Community Forestry, Gabon

Posted on 17 December 2014

It is late afternoon when Johnny Otsaghe Mfane reaches the forest edge and starts inspecting the several dozen saplings lined up in carefully marked rows. It is a duty tour he rigorously performs every day, making sure that the young trees of Ozigo, Moabi or Padouk species are healthy and well protected.
Province  Ogooué-Ivindo

It is late afternoon when Johnny Otsaghe Mfane reaches the forest edge and starts inspecting the several dozen saplings lined up in carefully marked rows. It is a duty tour he rigorously performs every day, making sure that the young trees of Ozigo, Moabi or Padouk species are healthy and well protected.

The reforestation project that Mfane oversees happens for one reason only: his village, Ebyeng, now manages 1,200 ha of forest, whose stewardship means, at once, conserving nature and benefitting people. Repopulating their ancestral forest with species such as the Moabi, which has become almost extinct due to long term haphazard harvesting, was a priority for the villagers of Ebyeng.

"For decades this forest has been ransacked," says Mfane. "There were no rules, no control. Everyone could enter and do whatever they wanted. We are now here as guardians and we must ensure that our children and grandchildren will get to see Moabis just like we did when we were growing up."

As the first ever community forest attributed in Gabon, Ebyeng is now showing the way for responsible resource management, which at the same time yields attractive benefits for the community. On the other side of the dirt road that crosses their village, they set up a tree nursery, where they grow hundreds of seedlings they intend to sell to the logging companies operating in their province, so they too could reforest their concessions. They also started an artisanal logging project: they cut and process the wood themselves, then they use it for building much-needed infrastructure in their village. 

Although forests cover roughly 80% of the country, therefore virtually bordering the vast majority of rural settlements, community forestry is relatively new in Gabon. The law provided for it already in 2001, but the idea only started taking shape in earnest in the late 2000s, through a joint Nature Plus-WWF project called DACEFI (Développement d’Alternatives Communautaires à l’Exploitation Forestière Illégale). Ebyeng opened the way, and to date is one of only three permanent community forests in the country.

Why so few? Community forests are attributed from what is known as rural forest domain, which, unfortunately, is very loosely defined in the legislation. Another problem stems from the fact that along the years, the government has allocated land for various landuses, including agroforestry, from the rural forest domain, thus severely limiting the areas where community forests could be established.  Moreover, as the administrative process is tortuous and expensive, many communities are discouraged from even embarking on this process. 

Apart from the permanent three, a handful of other villages have so far received only temporary community forest permits. One of them is Nze Vatican, which is situated about 100 kilometers away from Ebyeng, and which now manages 5,000 ha. Here, villagers started a banana plantation, after they sustainably deforested 1 ha: they did not use the damaging slash-and-burn technique, but cut only selected trees and left the undergrowth untouched, for a proper fixing and nutrition of the soil.

Nze Vatican also runs an artisanal logging project, and they already managed to strike a deal with a carpenter business in a nearby town to sell their wood. They estimate that their first shipment would bring the community a nice profit of about 3 million FCFA (US$ 5,700).

They are worried, however, about the future. Even if their permit will be renewed, they are wondering how they will be able to proceed with their activities: as DACEFI is drawing to an end in December, so is all the logistical support they have provided, such as basic equipment to harvest, carry and saw the logs.

“Look around us! We are in the middle of the forest, far away from the road. How will we be able to move and process the wood?” asks one villager, Benga Lazar, explaining that buying new gear would mean an investment of about 10 million FCFA, which is a prohibitive sum for the village.

The residents of Nze Vatican are hoping that authorities will step in and support this and other communities in a similar situation.

“After all, this is not only our gain,” Benga says. “Community forests are the solution for Gabon. Who better to conserve the forests than us? We already have conservation in our tradition.”
 
Artisanal logging at Nze Vatican
© Sinziana Demian / WWF GHoA
Artisanal logging at Nze Vatican
© Sinziana Demian / WWF GHoA
Artisanal logging at Nze Vatican
© Sinziana Demian / WWF GHoA
Artisanal logging at Nze Vatican
© Sinziana Demian / WWF GHoA
tree nursery at Ebyeng
© Sinziana Demian / WWF GHoA
Johnny Otsaghe Mfane at Ebyeng reforestation project
© Sinziana Demian / WWF GHoA