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Will Joe Clark's tree project sink Ghana's fishermen?

Fishermen haul in their nets with the help of a dead tree on Lake Volta, Ghana. Former Canadian prime minister Joe Clark is an investor in a controversial underwater logging project to harvest the valuable hardwood trees that were left standing in the man-made lake after it was flooded almost 45 years ago.

Erin Conway-Smith/Erin Conway-Smith/The Globe and Mail

Beneath the placid waters of Lake Volta, the shadow of death lurks in a jungle of submerged trees, where countless boats have capsized and scores of fishermen have drowned. The boats of Lake Volta have chilling names: "Judgment Day" and "Deliver Us from Evil."

But as they mend their nets on the shore, the fishermen of Africa's biggest artificial lake debate whether a former Canadian prime minister might be the one to deliver them from the evil of poverty and the threat of death.

They've barely heard of Canada, and they know little about Joe Clark. They know a lot, however, about his controversial business venture to make profits by harvesting millions of submerged trees in this 8,500-square-kilometre lake. Each of the submerged ebony, teak, mahogany and other tropical hardwood trees could be worth $1,500 to $2,500, their value preserved by the lack of oxygen in the lake water, and the total harvest could be worth up to $3-billion.

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The fishermen of Lake Volta, however, are not yet convinced that Mr. Clark is the man to save them. "If they cut down the trees, the fish will go away," one fisherman says. "It's no good for us."

The submerged trees, their dead branches still poking spookily through the surface of the lake, are both a blessing and a curse to the people of eastern Ghana.

When they cut the trees, it will increase our fish harvest. Ghanaian fisherman Napoleon Agbomadzi

Some fishermen swim down to attach bamboo traps to the sunken trees, where fish are attracted by food particles on the branches. They worry that Mr. Clark's business venture will destroy their fishing places and jeopardize their livelihoods. Others see the submerged trees as a hindrance to their fishing nets and a menace to their boats. They know the death toll: More than 300 people have drowned when their boats rammed into the hidden trees. They want Mr. Clark to hurry up and start his project.

Three decades after becoming Canada's youngest prime minister, Mr. Clark still sees himself as a pioneer - this time in sustainable development in Africa.

Mr. Clark is confident that his logging project is good for the fishermen, good for the environment, good for everyone else, too.

"We were obviously interested in something that would be profitable," he said in a phone interview from his summer home in Western Quebec, "but I think there's a growing interest in development in Africa that goes beyond an economic bottom line."

It's a bizarre-sounding project, conjuring up images of scuba divers with chainsaws (although most of the trees will be harvested with remote-controlled mechanical arms). But many analysts say it makes environmental and financial sense.

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Mr. Clark, now a 70-year-old academic and entrepreneur with a passion for the developing world, has helped attract $18-million in private investment to the project already, including a stake from Goldman Sachs, with a further $100-million likely to be invested over the course of the project. It's believed to be the biggest underwater logging project in the world, using technology that many skeptics doubted could ever succeed.

The fishermen have been hearing about the project for three years now, as it slowly moved through its environmental assessment. "We're just waiting for them to come and cut the trees soon," says Napoleon Agbomadzi, who earns about $200 a month from his small boat and fishing nets on Lake Volta.

"We want them to come soon," he says. "We hope they come tomorrow. Our nets get stuck in the trees and we don't get any fish. When they cut the trees, it will increase our fish harvest."

A few metres away, a poorer fisherman disagrees. "If they cut the trees, the fish will go away," says 25-year-old Emmanuel Zuta, who has no boat of his own and has to hire boats to take him to the trees, where he swims down to the underwater branches to attach his home-made bamboo traps.

"Most people here are against it," he says. "I'm happy that nothing has happened so far. I don't want them to come for the trees. We usually follow the trees to find the fish."

Another fisherman, 29-year-old Fofo Addo, is also worried by the Clark project. "If the trees are gone, there will be no place for us to attach our traps," he said. "It's a lot easier to tie the trap to a tree."

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The logging project has also sparked controversy among some of Ghana's environmentalists, including one who alleged that it will threaten the fishery and "drastically alter" the Lake Volta environment. Another said it would pose a "significant risk" to the lake's biodiversity and the "unique habitat conditions" that have evolved since the 1960s when the lake was created by a hydro dam that blocked the Volta rivers.

