14. Processing Lumber with Chainsaws: Relevance for Households in the Forest Zone of Ghana

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14. Processing Lumber with Chainsaws: Relevance for Households in the Forest Zone of Ghana






Chainsaw milling, or stump-site production of lumber using a chainsaw, is thought to hold considerable promise as an enterprise among rural communities because of employment opportunities and because it is a way to increase the benefits gained from trees on farms. Chainsaw milling requires a relatively small investment, since the machines are readily available and are inexpensive to buy or rent. A single person and machine can fell, crosscut and mill one or more trees in a day. The machinery is portable and efficient. Chainsaw milling can increase the value of trees on farms by providing a means through which the trees can be readily converted into revenue for the tree owner. Chainsaw milling can also stimulate the local economy through the provision of raw materials (Pasiecznik 2006). Because small and poorly formed trees can be utilized, chainsaw milling also represents a way to increase the efficiency of conversion of trees into lumber.

However, in Ghana, chainsaw milling activities are currently considered a major threat to the sustainable use of forest resources. There are several reasons for this:

Chainsaw milling activities became widespread in Ghana in the 1980s when an economic recession caused a decline in lumber production from sawmills. The government attempted to regulate the operations in 1991 by mandating the registration of chainsaws with District Assemblies and by requiring permits for tree felling by District Forestry Officers (Legislative Instrument 1518). But this attempt to regularize chainsaw milling activities failed, with indiscriminate harvesting of prime species, felling of immature trees, and non payment of royalties, rents and other taxes being widespread. In 1997 (Act 547) and 1998 (Legislative Instrument 1649) the government outlawed the production, sale and use of chain-sawn lumber in Ghana. The rationale for this ban was to: 1) allow the Forestry Commission to gain greater control over the marketing of logs and lumber; 2) guarantee a supply of raw materials to local sawmills and the timber industry; 3) protect the wood processing industry; and 4) create jobs within the sector.

The ban on chainsaw milling and its associated lumber trade have been ineffective to date. The majority of the lumber sold in domestic markets continues to be sourced from chainsaw operators. The failure is attributed mainly to corrupt practices within various institutions entrusted with forest management and the control of timber harvesting. However, corruption alone doesn’t explain the continuation and expansion of the industry in Ghana. The reality is that there is a deficit of sawmill timber for local markets,1 the price of chainsaw lumber is low relative to sawmill lumber produced for local markets, there is a lack of employment opportunities in villages in rural areas, and there is a lack of clarity over tenure of trees on farms. (Nketiah et al. 2004)

1 The traditional mills by law (Section 36 of Legislative Instrument 1649) a) are obliged to supply not less than 20% of their mill output to the local market. If this law were complied with, the mills would deliver about 120,000 m3 to the local market annually. This represents only 24% of the estimated local consumption of about 500,000 m3 (Coleman 2004).

Illegal logging, including chainsaw milling, is overwhelming the capacity of the forest administration in Ghana. More staff hours are devoted to the control of illegal activities than are available for all other management activities required to sustain the resource base. Chainsaw milling is now associated with much conflict, as various actors perceive the actions of others as impeding their use and control of forest resources. The conflicts are largely between the state (via its implementing agencies), the “recalcitrant” citizens who attempt to access timber illegally, the sawmill industry and the chainsaw millers, all of whom are competing for an ever scarcer resource. It is evident that chainsaw logging and milling is prevalent in West Africa, whether it is legal or not. If we hope to move towards sustainable forest use, we need to better understand the conditions under which chainsaw milling can be made sustainable.

As part of a larger study to determine the governance requirements under which chainsaw logging and milling could be conducted in a socially, environmentally and economically acceptable ways, we conducted a comparative socio-economic study of chainsaw and industrial timber production in Ghana in November and December of 2005. The specific objectives were to:


Semi-structured interviews were conducted with members of households in nine communities in the forest zone. The households were selected from focal communities using a stratified random sampling strategy, where strata were based on household asset holdings (wealthy, middle, poor) using Rapid Appraisal Techniques or interviews with key informants. Sampling was distributed across the three strata, and included respondents representing a mix of ages, gender, and education levels.

