Music of the forest: a way forward for Gabon’s cooperation with China

Posted on July, 09 2012

With over 800 km of coastline, tropical rainforests covering 85% of its territory and a wealth of minerals, Gabon is the most prosperous nation in the Congo Basin. But there is no greater contrast with the country that is becoming one of its main investors: China.
By Claudia Delpero, Advocacy and Communications Director,
WWF China for a Global Shift Initiative

Gabon is a country blessed by nature. With over 800 km of coastline along the Atlantic Ocean, tropical rainforests covering 85% of its territory and a wealth of minerals, Gabon is the most prosperous nation in the Congo Basin. Looking at the statistics, there could be no greater contrast with the country that is becoming one of its main investors: China.

Gabon’s total population is equal to one of the smallest Beijing districts, though its area (more than 267,000 km²) is equivalent to 16 times that of Beijing. Its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita is approximately 15,000 US dollars, almost double China’s, and WWF’s Living Planet Report 2012 ranks Gabon as first in the world for “biological capacity” (biologically productive area per person), while China comes among the last. But Gabon and China have also something in common: the commitment in national plans to making the environment a key element of economic development.

We visited Gabon with a group of journalists from China ahead of the Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), an event held every three years to bolster relations between China and African countries. Our goal was to explore how the national commitments can meet on the ground and recommend actions that China and Gabon can undertake through FOCAC for development and the environment.

Gabon is a perfect example of the opportunity for collaboration in these areas as its economy is so dependent on natural resources. Mining and oil account for the largest portion of the country’s GDP (60%), but dwindling oil reserves have compelled the government to focus on alternatives for future investment and in 2010 “Green Gabon” became one of the strategies to boost the economy.

“Green Gabon” and the forestry sector

The idea behind “Green Gabon” was to grow through a sustainable use of natural resources, e.g. promoting ecotourism in the 13 national parks (11% of the country’s land), reducing carbon emissions associated with deforestation and advancing performance of the timber industry. As a start, in 2010 the government banned log exports in order to benefit local processing – thus local employment. The new forestry law also required the implementation of sustainable management plans for concessions which include cutting cycles of 25-30 years. Such measures were partly the result of painful experiences from the past.

We travelled to Nyonié, 60 km south of Libreville, one of the first areas of forest overexploitation. At its most productive time, the village consisted of two neighbourhoods with some hundreds of people living off of wood, fish and wildlife. Today, in a stripe of land between two national parks, only a few homes remain, inhabited by a handful of families and elders. Foresters left 30 years ago and the youth gravitate around Libreville, where there are schools, jobs and better opportunities to make a living. Even food is delivered from the capital.

The main source of income is now a wildlife-tourism resort, opened 20 years ago by a French chef who supplies electricity and employs villagers.

This area is one of amazing beauty. The rainforest and natural savannahs are populated with elephants, buffalos, snakes, birds and a variety of tree species – like the local Okoumé, Gabon’s most important timber species – rising with the ocean as a backdrop.

“It is beautiful here, but these trees are not of high quality, overexploitation removed the good seed trees,” explains Bede Makanga Moussavou, Forestry Coordinator at WWF Gabon.

“Forestry companies have gone, agriculture is impossible, we cannot hunt wildlife, fish is caught by large vessels off the coast. What is left for us? The global environmental problems are not our fault, we are just victims of decisions made somewhere else,” complains a retired doctor while he listens to a radio under the porch.

WWF has been working to help manage Gabon’s rich biodiversity and create sustainable sources of income for local communities for 15 years. Part of this work has been coordinating efforts with logging companies, encouraging them to join international certification schemes, such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). This alone has led to the certification of 1,800,000 hectares of forests in Gabon.

“We are now working with Chinese businesses to promote a similar path and train them in the best international standards,” says Jin Zhonghao, Manager of the Global Forest & Trade Network at WWF China. “In 2009 the Chinese government issued sustainability guidelines for Chinese forestry companies operating overseas, this is a starting point for engagement.”

Forestry is a sector where the Chinese presence in Gabon is increasingly visible. With 23 and 20 companies respectively, France and China dominate the local timber industry. In 2011, 171,048 m3 of processed wood were sold to China and 143,268 to France, with many Chinese companies also serving the European market. In Europe, a new regulation requires that from 2013 all timber entering the borders carries the proof that it has been harvested legally and operators from different countries will be pushed to meet higher standards.

“We will have to get a certification for our wood products, we have no choice if we want to keep certain markets,” says the representative of a Chinese state-owned enterprise selling to Europe.

Could this happen with China as well?

Disappearing wildlife

Lambarené, just past the Equator, is the second biggest city of Gabon. This town has been a stronghold of the forestry industry since the beginning of the 20th century, as logs could easily be transported to Libreville via the Ogooué River. Forestry is the main economic sector in the region and traffic on the roads is mainly of lorries filled with timber heading to the processing factories or to the port of Libreville. But once a road is open for commodities, the lucrative – and illegal – trade of wildlife species also prospers, leaving behind empty forests and few resources for local populations.

A food market on the riverbank reveals the custom of eating fish, as well as crocodile, antelope and other bushmeat. A pangolin is for sale in plastic bags, hidden, as the species is now protected along with gorillas, chimpanzees, elephants, hippos, manatees and turtles. Many of these animals are at risk of extinction.

