|An African prosperity: Looming in uncertainty|
|Written by Louise de Bruin (1) Wednesday, 02 March 2011 07:52|
Gabon, West Africa. A country made up of almost 85% rainforest. Home to lowland gorillas, forest elephants and surfing-ocean-wave hippos; it is one of the few places left on Earth where rainforests stretch all the way to the beach.
Additionally, its earth is rich in oil, magnesium, iron, gold and uranium. Coupled with these minerals raw forest logs are imperative to the survival of the country’s economy. However, the production of these raw materials is also staining Gabon’s environment. Deforestation has caused overwhelming ruin to Gabon’s terrestrial diversity and since the realisation that logging could generate major income; the country has seen a decline in the number of its wildlife species. Consequently Gabon’s forests are sadly not the ‘huge carbon reservoirs’(2) they once were.
The aim of this paper is to draw attention to the natural environment of Gabon and to depict the dangers economically and politically motivated decisions will have on the preservation and sustainability of the environment.
Deeper into the forest
Due to the massive demand for industrial raw logs, access roads have been built in order to reach the dense forests which would otherwise have remained isolated from the commercially interested. The Woods Hole Research Centre (WHRC) has reported 52,000kms of logging roads which stretch throughout the Congo rainforest region(3) (including Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Congo Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon). These roads have made for an easy way to exploit the forests’ interiors. In addition, poaching has become an easier activity because of these opened areas.
According to Stephen Blake, biologist of the Wildlife Conservation Society, “No poached carcasses were found beyond 45kms of a road.”(4) The bush-meat trade has also become a major target for economic gain. Not only do employees living in logging camps eat this meat, perhaps because of convenience and availability, but they also transport large amounts of it on logging trucks for it to be sold. Therefore logging, and some of the unfavourable practices associated with it are jeopardising Gabon’s wildlife.
Forest certification and its complications
Realising the dire environmental consequences the logging industry can have, forest certification has become an advised option for all logging companies. The aim of forest certification is to raise awareness for the need of proper forest management and certification is likely to also minimise the destruction of remaining forests. The International Tropical Timber Organisation (ITTO) is the chief organisation promoting certification worldwide. Gabon is an Africa member of ITTO and part of Forest Stewardship Council’s (FSC) Congo Basin Sub-Regional Standards Development Group. Although certification is better received today, it was not always seen as positive. It was believed that it would lessen the power of the Government and due to the lack of financial resources available, the implementation of certification is not working as well as intended. A lack of quality staff and information regarding suitable forest management, coupled with a shortage of scientific knowledge, are among the reasons this process is not working.(5)
Recent legislation has declared all forests property of the state and logging is only allowed to take place with the proof of a valid permit supplied by the Forestry Administration of Gabon. The Yaoundé Forest Summit elevated the need for conservation and created cross-border protection of forested areas. The Summit brought leaders from neighbouring countries together to discuss what action needed to be taken to protect these forests and was held in Cameroon in 1999. At the Summit the Yaoundé Declaration was drawn up to protect the wildlife and sustain the environment of the area through the management of the forests. New cross-border protected areas were mapped out in the Declaration and anti-poaching laws were set in place. The Declaration highlighted the need for conservation and political commitment.(6) A second Summit was held in 2005 in Congo Brazzaville. Its objective was to see what had been done in the Congo Basin since the implementation of the Declaration. This has created an awareness of and need for forest management.(7) According to research done by WHRC, European markets generally prefer to deal only with companies that produce certified wood.(8)
As a result of logging laws illegal logging has increased. According to the Global Forest Watch report, up to 70% of industrial logging is exported as raw round logs, particularly to China. “Asian markets, where the most important quantities of industrial round logs are sold do not seem to be interested in certified products.”(9) This lessens the cost for those in the timber industry who go into business with the Asian market. “Overall, 4 million hectares of African forests are destroyed each year due to the growing human population, illegal logging, poaching and conversion of forest land to other uses.”(10)
Belinga: Environmentally vulnerable
Gabon’s forests are not the only area of concern. Belinga, in central Gabon, is one of the last remaining iron-ore deposits in the world.
