ACCRA (AFP) – Ghana, which is running short of forests to chop down, is about to turn to the dead trees underneath its Lake Volta as a new source of exotic timber, one of its top export earners.
Lake Volta, one of the world's largest artificial lakes, is expected to yield millions of dollars worth of timber in what is set to be Africa's biggest-ever underwater logging of what was thought to be lost forests.
Experts say Ghana's forest cover has shrunk to about a quarter of its 1960 size due to over-logging and poaching. Underwater logging is seen as a novelty in the quest to save the west African nation's overland forests.
The venture is expected to help fight global climate change by sparing the living trees that are needed to absorb carbon.
Ghana's Forestry Services chief Owusu Abebrese asserts that this harvesting of submarine timber is the first of its kind in Africa.
But some say it may be taking place elsewhere on the continent though on a small-scale basis.
"As far as we know, this is the first for Africa on this scale," said Robert Johnson, representative of a Canadian firm that will dredge the depths of the lake to salvage some of Africa's prized hardwood. The timber was submerged when the lake was built 44 years ago.
Among other countries harvesting timber from underwater are the two South American states of Suriname and Brazil, "but not on this scale," said Johnson.
An inventory, conducted using high resolution sonar -- a technology used to locate objects underwater -- has identified some 100 species of trees, including sought-after hardwoods such as ebony, teak and mahogany, all buried in the lake bed.
Vancouver-based Clark Sustainable Resource Developments (CSRD) has secured a 25-year concession to extract the dead but valuable trees from a zone representing around 40 percent of Lake's Volta's total area.
Lake Volta was created with the construction in 1964, of the Akosombo hydro-electricity dam which feeds power to Ghana and nearby Togo and Benin.
While all parties agree on the financial benefits of reaping the dead wood, there is controversy over whether removing the submerged trees will make the lake safer or not.
"We believe that the venture will significantly reduce the number of accidents on Volta lake related to submerged stumps," said Kingsley Bekoe-Ansah, coordinator of Forest Watch Ghana.
Some fishermen, however, argue that the submerged tree trunks have on occasion saved the lives of people who were able to cling to them and wait to be rescued.
The venture should rake in some 100 million dollars yearly in foreign exchange and create 1,400 new jobs in a country long regarded as a model of stability in west Africa.
The government will earn 20 percent of the net value of the harvested timber.
"What we thought was a resource beyond our reach ... is right here, it's like a miracle," said Abebrese.
CSRD aims to kick off operations by yearend, once outstanding permits are issued.
"It has been a rigorous effort, there is no reference point. We are virtually creating something from scratch," said Johnson.
Johnson said an environmental assessment has been conducted to World Bank standards.
But environmental activists, while acknowledging the positive economic and social gains of the project, warn that its negative impacts should not be ignored.
The advantages should "be weighed against the negative impact on fisheries as well as the increased amount of both industrial and domestic waste that will come from the wood harvesting and processing industry," said Christopher Manu of Friends of Earth.
He said the artificial lake environment "will be drastically altered".
"The effect on fish breeding grounds... has not yet been well established, let alone designing appropriate mitigation measures," said Manu.
But CSRD has promised it will not disrupt fish habitats as it will only saw off trunks leaving the roots intact for the fish to continue breeding.
Reduced oxygen and light levels underwater, greatly slow down decomposition of the sunken logs.
Timber is Ghana's fourth export earner -- after gold, cocoa and tourism, with the majority of the wood heading to Europe.
In September, the European Union inked a landmark deal with Ghana to fight illegal timber exports from the west African country which will see shipments of uncertified timber being turned away from the EU.