Workers at a small new sawmill on the shores of Volta Lake in Ghana have their jobs cut out for them.
Soon the mill will begin cutting logs of valuable odum, ebony and mahogany from some 36 tropical hardwood species native to the region. These logs, however, won't be cut from the lush forests that blanket the area, but rather from beneath the murky waters of the lake.
Using floating, chainsaw-equipped harvesters that combine the technologies of forestry and deep-sea oil drilling, B.C.'s Triton Logging is reclaiming an estimated $1-billion to $2-billion worth of dead and abandoned trees rooted to land that was flooded during construction of Ghana's Akosombo hydroelectric dam in 1965.
Nearly eight years in the making, the massive salvage operation will take 25 years and harvest 350,000 hectares of underwater forest. It makes Triton, which was awarded the project late last year by Ghana's parliament, well positioned to meet high global demand for tropical hardwoods - especially those logged sustainably.
"Right now we're about to start putting logs into the sawmill," says Peter Keyes, Triton's chief executive officer. "At first, harvesting will outpace the mill's capacity, but over the course of the rest of the year, we'll be adding two more production lines, bringing its total employees to 100."
Production couldn't be starting at a better time. Experts foresee reduced supply and rapid growth in demand for tropical hardwoods from Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.
"There's a huge potential for growth in these places," says Russell Taylor, a market analyst and president of the consulting firm International Wood Markets Group Inc. "We've seen robust demand in export markets in Korea, India and China, which is the largest furniture exporter in the world.
"China's demand for logs is very high," Mr. Taylor says. "Every official and unofficial five-year forecast that we've done shows about 10 to 15 per cent growth." Indeed, last year B.C. shipped a record 4.6 million cubic metres of wood to China.
Those selling tropical hardwoods are at a particular advantage. "A lot of the countries with abundant tropical hardwoods, like Burma and Malaysia, have log export bans because they couldn't control illegal logging," Mr. Taylor says.
In western markets, Triton's story of sustainably harvested tropical timber will be especially compelling, and its logs will command a premium. "If you're selling your wood to Home Depot today, they want to make sure it has been harvested in a sustainable way," Mr. Taylor says.
"As a manufacturer or distributor in this centuries-old industry, you'll see this as an exciting new story that can't be replicated," Mr. Keyes agrees. No other company is using mechanized systems to harvest submerged wood on such a grand scale, he says.
"Water acts as a preservative for wood, but traditional methods can't access it," Mr. Taylor says. He points to the development of Triton's new SHARC underwater harvester as a solution to this problem.
First used commercially in 2010, the SHARC builds on the success of the company's Sawfish submersible, a remote controlled vehicle equipped with a large grapple and 55-inch chainsaw. From a barge on the water's surface, the SHARC's manoeuvrable telescopic boom and cutting head can reach 36.5 metres below the surface in the relatively shallow waters of the Volta Lake reservoir.
The SHARC's operator locates logs using sonar, remote cameras and GPS coordinates. They are cut and put in floating bunks that can each carry a truckload of lumber. The bunks are then towed to a sawmill near the village of Sedorm, allowing the SHARC to work continuously without travelling back to shore.
At the moment, only one harvester is working on the lake. But Triton plans to add a second early next year, and ultimately launch a total of four. "First we have to field-harden the equipment," Mr. Keyes says. "That's been the focus of our first months of operation."
When the project is in full swing by 2013, the harvesters will be able to gather 400,000 cubic metres of wood a year.
Ebony is the most rare and valuable wood being harvested, with prices ranging from $80 to $600 per cubic metre. For each tree cut, Triton will pay a stumpage fee to the government of Ghana.
"By reclaiming this resource, we're providing a solution to the question of how the logging industry can sustainably harvest at a time of shrinking supplies," Mr. Keyes says. "We're taking what is essentially a lost tree and bringing it back into a productive state."
Editor's note: An earlier online version of this story had an incorrect reference to the company's former CEO. This online version has been corrected.