World Rainforest Movement

The problems faced by Gabon’s forests and the communities that depend on them: a menu of logging, dams, oil, mining, parks, railways, roads, ports

In Gabon, forests and the communities that depend on them for survival face a range of different problems. The logging industry is one of the most serious. On the one hand, it does not benefit local communities in any way. At the same time, the majority of the forestry companies operating in the country (particularly those from Asia, with China and Malaysia in the lead) do not respect any technical standards, and cut trees that do not meet the minimum diameter requirements, for example.

There are also other problems related to the creation of national parks. A number of these parks have been established without any consultation with the local populations living in the surrounding area, many of whom have traditionally used areas within the parks’ boundaries for certain activities (hunting, fishing camps, religious ceremonies) but are now cut off from access to them. As a result, conflicts are brewing on the periphery of a number of these parks, since local communities have not been offered any concrete alternatives.

In addition, although the country has good forestry legislation (Law 016/01, which established the Forestry Code), the traditional land use rights of local communities are neither respected nor fully implemented. No concrete measures have been taken to raise awareness among local populations about their rights, while the staff of the forestry service, which is understaffed as it is, are more prone to punish than to inform.

The country’s forests are also facing pressure due to the granting of permits for oil and mining exploration and extraction in protected areas. In most cases, there are no environmental impact assessments undertaken before these activities are initiated, and in cases when studies are conducted, they are never published in time for other stakeholders to validate them. A prime example today is the infamous Bélinga iron ore mining project in the province of Ogooué-Ivindo. The main iron ore deposit is in Bélinga, with others in Baouala, BokaBoka and Minkébé. The project covers a vast region that is home to numerous communities who rely on fishing for their own sustenance and as a source of income.

A project on this scale requires considerable infrastructure development. A hydroelectric dam is already under construction, and the Gabonese railway will be extended to connect the mining facilities in Bélinga with a deepwater port that is to be built north of Libreville. Work will also be needed on the roads and highways in the province of Ogooué-Ivindo. While all of these projects will undoubtedly contribute to the region’s development (through improved transportation and greater energy resources), they will also have serious negative impacts on local populations and the environment.

The building of the hydroelectric dam on the Ivindo River is already a reality, and the corresponding construction work at Kongou Falls has not been suspended, contrary to some press reports. The Chinese companies undertaking the project received authorization to commence work on the basis of an environmental impact assessment that was supposedly validated by the competent agencies of the Ministry of the Environment, but not by environmentalist NGOs, which were never given access to the report. Considerable damage has already been wrought by the clearing of forests to build a highway to the area, construct a platform and prepare the site for the dam and hydroelectric plant. An infrastructure project like this can have major consequences for both Ivindo National Park and neighbouring communities.

The main environmental impacts of a dam are felt by local populations, river species, and the ecosystem as a whole. Changing the course and volume of a river to build a dam can have serious consequences. In particular, the flooding of the site where the dam is constructed can lead to the displacement of local human populations against their will, as well as damaging or destroying land and water ecosystems upstream, promoting the spread of diseases like malaria, and degrading water quality. Changes in the water flowing downstream can threaten other uses of the river and profoundly impact the ecosystems that depend on it.

With regard to local populations, there is no doubt that they will suffer the consequences of the dam, primarily as a result of the impact on their fishing areas. As for the natural environment, the site chosen for the dam is considered the most beautiful waterfall in Central Africa. It is also located inside a national park whose natural wealth has been recognized by both researchers and nature lovers for many decades, a fact that amply confirms the importance of protecting this ecosystem.

It is truly unfortunate that the Kongou Falls were chosen as the site to build the dam for purely economic reasons, with no regard for local populations or the area’s natural wealth.

There are countless examples of the negative impacts of dams, and in Africa many projects of this kind have run into problems due to poor management and a lack of awareness of the potential consequences.

In addition to the dam, the iron ore mining venture will require other new infrastructure, like the extension of the railway from Boué to Bélinga and from Ntoum to Santa Clara (where there are plans to build a deepwater port).

In this regard as well, there is a glaring lack of information available. The original plans for the ambitious Trans-Gabon railway project drawn up in 1964 by the Foley Brothers firm connected Owendo with Bélinga via the village of Mananga. Is this route still being considered? If it is, then what will happen to the settlements that will be crossed by the new railway line? When will their inhabitants be informed? In addition, the railway would pass by a number of nature reserves. What impacts will it have on Ivindo National Park, Akanda National Park and the Mondah Forest?

Article 17 of Law Nº 003/2007 of 27 August 2007, on national parks, stipulates that “on the periphery of national parks, projects involving industry, mining, quarries, hydroelectric dams, land subdivision, tourism facilities or the building of linear infrastructure, primarily railways, electric power lines, oil pipelines, gas pipelines and railways, are subject to an environmental impact assessment.”

The Bélinga project includes the construction of a deepwater port off the Santa Clara cape, which also raises questions around the consequences for the environment, nearby protected areas, local populations and the tourism industry.

The Ivindo River is the primary source of income for the villages of Mananga and Loaloa, whose inhabitants depend on it for fishing and sand extraction. This is why it is essential to do everything possible to protect the rivers that could be affected by the Bélinga mining project. But in addition to threatening these income-generating activities, the iron ore mine and hydroelectric dam could have other consequences for local communities. While the people living in the area hope that these new ventures will create jobs, they have voiced their concern over the lack of information provided to them about the project’s implementation, as well as its impacts and consequences. They are also waiting to be consulted about their needs and expectations. Their concerns are reflected in the letters from local villages attached to a report on the potential environmental impacts of the Bélinga project, recently released by the Gabonese NGO Brainforest.

This article is based on the report “Ivindo, notre source de vie” (Ivindo, Our Life Source) by Landry Lebas, published in July 2008 (http://www.brainforest.org/Rapport_Ivindo_Brainforest.pdf), and personal communication with Essono Ondo, project manager at the Gabonese NGO Brainforest, email: essono.ondopj@gmail.com, http://www.brainforest.org