Oil exploitation in the Green Heart of Africa

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Oil exploitation of Rabi oil-field by Shell, inside the Gamba Complex of Protected Areas, Gabon.
© WWF-Canon / Michel GUNTHER

Black gold versus green gold

The Congo Basin area lies above and close to major oil deposits. As the global demand for oil continues to swell, the pressure to extract this “black gold” increases. But what does this mean for “green gold” – the forests?
Oil extraction is a prominent activity in the Gulf of Guinea and inland in coastal forests,1 with the economies of Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Congo-Brazzaville heavily dependent on oil.2

Whereas France once dominated the oil and timber industry in the region, today the United States has become the biggest importer of the region's oil. But China is catching up, and is fast becoming a growing competitor.3

Oil extraction practices vary from one country to another, and between companies. The environmental impacts also vary, and depend on the political and environmental pressure, or lack thereof, to minimize risks.

Not black and white

In a study that covered Cameroon, Papua New Guinea, Mexico, Nigeria and Indonesia, it was shown that oil wealth has not stopped deforestation, but it has helped to slow it down during periods of high oil prices.

When oil prices have fallen, in contrast, people have drifted back to the countryside and converted more forest to farmland.

What are the impacts?

  • Risks of major oil spills in forests and off-shore during loading and transport
  • Occasional improper decommissioning of drilling sites and pipelines
  • Poaching and bushmeat trade, after new drilling sites are opened for exploitation

Gamba in focus

In the Gamba Complex of Protected Areas, Gabon, a massive area of 12,000 km² that consists of an assortment of different protected areas (including Loango and Mouakalaba-Doudou national parks), oil companies have been extracting petrol products for decades. 

There, an important on-shore petrol reserve was found in 1985. This had a massive impact on the town of Gamba, which has grown from a village of 10 people in the 1960s to a town of 8,000 inhabitants.

 / ©: WWF-Canon / Michel GUNTHER
Oil exploitation of Shell-Rabi Gamba Nature Reserve, Gabon
© WWF-Canon / Michel GUNTHER

More environmental impact after the oil company leaves?

Ironically, in some cases the worst environmental problems do not actually occur while large oil companies are working in the region, but after they leave.

Let's look at Gamba. The major oil companies that are active in this high-biodiversity region, such as Shell, operate according to sound environmental standards.

But this may not last. When oil reserves will have become too marginal for these big companies, smaller ‘pioneer’ companies will take over operations. The problem is that these companies will not have the financial and technical capacity to keep up their predecessors' environmental and social management standards.

What we can expect? More risks of pollution and poor procedures for the decommissioning of oil sites are 2 potential results, but they are not the only ones.

How a range of social benefits could just dry up

The cessation of oil exploitation in Gamba could also bring to a halt:
  • Boat transport that provide the extraction site and the people in the region with equipment, food and other resources,
  • Operations of the gas field that provides electricity services,
  • Private sector management of Gamba airport and guaranteed regular flights to the capital, providing a link to the world.
There is major concern that once the oil company leaves, unemployment and lack of facilities will push local people into poverty and increase their reliance on the forests around Gamba for their survival.

For the biodiversity of the Gamba Complex of Protected Areas, this would be very grim news.

How oil revenues helped to protect Gabon's forests

Gabon’s oil gains have been nothing short from stratospheric. From 1.4 million tonnes in 1966, oil production rose to 18 million tonnes by 1998. As a result, the country has one of the highest per capita income in Africa, while public employment, wages, urban infrastructure and transport have also grown and developed.

Gabon's oil boom attracted people from rural parts of the country to urban areas, especially young people of working age. As one village elder explains, “Nobody lives here anymore. The young are leaving, and the elephants and gorillas run freely through our gardens, destroying what little we grow to eat.”

The exodus to the cities and the reduced agriculture pressure has been a blessing for the forests. Over 80% of the country is still covered by forests and deforestation here - compared to many other Congo River Basin countries - is negligible.

Source: Wunder S., 2003. When the Dutch Disease met the French Connection: Oil, Macroeconomics and Forests in Gabon. Center for International Forestry Research.
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1 CARPE. 2005. Forests of the Congo River Basin: a preliminary assessment. Balmar. Washington DC.
2 CARPE. 2005. Forests of the Congo River Basin: a preliminary assessment. Balmar. Washington DC.
3 Globaltimber.co.uk. Deforestation and Crude Oil Production. Accessed 14/11/05.

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