Former President Omar Bongo Ondimba, who ruled the country for 41 years, pledged to “use one of the world's last big untapped iron-ore deposits to transform the country into one of Africa's most prosperous economies.”(11) However, because of a shortage of money and lack of development, the country could not achieve its goals on its own. After recognising its financial benefit and potential the Government of Gabon went into partnership with a Chinese company, China Machinery and Electric Equipment Export & Import Company (CMEC) in 2006.(12)
So, the Gabonese Government awarded full financing of the Belinga project to the Export-Import Bank of China. As a result, CMEC owns 85% of the project. The project was set to commence in May of 2008, with the first iron ore shipments leaving for China in 2011. Proceedings, however, have been put on hold due to the Government’s lack of transparency, its failure to guarantee environmental protection as well as the dissatisfaction of civil society groups.(13)
The development of this project requires drastic changes to the area: Large excavations in the form of hydro-electric dams to power the project and railroads from the location of the project to sea ports are required.
Those commissioning the project want to build a hydro-electric dam at the Kongou Falls – one of the largest and most prized waterfalls in Africa. Apart from manipulating the natural design of the area around the falls, the Kongou Falls are located in the Ivindo National Park. All national parks, under Gabon law, are regarded as protected areas. Construction would jeopardise the protection of life in the park’s forest environment. Environment Gabon, a group of Gabonese non-governmental organisations (NGOs), has expressed fears of the project’s impact on the biodiversity of the area, especially on the chimpanzee population that is already threatened. As with the illegal logging industry, this activity is also likely to further the bush-meat trade among workers and attract an increasing amount of poachers.
Environmentalists are not opposing the project. They are however, suggesting that the dam be built elsewhere. Locations not in protected park areas are available – Tsengué-Lélédi Falls is an environmentally viable option, not only because of its location but also because the dam would be cheaper to construct and would be of a greater benefit to local communities.
The railroad, stretching from central Gabon (where Belinga is located) all the way to the coast, would need to be 560kms long. The implications of a railroad throughout Gabon’s natural areas are similar to those of the roads cleared for logging. Deforestation and the increase of the bushmeat trade are a few of the environmental implications.(14)
Adding suspicion to the deal, CMEC started the construction of a 42km road and built a workers camp in the Ivindo National Park before preparing an environmental impact assessment as is required by Gabonese law.(15)
Since Ali Ben Bongo succeeded his father’s presidency in 2009, together with the subsequent suspension of the Belinga project, there is hope the whole situation will be re-looked, such as the 25 years CMEC will not have to pay tax which was in the initial contract.(16) There is also a possibility that the Brazilian mining heavyweight Vale could also be considered for the job instead of CMEC. According to Gauthier-Villars, “Gabon is still in talks with China’s CMEC to renegotiate terms of the 2006 contract and Brazil’s Vale is still courting Bongo Jr., in case the CMEC deal collapses.”(17) Hopefully his father’s wish can be fulfilled without the exploitation of the environment.
However since opposition leader Andre Mba Obame declared himself President on the 20th of January 2011. The stability of the country is in question and the stability of the environmental is under threat as areas such as Belinga become increasingly vulnerable.
Although Bongo is regarded the only official President, a strong dissatisfaction in the Obame camp remains, creating fear of political unrest. Further concern increases after the recent visit of Chinese Foreign Minister, Yang Jiechi, with Bongo in the capital Libreville on 12 February 2011.(18) A favourable relationship with the two(19) leaves little doubt the Belinga project or the export of non-certified logs will not continue.
The fate of Gabon’s forests thus, remains uncertain. Wilting hope is left for the protection and sustainability of these rainforests and the life in them.