Gabon sets example in carbon absorption

Gabon Forest. Screenshot from ‘Survivre une semaine dans la forêt tropicale gabonaise‘ on the National Geographic France YouTube channel. Fair use.

Gabon stands out from other countries in Africa and the world over in terms of its preservation and conservation of natural forests. But will the country's economy be able to maintain this moving forward?

The Gabonese Republic is in a unique position in the world in terms of its environmental conservation and fight against climate change. Around 88 percent of its land is forested, thus making this Central African country the world's second largest carbon sink after the Amazon.

The country's current position, where most of its land is forested, comes from an initiative carefully conducted by Omar Bongo Ondimba (1935–2009 ), the country's former president and father of its current president, Ali Bongo Ondimba, who has been in power since October 2009. At that time, Omar Bongo Ondimba undertook to make Gabon a pioneer in environmental protection.

A pioneering green Gabon

Gabon's commitment to combatting climate change and environmental protection goes back to its participation in the first United Nations Earth Summit in Stockholm in June 1972.

Since then, various programs and projects have been launched to uphold this national commitment. Law No.16 of August 26, 1993, on the protection and improvement of the environment, enshrines this commitment to environmental protection and leaves its violators subject to penalties. In 2007, another law was passed on the creation of national parks, thus allocating 11 percent of the country's land to these parks.

Following the death of the former president in 2009, Gabonese officials embarked on a similar path, which brought Gabon to the attention of major global investors and polluters alike. Ali Bongo has undertaken to unite the continent's other countries on climate matters. Since 2010, he has thereby been keen to get his country involved in several conferences on climate change and the environment.

The country's excellent environmental policy also gave it the opportunity to co-host the first ‘One Forest Summit‘ with France in the Gabonese capital, Libreville, in March 2023.

Gabon's multimedia news magazine, Reflets Gabon, reported on this summit on X (formerly known as Twitter):

[Report]- Co-hosted by Gabon and France from March 1 to 2, 2023, the One Forest Summit provided an opportunity for Gabon to assess the impact of the industrialization of the timber sector.

Text: Warren OKOLO
Voiceover: Annie-paule EYUI ELLA
Editing: Tanguy NZE#Gabon

— Reflets Gabon (@RefletsGabon) March 8, 2023

However, this international conference didn't go down well with all civil society actors. Environmentalist and founder of the Brainforest NGO, Marc Ona Essangui, criticized this on TV5Monde as being just another summit of little use. For him, its recommendations were likely to be shelved once the conference was over:

As French President Emmanuel Macron begins his visit to Central Africa, he will participate in the “One Forest Summit” in #Gabon on the conservation of tropical forests. What can we expect? Response from Marc Ona Essangui, founder of the “Brainforest” NGO.

It should also be noted that Gabon's forest development respects the property rights and living conditions of the Indigenous peoples living in these forests. Gabon's forests are often home to various tribes and peoples, including the Baka nation, among others.However, climate considerations could pose a serious threat to these groups. In fact, the increased controls and restrictions imposed by the eco-guards present in these forests could unsettle the lives of Indigenous peoples who live solely on natural forest resources and products.

Gabon facing a long-term dilemma

Gabon is now at a critical juncture in its policy on forest conservation. In fact, the country has begun receiving payments to conserve its forests. In 2021, it received USD 17 million from the UN-backed Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI).

This program launched in partnership with the World Bank, is a forum of six Central African countries: the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon,  Equatorial Guinea, the Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, and the Central African Republic. CAFI aims to help these countries implement the Paris Agreement by providing funding based on their efforts in reducing greenhouse gas emissions caused by deforestation.

However, the funds that Gabon received from CAFI aren't enough to rebuild the country's economy or resolve its youth unemployment problems.

After all, Gabon's economy largely relies on oil exploitation, which makes it Africa's fourth largest oil producer, and on other sectors that have an environmental impact, like mining and timber. However, with the depletion of oil reserves, Gabonese officials are now considering the future extensive exploitation of its forests’ “brown gold.” African newspaper, Jeune Afrique, tweeted:

As the continent's leading exporter of timber, #Gabon is banking on the exploitation of its forests to prepare for the post-oil era. Having to combine profitability and environmental protection, the sector's economic stakeholders are facing major challenges.

— Jeune Afrique (@jeune_afrique) January 27, 2023

The socio-economic challenges that Gabon is currently facing could force government officials to rethink their policy on environmental protection and forest conservation. In an interview with the financial newspaper, La Tribune Afrique, economic analyst, Mays Mouissi, outlined these social challenges:

(…) Le taux de croissance du PIB demeure faible, entre 2 et 3%. Le taux de chômage est passé de 28% à 32% au cours de ce septennat tandis que le taux de pauvreté est passé de 30% à 34%. En dépit des progrès réalisés dans le secteur bois dont la contribution au PIB est passée de 2,9% en 2016 à 3,9% en 2022, l'économie gabonaise qui demeure peu diversifiée est toujours fortement dépendante des revenus pétroliers. L'accès aux services de base comme l'eau et l'électricité s'est dégradé, y compris dans la capitale où il faut parfois attendre plus d'un an pour avoir un simple compteur d'électricité.

(…) The GDP growth rate remains low at 2 to 3 percent. During this seven-year period, the rate of unemployment increased from 28 percent to 32 percent while the poverty rate increased from 30 percent to 34 percent. Despite progress in the timber sector, where GDP contributions increased from 2.9 percent in 2016 to 3.9 percent in 2022, Gabon's undiversified economy is still largely dependent on oil revenues. Access to essential services, like water and electricity, has also deteriorated. This includes the capital where it is sometimes necessary to wait more than a year for standard electricity meters.

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