Study area

The focal communities were selected to represent the variability amongst communities in the forest zone, particularly in relation to the level of logging and milling activity (both small- scale chainsaw milling and large-scale milling). The following variables were taken into account of in the selection of focal communities for the study, as they were thought to influence the prevalence and profitability of chainsaw milling: status of the forest (i.e., protected, managed by the Forestry Commission, managed by communities, farmland); resource endowment or forest quality (i.e., good, moderately degraded and highly degraded); and, presence or absence of a large mill.

Benefits derived from logging and milling activities

When respondents were asked about the benefits they received from timber harvesting and milling, whether large-scale operations or chainsaw operations, the majority replied they received no benefit. However, the frequency of respondents citing no benefits was greater in for large-scale operations (78%) than chainsaw operations (53%). Although large-scale operators enter into a Social Responsibility Agreement with communities, in practice most members of communities are not aware of the benefits it brings (87%). Some community members believe that the Social Responsibility Agreement does not exist (7%), which may result from a lack of direct benefits. Despite this apparent lack of awareness and appreciation of benefits, there is some evidence from the interviews that logging companies have provided facilities such as schools buildings, street lighting in communities and market buildings through the Social Responsibility Agreement.

There was regional variability in terms of the perceived benefits to logging and milling operations. Respondents in Ashanti and Brong Ahafo regions were more likely to report benefits associated with large-scale operations than those in other regions. For chainsaw operations, about 70% of respondents in the Brong Ahafo region identified benefits, whereas only 35% and 38% in the Central and Eastern Regions responded positively. The frequency of citing benefits associated with chainsaw operations was independent of the management scheme of the forest area in question (forests managed by the Forestry Commission are referred to as PFC).

When respondents identified benefits, the list of benefits differed for the two forms of logging and milling (Table 1). The principle benefits associated with large-scale operations were sawn timber, wood residues, social amenities, employment and use of logging roads. The principle benefits associated with chainsaw operations were sawn timber, employment and help in land preparation for farming.

Table 1: Percentage of respondents citing specific benefits associated with tree harvesting and milling activities in their local forest


Large-scale logging and milling

Chainsaw logging and milling

No benefit



Lumber for construction



Wood residues



Social amenities (roads, schools, toilets)






Use of logging roads



Help in land preparation, getting rid of unwanted trees



Lumber, in one form or another, was the most frequently cited benefit of both large-scale and chainsaw operations. In addition to identifying lumber as a benefit, respondents were asked where they obtain lumber for building materials, and also were asked to identify any difficulties they faced in sourcing lumber.

The most commonly cited source of lumber for the households interviewed was chainsaw operators (Table 2). Some respondents differentiated chainsawn lumber from lumber acquired from farmlands and seized lumber bought from the Forest Services Division; however, these two sources are ultimately processed by chainsaw operators. Sourcing patterns appear to differ among the regions, with 60% of respondents relying on lumber from sawmills in the Ashanti, compared to 70% relying on chainsaw operations in the Western Regions (Table 3). The presence of a large mill in the district, however, did not appear to influence sourcing patterns, nor did the management regime in place for the forest (whether managed by the Forest Service Division or the community). Sourcing did depend on the quality of the forest, with respondents from degraded forest regions indicating a greater reliance on sawmill timber (62%), than those from either moderate or high-quality forest regions (38–48%).

Table 2: Sources where households obtained wood for building


Percent of total respondents

Saw mills


Chain-sawn lumber




Seized lumber




Table 3: Main sources of lumber for building


Percentage of respondents

Saw mills

Chainsaw lumber




Brong Ahafo



Central Region



Eastern Region



Western Region



Most respondents said they did not have any difficulty in obtaining wood for construction (Table 4). The main difficulties identified were transportation of wood, fear of arrest and imposition of fines by the forestry service or law enforcement agents, and a cumbersome permit process. The frequency of respondents citing difficulties varied by region (Table 5), and was greatest in Brong Ahafo (61%), where fear of arrest and fines, difficulties with transportation, and a cumbersome permit processes were the main difficulties cited. The Ashanti region had the second highest incidence of difficulties (46%), with transportation constraints being cited most often. Respondents living in districts without a large mill found difficulties in sourcing lumber (52%) more frequently than did those living in districts with a large mill (25%). Only 20% of the respondents from high quality forest areas reported difficulties in sourcing lumber, whereas 58% and 60% from degraded and moderate-quality forests reported difficulties.