Mr. Clark insists the project is environmentally sound. "Among some of the early investors who came in, they were motivated, among other things, by the idea that this was an environmental and green investment," he said. "It was certainly a decisive factor for a couple of the early investors."

He believes the logging project will create jobs and growth in a poor region of West Africa that rarely had such opportunities in the past - and could bring the same benefits to other developing countries as the underwater technology is exported around the world.

Mr. Clark and his business partner, a former logger and business consultant named Wayne Dunn, predict that their company could create 1,400 direct and indirect jobs in Ghana. They formed their B.C.-based company, Clark Sustainable Resource Developments Ltd., in 2005 after Mr. Dunn saw a television documentary about remote-controlled submarines that were harvesting underwater pine trees in British Columbia's hydro reservoirs. Mr. Dunn, whose wife is Ghanaian, decided that the technology could be tried in Lake Volta.

Investors at first were highly skeptical that the massive waterlogged trees could be harvested from a depth of 40 metres or more. "People kept telling us it couldn't be done," Mr. Clark said.

"When we went to the World Bank, we met a World Bank team that had just come back from Ghana, and they said the value of the trees in that lake is zero because you can't get them out. We're doing our best to prove them wrong."

The technology for underwater log harvesting has never been attempted on this scale before, Mr. Clark said, and the resistance from private investors was the biggest obstacle that the venture has faced.

"Certainly investors thought there was some risk," he said. "People who had looked at it before had backed away. A lot of people are cautious about Africa. The fact that it had not been done before, and that there hasn't been a widely proven technology developed yet for getting the deepest logs out - all of these things caused some skepticism. It's always a slog in Africa to attract investment."

Mr. Clark won't disclose the size of his personal stake in the Lake Volta project, but Mr. Dunn says the former prime minister is "deeply involved" and a "significant shareholder" in their company, which is devoted entirely to the Volta venture at present.

Mr. Clark's partner, Mr. Dunn, is a 53-year-old high-school dropout from Saskatchewan who says he "worked on the grunt end of a chainsaw" in his youth before later earning a mid-career degree at Stanford University's business school.

Mr. Dunn says the Lake Volta project will reduce the level of global deforestation by bringing millions of cubic metres of old-growth timber to market without killing a single living tree. "I've never seen another business project so naturally align financial and social values with environmental stewardship," he said.

"Being fortunate enough to have the chance to do the right thing, and, if we are successful, to be rewarded financially, is part of why it means so much to me," he said.

The company has been awarded the logging rights to 40 per cent of the 850,000-hectare lake, which it describes as "the largest and most valuable underwater harvesting concession in the world." It has promised 20 per cent of the harvest's net value to Ghana's government. After winning its environmental and social permits last November, the company is planning to begin commercial harvesting within the next 12 to 18 months.

Environmental criticism of the logging project has diminished as the facts became better known. John Mason, a Canadian environmentalist who is co-founder of Ghana's biggest non-profit conservation group, says his group signed a deal to co-operate with Mr. Clark's company when it concluded that the project would have more benefits than costs, especially by reducing the need to log living trees.

"Ghana has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world, but this project would remove a tremendous amount of pressure from Ghana's forests," he said.

"As a conservationist, this is a no-brainer. This company has a pretty amazing set of standards. They're putting a hell of a lot of effort into doing the right thing. In the timber industry in Ghana, they're the absolute pioneers."

The disruption from the logging will not be a serious threat to the lake's environment, Mr. Mason said, since the company will leave many trees in the shallow waters where fish and nesting birds tend to gather. He dismissed the fears by some environmentalists that the fish habitat would be damaged, noting that the lake is artificial and the fish were introduced to it only in the 1960s. "It's like saying that we should protect the zebra mussels in Lake Ontario."

Mr. Mason's group, the Nature Conservation Research Centre, became involved in Lake Volta to try to save the West African manatee, an endangered marine mammal. If all of the trees in the lake were logged, the manatee could be wiped out, so the group decided to negotiate with Mr. Clark's company, he said.

Under their agreement, the company will leave enough trees in the lake to prevent the practice of large-scale drag-netting, which could have been a serious threat to the manatee.

And the logging itself will be so slow and plodding that it is no threat to the manatee, he said. "The manatee are a migratory species - they're just going to move away from where this is going on."

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More

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