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15 July 2019

Sustainable forest industry in the tropics, mission possible?

Photo: Photo: Fanny Nilsson Mäkikaltio.

Tropical forestry is usually associated with deforestation and community exploitation. But one sustainable timber company settled in the countryside of Mozambique is hacking the way forward.

Let’s admit, most of us have little idea about just how much of our daily lives depend on forest products. The chairs we sit on, the mugs we drink from, and the books we read – all initially come from forests.

In Sweden, most of the wood for daily products originates from production forests. Unlike natural forests, these tend to be monocultures of common species like Scots pine and Norway spruce with low overall biodiversity and resilience. Depending on whom you ask, production forests occupy from 71% to 96% of Swedish forest area.

Forest business rooted in sustainability

Nils von Sydow, the CEO of LevasFlor, is Swedish but has lived in Mozambique for a decade. When asked about the main differences between forestry in his home country and in Mozambique, he explains: “Forestry in northern Europe works like a well-oiled machine. Here, down south, disorder and chaos rule. It is hardly managed based on science and every day brings new challenges.”

Doing business in Mozambique for over 12 years, LevasFlor, puts community empowerment, conservation, and sustainable forestry at the core of its business model. The name LevasFlor comes from combining Lebombo (Le) and Västerås (Vas) with floresta (Flor), which is Portugese for forest. “We do our best to stand on as many legs as possible in order to maintain our business,” says Nils when asked to summarize their success and reason for longevity. But let’s dive deeper into the ins and outs of the forest industry in Mozambique to understand how it’s like to build a sustainable business here.

This is not always the case in the tropics, where many countries still have large areas of natural forests left. But is it possible to combine these islands of nature with production forests and extract wood without knocking out biodiversity?

Photo: Fanny Nilsson Mäkikaltio.

The politics of forestry in Mozambique

Being one of the most poverty-stricken countries in the world, Mozambique has whopping wealth inequality and struggles with corruption too. At the same time, the country is blessed with a vast wealth of natural resources, including its forests. Tragically, these forests are being cut down and exported, while the barren land after extraction is left to waste. “There has been an unbelievable amount of deforestation in Mozambique since we started. Sadly that’s the context we are working in,” says Nils.

The politics of forestry in Mozambique is a tangled ravel of inefficiency and corruption. The requirements for community engagement and social responsibility are not implemented or enforced. This creates a breeding ground for illegal unsustainable logging, which often goes hand in hand with exploitation of local communities. In 2013, 93% of all logging was illegal! Unsurprisingly, harvesting contracts are often given to family and friends. This leads to a terrible combination of uncollected taxes and environmental destruction. On top of this, communication and transportation are difficult, due to crumbling infrastructure and underinvestment.

“Corruption suffocates change. In many cases it’s already been decided where the money is going to. Sustainability is not very popular, since it means that someone won’t get their slice of the pie.”

However, it would be unfair to say that all deforestation is directly related to corruption and foreign entities. A large chunk is caused by local communities expanding their agricultural fields using slash-and-burn methods. The lack of knowledge about the consequences and a general scarcity of alternatives forces people to extract trees unsustainably or burn down the local forests. And with staggering poverty rates these local users are not to blame as they are merely trying to put food on the table.

All of these challenges beg the question: Why run a natural forest timber business in a country like Mozambique? “We initially aimed to create some form of industrial forestry which is based on decent terms, which was and still is missing in the country,” Nils explains, “But because it’s so difficult to make the business profitable, the owners in Sweden see it more as a development project while they’re trying to find the right market.”

Photo: Fanny Nilsson Mäkikaltio.

Who are LevasFlor?

The company has over 160 staff, ranging from sawmill workers to forest rangers. Because the province they are located in is so poor, LevasFlor decided early on to build accommodation, a clinic, a school, a church and sanitary facilities for their staff. So, the majority of workers live on site in far better conditions than those in the neighboring villages. Furthermore, by providing employment and other livelihood opportunities the company has managed to decrease illegal logging and the spread of slash and burn agriculture.

For instance, when LevasFlor found that the local communities have a history of beekeeping, they decided to speak with the bee farmers and pay them to place beehives in the surrounding forest. This way local communities could take care of the hives, harvest the honey, and sell it back to the company for profit. The genius in this approach is that the beehives are placed in fire-prone areas that were likely to be burnt for agricultural use. Through empowering the local community with beehive ownership, LevasFlor has decreased the use of fire in the area and brought environmental stewardship to the next level. Nils says, “This is a typical example of an initiative which is about protecting our forest and benefitting local people who we don’t have the capacity to employ. They get an income from the honey and at the same time protect the forest from fires.”

Photo: David Falk, SIANI.

Starting from 2006, the company has been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). The FSC certification is a stamp of international approval that sets LevaFlor apart from other forestry operations in Africa. There are many plantations that are certified in the region, however LevasFlor is the only one operating in a natural forest.

This mode of operation is very different from the norm in production forests – only single trees are extracted and conditions in the harvested forests are maintained close-to-natural. Nils explains how unique their certification is: “We are certified for both chain of custody and forest management. The only other company that has similar certification is in the Congo basin, so there are only two of us in the entire Africa.” The company’s management has actually improved forest quality in the concession, increasing canopy cover and attracted rare species, such as leopard.

However, being sustainable comes at a price. Maintaining their FSC-certification is not cheap, and LevasFlor often has to pay more for their operations and transactions by going through the full chain of bureaucratic procedures.

“If the government prioritized sustainable wood in public procurement, we would thrive and other businesses would want to become sustainable too, ” says Nils. This would not only provide a favorable environment for small-scale businesses, but would also benefit local communities and the natural Mozambican forests. A stamp of sustainability would mean third-party auditing, which would ensure that local people have their piece of the pie.

Photo: David Falk, SIANI.

Looking into the future

 The Sofala province, where LevasFlor is based, was in the path of the devastating Cyclone Idai. Mozambique took the biggest hit, with the death toll over 1,000 individuals (and far more unaccounted for), and associated destruction to infrastructure and serious concern about food insecurity and increased poverty in the long run.

Naturally, the cyclone-affected LevasFlor via the devastating damage sustained by the local communities: “Most of our workers have lost the roofs of their houses, some lost their homes entirely. Almost all of them no longer have farming plots,” explains Nils, “from a purely business perspective it’s crucial for us to get our workers back on their feet. We cannot operate without them.”

However, every cloud has a silver lining. The destruction following Cyclone Idai may give LevasFlor a chance to help rebuild Mozambique: “There has been dialogue with the UN and other organizations about reconstruction. So, many companies will be interested in buying wood for building, and if they are looking for sustainable products, they know where to find it.”

LevasFlor aims to start exporting tropical timber to northern Europe. For Nils, it is all about telling the story right: “We are trying to sell a unique sustainable wood product, which takes time to develop and produce. The long-term goal is to get an international export contract.” A stable contract would secure LevasFlor’s business, and through that, the future of the local community. In the meantime, it is all about getting back to normal in the aftermath of the worst tropical cyclone on record to affect Africa.

Reporting by David Falk, former SIANI intern, he has BSc in Environmental Science from Queen Mary, University of London. David is currently pursuing an MSc in Forestry from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.