Table 4: Difficulties faced in getting wood for construction


Percent of total respondents

No difficulty




Fear of arrest and fines


Permit process


High cost of wood


Scarcity of wood at saw mills


Permission from land owner to fell and mill for trees on farm


Scarcity of wood in forest


Table 5: Percentage of respondents experiencing difficulty when sourcing lumber for building materials in relation to region


Percentage of total respondents experiencing difficulties



Brong Ahafo


Central Region


Eastern Region


Western Region


Costs associated with large-scale logging and chainsaw milling activities

When respondents were asked about the costs of logging and milling activities to themselves and their communities, a large proportion believed that there were no costs (Table 6). The frequency of respondents citing no costs was similar for large-scale and chainsaw operations, and was comparable across regions. For those households that identified costs, the most frequently cited costs were the same for the two types of logging and milling operations (i.e. damage to their crops, forest degradation and conflicts with operators). Respondents also cited damage to roads through large-scale logging activities as a problem that affected communities. This, however, was not an issue with the chainsaw milling operations.

Table 6: Timber operations imposing costs as reported by households


Percentage of respondents

Large-scale logging and milling

Chainsaw logging and milling

No cost



Damage to crops (and livestock)



Forest degradation, negative environmental impacts



No idea/don’t know






Damage to road



Accidents with large trucks



Conflict, vandalism, breakdown of law and order



Accidents with chainsaw operations



Extent of involvement and economic reliance on logging and milling operations

About 8% of households interviewed were directly involved in chainsaw milling operations, while about 4% were involved in conventional logging and milling operations. Where chainsaw activity was identified, it was primarily reported as a secondary source of income (only 1 of 15 respondents relied on it as a primary occupation).

For the interviewed individuals who worked in large-scale logging and milling operations, their monthly incomes from logging activities varied with the type of jobs undertaken and ranged between Ghanaian Cedis 100,000 and 1,200,000 (£6–£70; US$ 12-140), median 200,000 or £11; US$ 22 per month).

Incomes earned in chainsaw milling activities were comparatively higher than the incomes of the employees from the large-scale logging activities (Table 7). However, income from the large-scale logging operations were on a monthly basis involving relative consistency and security, and therefore may place participating households in a more financially secure position than those whose income originates from chainsaw milling. Average annual income for those interviewees working in chainsaw operations is Ghanaian Cedis 3,645,000 (US$ 416). This compares to a median annual income of Ghanaian Cedis 2,400,000 (US$ 275) for those interviewed and working in the large-scale operations.

Table 7: Reported income from survey respondents

Earnings of respondents

Number of respondents

Median Income(Ghana Cedis)

Median income ($US)

Monthly earnings of respondents from large-scale logging




Annual earning of respondents from large-scale logging




Respondent earnings from chainsaw activity the last year




Estimated annual income from chainsaw operations as reported




Reported annual income from primary occupations from those involved in chainsaw operations




Reported annual income from all households interviewed




Attributes of individuals working in logging and milling

About 60% of the people involved in chainsaw milling operations were farmers, similar to the percentage of the overall sample. There was no association between livelihood assets and current involvement in chainsaw operations, nor was there a significant association between current involvement and access to credit. Those involved in chainsaw operations were just as likely to participate in formal, traditional or religious associations as those from the overall sample. And they were no more, or less, likely to be involved in local government, to be close to the chief, or close to the assemblyman. When the age distribution of those involved in chainsaw milling operations was examined in relation to the age distribution of the overall sample, it was found to be similar, as was the age distribution of those working in large-scale logging and milling operations. Thus it can be concluded from the relatively small sample considered here that there is no evidence these two occupations are favoring the young over the old, or any other subset of rural society.