With increasing demand and depleting forests, other, more remote areas have to be found for exploitation and new roads built to reach them. This is now happening in Minkebe, in the north of the country. Minkebe is part of the Tridom landscape which spreads on three countries (Gabon, Cameroon and the Republic of Congo) and represents 10% of the Congo Basin forest. One fifth of the Tridom landscape is protected. Still largely untouched, this territory is the home of the Pygmies, as well as of elephants, gorillas and chimpanzees.

The situation in Tridom is becoming more complex with ongoing investment in timber concessions, iron ore exploitation and new infrastructures (roads). In Tridom there are at least 6 world class iron ore deposits currently being explored by companies mostly from Australia, China and the UK. To export iron ore, a new deep-sea port will be built in Cameroon and a rail road will connect it with the mines in the depth of Tridom. Thus, some of the last unknown territories are being opened, facilitating access for bushmeat and ivory hunters.

“A business-as-usual scenario for mining development in Tridom will lead to the demise of the area,” says Pauwel de Wachter, Regional Coordinator of Tridom at WWF. “Therefore we need to do something exceptional: planning for conservation with all the mining companies and trying together to minimise the impacts on the wider landscape. One of the worst effects of mining might be the development of new towns in previously uninhabited areas.”

Ten years ago in Tridom there were at least 50,000 elephants, and up to 30,000 of them were in the Minkebe forest. Today the number has at least halved. In 1994-1996, gorillas and chimpanzees in Minkebe were decimated by an outbreak of Ebola which killed 90% of the populations. Today, it’s elephants facing the major threat of poaching.

Elephants of Central Africa are being annihilated by surging demand of ivory in Asia (especially in China), where carved ivory products have become the status symbol of the new rich. Local ivory prices have increased of 500 to 1000% over the last ten years and their continue increase provides strong incentives to poachers and traffickers.

Although ivory import is illegal in China, criminal groups manage to satisfy the market and in the absence of better and more sustainable alternatives, Pygmies have become part of this business. Their forest culture makes them good at tracking, approaching and hunting elephants, which they sell to Bantu ethnic groups who pass them via traders on to the upper link of the chain, until ivory reaches Asia. A report by the UN body that regulates the international wildlife trade found that 2011 was the worst year on record for elephant poaching in Africa.

In a bold move against illegal wildlife trade, in June Gabon has burnt its government-held ivory stockpile. The overall quantity (4,825 kilograms) corresponds to roughly 850 dead elephants. This is an important sign that tolerance for poachers and illegal operations is diminishing, but a war against such intense poaching and in such vast areas is difficult to win.

“Even in rich countries it would be hard to confront such a poaching wave. This should not be left to African countries alone, demand countries such as China should help African nations protect their wildlife,” adds Pauwel.

What FOCAC can do

Depleted forests, abandoned villages, illegal trafficking and disappearing species are the clear evidence that new solutions have to be found for combining economic development and environmental sustainability, or no one will really benefit in the long term.

China’s increasing engagement with African countries will culminate on 19-20 July with the FOCAC Ministerial Conference. One of the outcomes will be an action plan with projects supported by China in Africa. This is an important opportunity to address the environmental, social and business sustainability of activities dependent on Africa’s natural resources, as well as to steer away from illegal practices.

WWF recommends in particular that China and Africa agree on a zero-tolerance policy on the illegal trade of timber and wildlife products. China could support pilot projects on sustainable forest management, grant preferential treatment to commodities with rigorous sustainability certification and overall contribute to the development of green economies in Africa.

Seen from the plane, Gabon looks like an immense forest blanket pulsing with life. This is a core element of the economy of the present and for future generations.

“The forest is like an old vinyl record. If you scratch it, you can still listen to the music but you will also hear that noise... With good management, the scratches on the forest won’t be too loud,” says Pauwel de Wachter. “The same principles should apply to all natural resources that feed our lives.”
Petit Loango National Park Sunset with silhouette of palm trees near Setté Cama, Gabon.
Petit Loango National Park Sunset with silhouette of palm trees near Setté Cama, Gabon.
© WWF / Olivier LANGRAND
Fishermen bringing the daily catch on to the beach in Libreville, Gabon.
© Deng Jia / WWF
Forest trees, including Okoumé - Gabon’s most important timber species – rising with the ocean as a backdrop in Nyonié, Gabon.
© Deng Jia / WWF
A logging worker demonstrating an identification number on the trunk of an African Teak (Cylicodiscus gabonensis) in the Samatex consession area.
© Hartmut Jungius/WWF
Shipping line directed to China loading a cargo of processed wood at the port of Libreville, Gabon.
© Deng Jia / WWF
Timber transported from Lambarené to the processing factories in Libreville, Gabon. The code allows to identify where they were harvested and is a proof of legality.
© Deng Jia / WWF
A Chinese woman working alongside an African boy in a Chinese wood processing factory in Lambarené, Gabon.
© Deng Jia / WWF
4 monkeys illegally killed for food, Gamba, Gabon
© WWF Gabon
Ivory carvings seized in Gabon.
© WWF / Bas Huijbregts
Orphaned western lowland gorillas reintroduced into the wild. Projet Protection des Gorilles, Gabon/Congo West-Central Africa: Nigeria to DRC.
Orphaned western lowland gorillas reintroduced into the wild. Projet Protection des Gorilles, Gabon/Congo West-Central Africa: Nigeria to DRC.
© WWF / Martin HARVEY
Wheelbarrow full of illegal bush meat (wild animals caught for food), Gamba, Gabon
© WWF Gabon