Black market timber can be worth $2,000 a cubic metre © AFP/Getty Images
Black market timber can be worth $2,000 a cubic metre © AFP/Getty Images

Gabon and Norway in $150m deal to preserve forests

26 September 2019

Sometimes, the easiest way to persuade someone to do something you want them to do is to pay them to do it. That is effectively what the Norwegian government has done in a 10-year, $150m deal which will reward the West African nation of Gabon to fight deforestation and slash carbon emissions.

Gabon is not the first African state to be paid to protect its environment. In 2014, the Norwegian government pledged up to $150m to help Liberia, impoverished by civil war and an Ebola outbreak, combat illegal logging and end deforestation by 2020. Payment depends on independent verification that trees are left standing. Last year, the Seychelles agreed to swap $21.6m of its national debt with the US-based charity The Nature Conservancy in return for designating nearly a third of its waters – around 210,000 sq km – as a conversation area.

Nine-tenths of Gabon is forest. The country, which is on Africa’s Atlantic coast, is home to around 12% of the Congo Basin forest, considered the world’s second largest tropical rainforest, and to around 60% of Africa’s surviving forest elephants. In the 21st century, the government has created 13 national parks in an effort to stop its forests being ravaged by loggers, who sell the stolen timber to high-end furniture makers in Asia. The government isn’t just fighting to protect nature, it is striving to protect people’s livelihoods. The forest products sector supports 17,000 jobs and accounts for 12% of Gabon’s GDP, 80% of which is derived from oil.

On the black market, one cubic metre of kevazingo, a relatively rare reddish wood considered sacred by some locals, can be worth as much as $2,000. In a country where the GDP per capita in 2018 was $9,077 (according to the World Bank), that is a significant temptation. Earlier this year, nearly 400 containers of kevazingo – which it is illegal to export – were found in two depots belonging to Chinese companies in the capital, Libreville. Three hundred and fifty-three confiscated containers mysteriously disappeared and, just as mysteriously, 200 of them reappeared.

The ensuing outcry led Gabon president Ali Bongo to sack his vice-president and replace foreign minister Guy Bertrand Mapangou with Lee White, a British-born conservationist whose wildlife conservation efforts have prompted the usually staid National Geographic magazine to proclaim him a “real-life Tarzan”.

The punitive response to ‘kevazingogate’ – and the deal with Norway’s government – reflect an evolving consensus among central African governments that their forests can help mitigate climate change. The Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI), through which the initiative is being managed, estimates that the region’s rainforests cover an area roughly the size of western Europe and, with peatlands, can store up to 70bn tons of carbon, equivalent to at least five years of global greenhouse gas emissions.   

The worry for Gabon, the kevazingo, and the people who work in the country’s forests is whether this strategy to halve carbon emissions will outlast Bongo’s presidency. Though he is only 60, he is reported to have suffered a stroke last November. Various stories about him receiving medical treatment – and being out of the country – have been hotly disputed by the Gabonese government but in January, discontent with his rumoured absence prompted soldiers to launch an unsuccessful coup.

A freemason, Real Madrid fan and an aficionado of funk music (he once recorded an album with James Brown’s producer), Bongo has, according to Paul Melly, an analyst at the Chatham House thinktank, made “a serious effort to develop a more environmentally sustainable approach to use of the rainforest”. Yet in an oil-rich country, where one third of the population of 2 million live below the poverty line, the revelation that he and his family owned 39 properties and nine luxury cars in France did not exactly endear him to voters.

The Norwegian deal spans a decade and the sums involved are large, but will it prove a lasting legacy? The president’s illness, the Economist reports, led to a surge in corruption, with foreign businesses being targeted. Gabon is also receiving significant investment from China, the very country whose consumers are driving black market demand for kevazingo.

The partnership between Gabon’s government and Norway is a step in the right direction – and it may encourage similar deals elsewhere in Africa – but it would be easy for the next president of Gabon to take a step back again.

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