Hen Mpoano (Our Coast), a non-government organisation, has advocated the institution of an environment court, where cases of environmental crimes such as illegal mining (galamsey) would be heard.
Mr. Justice Camilus Mensah, a Project Officer at Hen Mpoano, who made the call stressed that such a move would go a long way to strengthen environmental law enforcement and reduce the high incident of environmental crimes.
He was speaking at a two-day training for police prosecutors and other security agencies on forest and environmental laws in Takoradi.
The training, which sought to strengthen the capacity of enforcement actors for effective forest law compliance and enforcement, had police prosecutors, the Attorney General, Wildlife Division of the Forestry Commission and other CSOs as participants.
Giving a brief rationale for the training, Mr. Camilus Mensah explained that the Cape Three Point and Subri Forest Reserves were two forest reserves in the Takoradi Forest District.
Despite their ecological importance, he said the ecological integrity of the two reserves were increasingly threatened by human activities.
In Cape Three Point for instance, he noted rubber plantations were taking some of the boundaries of the forest reserve, admitted farms were expanding and taking over the forest, while illegal mining activities, logging and hunting of wildlife went on unabated in the forest reserve.
He added that about 12,372 hectares had been converted to plantation in the Subri Forest Reserve.
Mr. Camilus Mensah said as part of efforts to combat such illegal activities in the forest, Hen Mpoano with funding support from the Global Forest Watch Small Grant Fund was implementing the “Strengthening Environmental Law Enforcement in Forestry Crime project.”
The project, with the overall goal of integrating criminal justice into the forest monitoring and enforcement of the Takoradi Forest District, would build on an ongoing Global Forest Watch project which had successfully built the forest monitoring capacity of communities and forest managers to reduce deforestation in the Takoradi Forest District through enhanced community-based monitoring.
He mentioned that although the criminal justice system had been used to combat illegal logging and mining in the two forest reserves, it had been sporadic, limited, and ineffective due to limited law enforcement budgets, corruption, lack of political will, and inadequate knowledge of the actors.
He said most forest crimes that went to the courts were dismissed for lack of prosecution or poor preparation of cases.
He said in the last two years, over 20 different people had been arrested but none of the cases were prosecuted because the responsible people along the prosecutorial chain such as the Police were not abreast of the environment and the forest laws.
“Sometimes, people who are supposed to write or produce a docket do not have the right language to convince a judge that the case is important and that the case should be handled with priority.
“So, most of the cases go but they do not get any punitive punishment to deter others from doing the same”, he stated.
Therefore, he said it was expedient that enforcement of the forest laws ensured that all actors in the enforcement chain have adequate knowledge of the laws of the environment.
The training participants expressed concern that punitive measures for wildlife and forestry crimes were not deterrent enough and called for it to be reviewed.
However, Mr. Kwabena Boakye of the Legal Unit of the Wildlife Division, who took participants through the Wildlife Conservation Regulation, mentioned that a new Wildlife Bill had been presented to parliament for consideration.
The new bill, he stressed, would be punitive enough but encouraged the participants to read widely to become conversant with the laws to be able to effectively enforce them.
Mr. Balletey Gomey, a Senior Programme Officer at Hen Mpoano said the organization would collaborate with all relevant agencies in the protection of the forest reserve, while admitting that though there might be obstacles in the management of natural resources.
The Cape Three Point Forest Reserve had been designated as a Globally Significant Biodiversity Area (GSBA); an Important Bird Area (IBA) and a Key Biodiversity Area (KBA), while the Subri Forest which is the biggest forest reserve in the country had about 160 square kilometers designated as a Global Significant Biodiversity Area (GSBA).