TRYNESS TEMBO, Lusaka
THE timber industry is slowly growing in Africa. It is an open secret that trees play an important role in economic growth and can provide the much needed foreign exchange if well managed and harvested.
For a country like Zambia, which is diversifying from copper, timber has the potential to become a major export commodity that could rake in a lot of foreign exchange.
More than just providing a form of investment, the timber industry has the potential to contribute to employment creation and help reduce poverty in the country, especially in rural areas.
Zambia should take advantage of its vast forest cover by turning it into a source of wealth and jobs.
Out of 752,614 square kilometres (km) of Zambia, 451,568 square kilometres is covered by forest, representing about 60 percent of the entire land.
Consumer Unity and Trust Society (CUTS) and Action Aid believe this natural resource deserves more attention than it has been receiving in the past.
They are jointly conducting a study on the potential of the sector to spur human and economic development.
CUTS convened a meeting under the theme ‘Leveraging Zambia’s timber industry’, which brought together key stakeholders in the sector.
The meeting was attended by Zambia Association of Manufacturers (ZAM), saw millers, Zambia Environmental Management Agency, Zambia Association for Timber and Forestry Based Industries (ZATFBI), Timber Association of Zambia and several others.
The objective of the meeting was to establish a platform for the different stakeholders in the sector to dialogue on how best Zambia can tap from the potential timber offers.
ZATFBI president Gilbert Mudenda believes that the timber industry has the potential to contribute to economic growth and create the much needed employment in the country.
Dr Mudenda also notes that the country can only reap the full benefits of the sector if corruption is addressed.
He said there is need for continuous engagement with various stakeholders in policy formulation and implementation processes if the industry is to grow.
“You [CUTS] cannot conduct a thorough study without fighting corruption. You should focus on it [corruption] and suggest ways in which it can be addressed. Timber is Zambia’s golden egg,” Dr Mudenda said.
“Corruption is preventing the growth of the sector, hence the need for continuous engagement with various players, including Government, to find solutions to the challenges,” he said.
A civil society organisation leader notes that Zambia’s timber sector has the potential to contribute over US$10 billion to the gross domestic product (GDP) annually if well managed.
CUTS board member Yusuf Dodia observes that the study has highlighted great potential in the timber sector and it is therefore important for the nation to see how best it can benefit from the resource.
Mr Dodia said despite the sector’s potential, it had not received the recognition it deserves until recently.
“The timber sector is most lucrative in the country, but remains unexploited despite its potential to contribute US$11 billion to the GDP.
“In spite of the sector being lucrative, not much of the revenue is extracted to make a meaningful contribution to the socio-economic growth of the country because much of the trees are harvested by the informal sector,” Mr Dodia notes.
He cited illegal harvesting and inconsistent policies as some of the challenges facing players in the timber sector, which have a negative effect on its growth.
Mr Dodia also believes that the country is at a point where it needs to enhance domestic resource mobilisation to help address the debt issue.
Currently, Zambia’s debt stands at US$9.37 billion and K13.9 billion to external and internal creditors, respectively.
How can the sector be grown?
ZAM representative John Tembo notes that there is need to empower the local communities with knowledge about timber.
Mr Tembo says foreign investors must leave the cutting of trees to the locals so that they can benefit from their natural resources.
He urged Government to conduct periodic research on the economic value of natural resources in the country to have updated information.
“We [stakeholders] need to educate the locals on the value of our natural resources so they can appreciate and protect them,” he said.
In her 2019 National Budget speech to Parliament, Minister of Finance Margaret Mwanakatwe said Government is looking at introducing public auctioning of timber and lifting the ban on its export.
However, Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources principal forestry officer Mindenda Pande attributes the poor performance of the timber sector to the illegal harvesting of various species, inadequate regulation and investment in equipment.
Mr Pande has advised players in the sector to also promote value addition to timber to earn more from it.
“Despite the huge potential of the sector to contribute to GDP, it has remained troubled because of outdated laws which need urgent review to meet international standards.
“Currently, the sector contributes 5.2 percent to GDP, but if fully exploited it has the potential to contribute more,” he said.
Mr Pande emphasised the need to review the Forest Act of 2017.
He said out of the 220 tree species the country is endowed with, only 28 are being commercially exploited.
Mr Pande said Government has so far issued 172 concession licences in both small and large categories.
Despite the numerous challenges faced by the sector, if well utilised it can positively contribute to income generation for many citizens and help grow the economy.
Government should therefore pay more attention to the sector’s needs through relevant line ministries.
Through close collaboration with key sector players it can address the challenges being faced by the timber sector and enable it to effectively contribute to the economy.
TRYNESS TEMBO, Lusaka