologist Hans ter Steege also summarized data from inventory plots for trees of 30 cm dbh and larger. Unlike Fanshawe, ter Steege did not estimate average tree volume.  As he counted smaller trees than Fanshawe, I have here used 2.0 m3/tree.  In the central wet forest region his teams counted 26 trees of purpleheart among 4101 trees in 50 ha spread over 16 locations (1.0 m3/ha, one tree per 2 ha, 0.6 per cent of the total trees counted).  In the northwest wet forest region, ter Steege’s team counted 25 purpleheart among 4824 trees in 24 ha spread over 14 locations (2.1 m3/ha, one tree per 1 ha, 0.5 per cent of the total trees counted, all species).

In a background paper to the February 2007 debate on a national policy for log export, the GFC provided stocking data for commercial trees of 40 cm dbh and larger, for 7 logging concessions (plot numbers and sizes and concession locations not mentioned).  Purpleheart ranged from one tree per 3 ha (best, 1.9 m3/ha) to one tree per 9 ha (worst, 0.3 m3/ha), on average 2.3 per cent of the total number of commercial trees.

So purpleheart is widespread but not common.  It is one of the species which grows in clumps or ‘reefs’, so the ‘average’ tree stocking is actually misleading.  Purpleheart reefs contain more trees than the average stocking but then there are wide areas with no purpleheart until the next reef.  Thus purpleheart needs special protection against over-harvesting, provided by a rule to not fell trees within 10 m of each other, according to the GFC Code of Practice for Timber Harvesting (2002).  This 10 m rule is based on abundant research on tree gaps by the Tropenbos Guyana Programme.

The GFA Consulting Group scoping study on independent forest monitoring noted in December 2011 that the GFC had relaxed informally this critical distance to 8 m, thus allowing more trees to be cut in a reef.  The GFC cited higher-level ‘policy direction’ although there is no published research to justify this relaxation.  The then junior Minister for Forestry at the time of the GFA study in October 2011 made no public explanation for the ‘policy direction’ to ignore the Tropenbos research.

On the contrary, the National Development Strategy 2001-2010 says that the regenerative capacities of identified forest types and species will be conservatively estimated (section 14.IV.2.11).  And the above-mentioned GFC Code notes that ‘sustained yields can only be ensured if a minimum stocking is retained after logging for each individual desirable species. This means that individual tree-marking rules need to be developed for each particular forest type under different stand conditions.  Yield regulation is an area of active GFC policy and research’.

Given that purpleheart is a commercially desirable timber but a not-common tree, a citizen (and thus a stakeholder in the national forest estate) might reasonably expect conservative management by the GFC.  Harvests in proportion to the stocking in the natural tropical rainforest would not be more than an average of 0.5-1.0 per cent of the commercial crop.  What do GFC’s sporadically published data show has happened instead?

I can trace no data published for 2003.  There are problems with the GFC data, it is not entirely clear that chainsawn lumber has been included.  One set of data indicates that purpleheart percentages are 1-4 percentage points greater than in the table above.  In December 2006 the GFC indicated zero chainsawn purpleheart in 2005 and 2006 but just two months later the GFC stated 9115 m3 of chainsawn purpleheart in 2006.

Clearly there has been a rise in selective over-cutting of purpleheart at least from 1996.  There are no comparable data for 2007 onwards because since then the GFC aggregates data into royalty classes and does not display data for individual species.  There was concern even in 2002: “The question is, however, can Guyana’s forest sustain this level of extraction in the near future.  This practice [the focus on timbers in the special (highest) class for royalty – greenheart, purpleheart, red cedar, brown silverballi, letterwood, bulletwood] can pose a threat to the Guyana’s forest.”  And who wrote that?  The GFC did, in its ‘Forestry in Guyana – Market Report for 2001’ (July 2002).  But no precautionary action was taken.

The selectivity of focus on purpleheart is even more striking in relation to the log exports, and recalling that the presence of purpleheart in the natural forest is mostly in the range of 0.5-1.0 per cent by standing volume. I have no reliable data for the years before 1999, and years 2000-1, 2003, 2007-8 are also missing, unpublished by the GFC.

It is contrary to all national policies for timber logs to be exported instead of processed in Guyana, yet the GFC appears to be happy to allow tens of thousands of cubic metres to leave Guyana each year at sub-normal declared prices even while there are claims of local lumber shortages.

Why is this matter important?  Because Guyana has committed to improvements including transparency of operations and reporting under its MoU with Norway, and because Guyana has applied for a voluntary partnership agreement (VPA) with the European Union under the EU’s Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade action plan (2003).   Integral to a VPA is independent forest monitoring which implies also greater transparency and an end to government censorship of information.  The Guyana Manufacturers and Services Association (GMSA) wrote to the GFC in December 2006, in advance of the discussion on a national log export policy in February 2007.  The GMSA in essence requested publication of the kinds of data on production and trade which were normal during the lifetime of the Guyana Timber Export Board.  The GFC responded with only a fraction of the requested information.

The two tables above, summarizing sporadic GFC data, show that claims of sustainable management of Guyana’s forests made by the GFC and the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment are false even for one of the best-known timbers.

Yours faithfully,
John Palmer
Senior Associate
Forest Management Trust
Gainesville,  Florida,  USA