Suggestions for making chainsaw milling more socially sustainable

The majority of households interviewed were broadly supportive of legalizing chainsaw milling operations (Table 8). Their suggestions for making it more socially sustainable included allocation of concessions with associated monitoring established, making employment opportunities more regular, and requiring operators to pay taxes. About 15% were supportive of the ban on chainsaw milling.

Table 8: Suggestions for making chainsaw milling more socially acceptable

Household suggestions

Percentage of respondents

Give concessions and monitor operations


Regularize employment opportunities


Ban operations but give permits for communities to use


Ensure farmers get compensation for crop damage


Let operators pay taxes


Organize operators into associations


Plant trees


Provide education to increase livelihood opportunities



A large number of rural households in the forest areas surveyed feel that they receive no benefits from large-scale logging and milling operations. Despite heavy reliance on these industries for their supply of local lumber, residents are expecting more. This is particularly true for large-scale operations. Several factors may play a role in influencing rural household views about the industry’s failure to meet their expectations. First, it may be a lack of transparency in the procedures for delivering benefits to the communities from forest resources.

Social Responsibility Agreements are negotiated between the timber companies and the local governments, as represented by the District Assembly and the Chief. Where the details of the agreements are not clearly communicated to the members of the community, it is difficult for people to associate benefits with the large-scale logging and milling operations that take place in their forest, even when contributions such as school, market buildings or street lighting have been funded by the timber companies.

Similarly, revenues that are transferred to local governments through the local Chief from the Forestry Commission as a result of timber sales may not be transparent to the community. The large proportion of people indicating that they receive no benefits from chainsaw operations suggests that if the business were to be regularized, it would be necessary to review the benefit-sharing agreements to ensure that people are aware of the benefits that the community derives from the operations. Lack of transparency in relation to such benefit sharing agreements can result in feelings of frustration over ownership of trees on farms, and may explain farmers’ willingness to illegally sell their trees directly to chainsaw operators, allowing them to capture some direct income. Variations recorded in perceptions of benefits from the lumber trade may relate to regional differences in the effectiveness of landowners (i.e.chiefs) in negotiating with the Forestry Commission and industry representatives for benefits.

It is interesting to note that household reliance on chainsaw lumber varied by region. In Ashanti, households were sourcing lumber from sawmills more frequently than in other regions. Although the Ashanti region has a relatively high density of mills, the presence of mills alone doesn’t explain the household sourcing patterns. The majority of sawmills produce lumber for the export market and tend to deal with bulk rather than individual or household sales. Most of the saw-mills do not supply the local retail market. Further, the lumber that is produced by sawmills for local markets can not compete with chainsaw lumber in terms of price (i.e., lumber sawn using a chainsaw is sold at a much lower price than that sawn at a mill). Rather, results suggest that where forest resources have been degraded, households are more reliant on lumber from sawmills than from chainsaw operators. Very few chainsaw firms are operating in degraded forest areas because of the low availability of preferred timber species, and this may explain a heavier reliance on lumber from sawmills.

The transportation of lumber from district or regional markets to villages was frequently cited by respondents as a difficulty faced in obtaining lumber for construction. Although some efforts have been made to encourage the development of local lumber markets, for the most part these efforts have not yet been successful. Difficulties in sourcing lumber appeared to be the most frequent cited problem for households in the Brong Ahafo region, along with transportation difficulties, fear of arrest and fines, and cumbersome permit processes. Variations across regions in relation to the intensity of policing efforts may explain differences in perception. More research is needed to confirm the main factors behind the variation.

The costs of logging and milling operations for rural households appear to be felt more acutely than the benefits. Damage to crops and livestock was cited most frequently, both in the case of large-scale operations and in chainsaw operations. For large-scale operations involving the removal of raw timber “off-reserve,” logs are often skidded over long distances, frequently causing damage to crops. For chainsaw operations, the damage is primarily associated with felling activities.

