By Alister Doyle, Environment Correspondent
OSLO, Sept 3 (Reuters) - Ghana agreed to crack down on illegal timber exports on Wednesday in a trade deal with the European Union seen as a blueprint for EU accords with other tropical nations to slow deforestation, EU officials said.
Under the pact, Ghana's government will impose stricter controls on logging, from trees felled in remote forests to timber loaded onto cargo ships. And the EU will bar any unlicensed Ghanaian timber from its market.
The World Bank estimates that about 60 percent of logging in Ghana has been illegal in recent years, and most of the West African country's forests have vanished. Many tropical nations lack full oversight of timber production.
The pact is "the first of a series of legally binding bilateral agreements...envisioned between the EU and individual timber-producing countries," according to the European Forest Institute, an EU-funded research group that worked out the deal.
The EU is also in talks with Indonesia, Cameroon, Malaysia and the Democratic Republic of Congo on similar deals. Timber exports under such "voluntary partnership agreements" on forests are likely to start in 2009.
Proper enforcement of laws to protect forests will also be a condition for a likely new U.N. climate pact to slow deforestation -- burning of forests to clear land makes up almost 20 percent of greenhouse gases from human activities.
"In Ghana they consider it a stepping stone" towards a system for greenhouse gas regulation, said Jaap Vermaat, an advisor for the European Commission.
Many tropical countries favour new aid or market mechanisms, perhaps worth $20 to $30 billion a year, to slow deforestation as part of a new U.N. deal on global warming meant to be agreed by the end of 2009.
Europe imports more than half the timber Ghana exports, from a forest sector worth an estimated $400 million a year. Timber ranks behind gold, tourism and cocoa in Ghana's export earnings.
"The new system will be like the Kimberley process for diamonds," said Jade Saunders of the European Forest Institute. That 2003 Kimberley deal aims to halt trade in diamonds from conflict zones with tighter certification.
"There will be a verification and tracking system for timber," said Vermaat. "As a safeguard, Ghana has agreed to have an independent monitor assess their systems on a regular basis."
More and more timber producers are seeking a stamp of approval, for instance certification by the Forest Stewardship Council. The Ghana deal seeks to set up a nationwide system of management, rather than just for individual producers.
"We are cautiously hopeful," said Kyeretwie Opoku of the non-governmental organisation Forest Watch Ghana. "Now we must gear up for the real struggle to move from print to practice."
"This is very good news and we look forward to the first licensed timber from Ghana arriving in the UK," said John White, chief executive of the UK Timber Trade Federation.
-- For Reuters latest environment blogs click on: blogs.reuters.com/environment/ (Editing by Matthew Tostevin,