London — Is China's investment in Africa's forests a positive or a negative? It depends on who you ask, but a new forum aims to at least make the Africa-China timber trade more transparent and easier for African policy makers to understand and act on.
The China-Africa Forest Governance Learning Platform, launched this week, will research China's impact and influence over decisions about Africa's forests.
The forum, developed by the Forest Governance Learning Group, aims to help African policymakers and other experts better understand Africa's relationship with China, according to an International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) press release.
China is now the top importer of timber from several African countries, mainly those in the Congo Basin, and as China's imports of African timber and its investments in forestland are increasing, gathering information about the impacts is key, experts say.
Preliminary research shows while some Chinese companies contribute to the welfare of the African forest communities, others fail to comply and are illegally exploiting forest resources.
Experts said more information is needed to try to improve governance of forests in Africa, and to gauge the possible positive and negative impacts of China's interest in them.
"Together they (African policy makers) need to try to get better partnerships with people in China and potentially take action and improve decision making where it is opaque or wrong," said James Mayers, head of the IIED natural resources group and facilitator of the Forest Governance Learning Group, in a phone interview.
Not surprisingly, the research shows China has a relatively positive view of the relationship, while many Africa nations have a negative view.
Mayers said that because China needs natural resources the government has encouraged investing overseas, and since Africa needs investment in infrastructure, China the partnership as a a win-win.
But in Africa, both governments and civil society groups in countries such as Mozambique and Zambia see the relationship as negative, in part due to lack of communication. African nations say they want guarantees China's investment will improve the welfare of local communities.
Another big challenge, given the lack of regulation, is to verify that African timber imported to China is being cut legally and sustainably, and to assess the impacts on Africa's forest communities, Mayers said.
With the European Union set to create stricter timber regulations this month, Mayers said he fears more illegal timber may head to China instead.
A dialogue aimed at stopping this from happening launched in Beijing this week, attended by African and Chinese leaders and representatives of the forest learning group, Mayers said.
While China is the biggest investor in Africa's forests at the moment, Mayers said India, or other places with an increasing need for natural resources, could be next.
Chelsea Diana is an AlertNet Climate intern.