Negative environmental impacts, including forest degradation, were cited by a large proportion of respondents as a cost of timber operations. Including the felling and skidding damage already mentioned, impacts on the forest resource base are also recognized. Chainsaw operators regularly fell trees that are below the legal size limit, cut and mill tree species from all timber classes (i.e., those with high, medium and low demand), and harvest over-exploited and threatened species. Although more lumber appears to be taken from “off-reserve” sources, the statistics related to Forestry Commission confiscation of lumber suggests that “on-reserve” offences are as frequent as those occurring “off-reserve.”

Conflicts, vandalism and the breakdown of law and order are costs rural households associate with chainsaw milling. This is felt more broadly by the general society in Ghana, and is especially true for people working in law enforcement and forest management. Conflicts are also associated with large-scale operations, though these were identified specifically as being in the form of litigation costs. Many farmers have faced difficulties when taking logging companies to court to get compensation for crop damage. Litigation issues also arise in relation to disputes over the boundaries between different communities’ lands.

Taken together, logging and milling operations employed members of about 12% of the households interviewed. Given that the study was conducted within the forest zone, one might expect higher levels of employment. Those few who are employed by the large companies benefit from job security and a predictable income; however, the numbers of jobs available are few. Large-scale operators have no obligations to employ locally when working in a particular zone. In contrast, survey results suggest that chainsaw operations employed twice as many local people as the large-scale operations. The median income from chainsaw milling was greater, but job security was low and there was high variability in the number of opportunities for earning from this activity. Chainsaw milling is primarily used to supplement income rather than as a primary source of income. Relative to large-scale operations, it appears that opportunities in chainsaw milling are more widely dispersed across forest zones.

From this study it is clear that local communities would welcome policies that ensure a regular supply of legal timber for domestic use. There is also potential for greater commitment from communities toward sustainably managing existing timber resources, especially if they could experience benefits from effective regulation of the forest resource.

There is desire among some policy makers, politicians, and resource managers to support the legalization and regulation of chainsaw milling, but there is also fear of increased corruption, which has already negatively impacted on the sector. There is a need to understand the nature and dynamics of corruption in chainsaw milling in order to devise appropriate interventions and standardize the industry. Weak forestry institutions currently cannot enforce policies and legislation effectively. Weak social norms lead to forest abuse that goes unpunished by other stakeholders. It is these governance and societal weaknesses that underlie the problems of corruption and illegality in the forest sector, especially with regards to chainsaw milling.

In addition to weak institutions, some policies introduced by the Ministry of Lands, Forestry and Mines may be contributing indirectly to the problem of chainsaw milling and its associated corruption. For example, resource allocations through the timber utilization contract and competitive bidding procedures mean that only registered timber companies have the ability to obtain trees. In both authorized large-scale operations and chainsaw milling there are opportunities for corrupt practices to influence access to the resource.

The current government policy for dealing with the problem of chainsaw milling in Ghana appears to be one of a continuously enforced ban on such operations. This is to be accompanied by the creation of alternative livelihood schemes to absorb illegal chainsaw operators, mobilize chainsaw operators to establish and operate mobile forest mills that are easier to regulate; implement an effective log-tracking system; and strictly enforcing the law banning chainsaw operations. Contrary to this approach, the general public supports lifting the ban, mainstreaming chainsaw operations through re-introduction of limited permits to registered groups of local timber traders and their chainsaw operators, and thus ensuring a consistent and affordable supply for the domestic market.

Logging and milling activities in the forest zone bring a variety of costs and benefits to rural households, which vary regionally. A large number of households are broadly supportive of legalizing and regulating the chainsaw milling industry, with the expectation that controlling the industry would reduce the negative environmental impacts of milling, provide farmers with a mechanism for being compensated for crop damage, and contribute to a consistent supply of quality lumber for local markets. If chainsaw milling is to become socially, environmentally and economically acceptable in Ghana, it will be necessary to address issues related to transparency, corruption, institutional weakness and forest policies related to timber resource allocation.


Pasiecznik, N. M. 2006. The potential of chainsaw milling outside forests. Agroforestry Net, Holualoa, Hawaii. http://www.agroforestry.net/pubs.

Nketiah K S, Wieman, A. and K. O. Asubonteng, 2004. Chainsaw lumber production: a necessary evil?, Tropenbos International, Wageningen, Netherlands.

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