Profiteers turn to an African Eden

Posted in Africa | 25-Feb-09 | Author: Lydia Polgreen| Source: International Herald Tribune

Children in a village on the edge of the Ivindo National Park.

IVINDO NATIONAL PARK, Gabon: The forest here seems to go on forever, interrupted only by the broad ribbons of its rivers. Deep inside, some of the rarest creatures in the world cavort in one of the most pristine patches of rain forest on earth, a direct but accidental result of Gabon's reliance on one of the filthiest fossil fuels: crude oil.

For years, the people of Gabon have enjoyed one of the highest per capita incomes in sub-Saharan Africa because of the country's oil, and as a result, they have left the country's vast rain forests almost entirely untouched.

But now the oil is running out, and Gabon needs a new source of cash, quickly, throwing the future of Gabon's lush, Edenic landscapes into doubt.

In forests as old as the last ice age, a Chinese-financed iron ore mining venture backed by the Gabonese president is threatening to destroy a huge waterfall known as Kongou Falls by damming the Ivindo River to power a mine and its railway.

But a battle has sprung up to save the falls, and for many civic and environmental activists in Gabon it has become a broad fight to protect the nation's natural heritage. Of all the nations in the Congo Basin, home to the second-largest rain forest in the world, Gabon still has the largest percentage of untrammeled, virgin jungle.

"The question is not just this waterfall, beautiful as it is," said Marc Ona Essangui, an environmental activist here. "This is about whether the government will live up to its commitments and keep its word to the Gabonese people."

In neighboring countries, impoverished peoples have razed and burned their forests to plant crops and make charcoal. They have slaughtered for meat the gorillas, elephants, chimpanzees and hippos that populated the jungle. But the Gabonese flocked to cities, living in relative splendor off the gift of oil that seemed to keep on giving.

Governed by the wily, diminutive Omar Bongo since 1967, Gabon has never had a coup or a civil war, a rare achievement for a country surrounded by unstable, war-torn states. Fueled by oil, the country's economy was more like that of an Arabian emirate than a Central African nation. For many years Gabon was said, perhaps apocryphally, to have the highest per capita consumption of Champagne in the world.

Bongo, one of the wealthiest men in Africa, bought peace with cash, according to diplomats and analysts here, using a bloated bureaucracy to put a chicken in almost every pot. Generous payoffs and the threat of prison have silenced political opponents.

Bongo, a self-proclaimed nature lover, also set aside 10 percent of Gabon's land as national parks in 2002, pledging that forests there would never be logged, mined, hunted or farmed. But that commitment is running into an economic reality: The country needs a new way to generate money.

Local pygmy and Bantu ethnic groups have revered the Kongou Falls for centuries, and it is easy to understand why. The falls begin as a steep set of rapids that then fracture in half a dozen directions, funneling churning chutes of water down sheer rock cliffs into frothy pools. Farther down, two branches of the Ivindo River gush down twin falls known as the Sun and the Moon into a single, roiling stream.

This was once untouched forest, but last year a Chinese crew showed up with a letter from the Ministry of Mines authorizing it to begin working in the area. A Chinese consortium planned to build a huge dam on the Ivindo River, which would power an iron ore mine and a railroad to move the ore south, out of the Belinga Mountains.

Tomo Nishihara, a conservationist working for the Wildlife Conservation Society in Ivindo National Park, was worried. The boundaries of Ivindo and another park to the north, Minkebe, had been drawn to exclude the mine, which was discovered in the late 19th century but was left idle as Gabon grew rich on oil.

"We did not understand why the company chose this site for the dam," he said. "There are other places that it could have been built. But I was told this project was authorized at the highest levels."

Nishihara had tangled with a Chinese company with high-level backing before. Sinopec, the state oil company in China, turned up in 2006 in Loango National Park, a lush coastal preserve where elephants wander the beach. Armed with a government letter, the company had begun seismic testing in the park, setting off loud blasts in its search for onshore oil deposits. Worse, it provided little food for its workers, who hunted the rare wildlife, according to local park officials.

Nishihara managed to persuade the government to require tighter environmental controls, and eventually ended up living with the Chinese workers for months to ensure that the park was protected. But ultimately the crew packed up and left, having found nothing worth drilling for, and the damage to the park was minimal.

The experience gave him hope that the Ivindo project could also be altered. But this time, the government officials responsible for environmental controls threw up their hands, telling him there was nothing they could do, Nishihara said, even though French engineers in the 1960s had already concluded that they could generate as much power at a lower cost and with less damage by building at another set of rapids outside the park.

The Chinese workers ploughed a road through the jungle, leaving a wide red gash in their wake and opening up this once impenetrable forest to poachers. A large clearing was prepared as a helicopter landing pad for Bongo to come and lay the first stone for the dam, according to local officials.

For the moment, the dam project appears to be on hold. The workers have withdrawn, telling local officials that they need further negotiations with the Gabonese government on the terms of the deal. In the meantime, the price of iron has fallen, and the global economic crisis raises questions about the mine's prospects. But the government has said it will do whatever it takes to push the project along.

"Whatever happens, whatever anyone says," Bongo declared last year, the mining project "will go ahead."

Gabon's government had long hoped that ecotourism could provide a steady stream of cash, but few tourists have made the trek to Gabon. It is a distant and expensive country, and the tourism infrastructure remains poor.

"They thought they could be Africa's Costa Rica overnight," said Joe Walston, the director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's program in Gabon. "But it doesn't work that way. It takes years to build up a tourism industry."

Franck Ndjimbi, a top official at the Gabonese national park agency, said that the government's commitment to conservation remained very strong.

"We have ambitions for Gabon to be a model of conservation and an ecotourism destination known by all the world," he said. "This is a long-term commitment."

But Yvan Essongué, who manages a visitors center in Loango National Park, said the government needed to spend more money protecting the parks, not looking for minerals in them.

"We see poachers all the time, but had no boat to chase them," said Essongué, who works with park rangers. "We only have 15 rangers for this huge park. If we are not careful, we will lose everything that makes our country special."