BRAZZAVILLE, Oct 27- Countries of Africa’s Congo Basin would like to grow richer by making and selling products from their abundant supply of timber, but experts see a path strewn with obstacles.
A first difficulty is that electrical power for sawmills and factories “is not available, because its production is problematic,” Emmanuel Ze Meka of the International Tropical Timber Organisation (ITTO) told AFP.
“There is also a lack of transport infrastructure” and “taxation is too high”, he said, adding that an unqualified workforce needs much training.
Ze Meka was speaking on the sidelines of an international forum on the development of the Congo Basin wood industry, which covers much of west equatorial Africa and includes some of the world’s largest tropical rainforests, after the Amazon.
Experts met in Congo’s capital Brazzaville on Monday and Tuesday to debate the pros and cons of banning raw timber exports in order to promote the development of local industries that offer products ranging from plywood to furniture.
Cameroon was the first country to ban the export of its valuable hardwood timber in the mid 1990s, but it rapidly eased up on the restrictions.
Since 2010, no raw timber has left Gabon, where logging was the main export earner until oil came onstream. But the country is having difficulty in finding outlets for its wood products because of stiff competition.
“Gabon isn’t a country with a big industrial tradition. Its industries are not capable of matching international competition. Their plywood isn’t competitive when faced with China’s,” said Alain Karsenty, who works for the France-based International Centre for Agronomic Research and Development (CIRAD).
In consequence, the part wood plays in Gabon’s gross domestic product has dropped by half, to 2.5 percent, and “tax returns from forestry have dropped by 71 percent” since 2010, according to Prosper Obame Ondo, who heads the state agency to promote wood products.
Karsenty cautioned that “highly developed wood processing cannot be decreed” and Gabon’s industry has to be ready for it.
Since 2000, the average level of raw timber production across the Congo Basin has increased by 50 percent and accounts for 7.5 million cubic metres of logs per year, the Congo Republic’s Forestry Minister Henri Djombo said.
Djombo said that overall an average of 54 percent of wood was being processed locally, compared with between 30 and 45 percent 13 years ago.
The countries considered part of the Congo Basin are Angola, Burundi, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Sao Tome and Principe.
A white paper published at the Brazzaville forum showed up “large differences” between countries. “In Cameroon, almost 75 percent of the timber production is processed locally”, while in the Congo Republic, “the rate varies, depending on the year, between 51 and 65 percent.”
“These relatively high rates are the result of deliberate policy,” the document said, but it added that “over the whole of the Congo Basin, it is often more profitable for companies to export logs transported over hundreds of kilometres than to export sawn and factory worked wood.”
Nevertheless, taking wood processing to a high level is one of the goals of a plan that the Congo Basin nations signed in 2005, aimed at reaching a sustainable management of their forests, currently subject to widespread illegal logging.
The local manufacture of wood products could help countries to create jobs and to diversify their economies, which are often over dependent on a handful of export products.
“The development of the wood industry is one of the ways to attain a growth rate in two figures and an unemployment rate in one figure,” said Honore Tabouna, an expert in the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS).
However, to reach that goal, Djombo added, governments would have to “to clean up the business climate” by tackling corruption and “adopt attractive tax incentives”.