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Country Profiles - Gabon

Political, social and economic framework

LOCATED ON THE West Coast of Central Africa, Gabon covers a total area of 268,000 square kilometres. Forests cover an estimated 220,000 square kilometres.1 Gabon’s population of 1.2 million is mainly urban (73%)2 and almost one-third of the people live in the capital, Libreville.3 As a result, the percentage of people who depend directly on the forests for subsistence livelihoods is relatively small. Because of its small population and large expanse of primary rainforests, Gabon is often described as a country where long-term sustainable timber production is a viable possibility. However, financial mismanagement of the economy, weaknesses within current forestry policy and practice and new evidence of negative social and environmental impacts at the local level associated with current logging operations (see CIAJE Report, pp 50-52) all call into question the extent to which industrial logging as currently practised will be ecologically sustainable and will alleviate poverty and bring long-term sustainable development to Gabon’s people.

Gabon’s economy is heavily dependent on natural resource extraction for export markets. The main sectors are oil, timber and manganese, with oil predominant. This dependence leaves Gabon’s economy vulnerable to external factors such as the falling price of oil on the world market and the Asian economic crisis, two events that plunged the country into financial crisis in 1998, leading to higher unemployment, especially among young people, and increased poverty.4

Until the discovery of oil deposits in the early 1970s, Gabon’s economy was largely dependent on its forests, which contributed 75% of its export earnings. The discovery of oil sparked a rural exodus as people moved to the cities in search of jobs and money. In 1995, oil accounted for 40% of GDP, 80% of exports and 60% of government revenues.5 Gabon has the highest GNP per capita in Africa — US$ 4,230 in 19976 — but oil revenues are not reflected in improved standards of living for the majority of the population, who remain in poverty, whilst only a small elite have benefited.7 Gabon has a significant and increasing external debt burden, estimated at CFA fr 472 billion (US$ 614 million) at the end of 1999 and CFA fr 604 billion (US$ 785 million) at the end of June 2000.8 It has had considerable problems meeting repayments to the IMF and other creditors such as France.9 As a middle-income country, Gabon does not qualify for debt relief under the HIPC initiative, even though the country has considerable unpayable debts and the World Bank admits that poverty indicators are comparable to the rest of Africa.10 The IMF and the World Bank are pushing macro-economic reform, central to which are the promotion of the non-oil sectors of the economy, privatisation and civil service reform.

Gabon gained independence from France in 1960 but close ties with the former colonial power were assured through a series of co-operation agreements. The country’s long-standing head of state, President Omar Bongo, has been in power since 1967, initially as the hand-picked successor to the country’s first president and, since 1990, with a democratic mandate. He has continued to be a long-term friend to France and has mediated in disputes in other African countries, including Congo (Brazzaville). He has been implicated, however, in dubious financial transactions. He is alleged to have received secret payments from Elf, the major oil company operating in the country. In 1999, evidence was presented to a US Senate sub-committee hearing on money laundering and corruption that Bongo transferred US$ 130 million through a personal bank account in New York.11

Societé Nationale des Bois du Gabon

Societé Nationale des Bois du Gabon (SNBG) holds the monopoly on the commercialisation of Okoumé and Ozigo trees and collects export taxes for the government. Established in 1976, SNBG is a semi-state organisation, 51% owned by the state and 49% by forest companies.13

Its functions include controlling the price, quality and marketing of Okoumé and Ozigo. It sets quotas for these tree species by each company based on the total volume produced the year before. SNBG buys the country’s production of Okoumé and Ozigo at a fixed price, then resells it at home and abroad, earning a commission of 7-10%. Moreover, it collects the state’s 11% export taxes (droits et taxes de sortie).14

In 1998, as a result of the Asian economic crisis and the corresponding drop in demand for Gabonese logs, SNBG effectively became bankrupt and was unable to pay logging companies. It temporarily suspended its monopoly, allowing producers to negotiate with buyers directly. In 1999, the French national development agency, Agence Française du Dévéloppement (AFD), was approached to finance the restructuring of debt to the producers. AFD agreed on condition that it undertook an audit of SNBG.15 It was reported that, in November 1999, a visit by SNBG to Asia resulted in an agreement being signed in early 2000 between SNBG and the Chinese company Shandong Huasheng for the delivery of 150,000 cubic metres of Okoumé logs per month.16 In February 2000, the French Wood Industries Union (UIB) questioned SNBG about declining log quality and increased prices. The director of SNBG identified three reasons for declining log quality: increased direct sales of quality logs to Asian markets; increased domestic processing; and a decreasing availability of quality logs from Gabon’s forests.17

As part of Gabon’s privatisation programme required by the IMF under the country’s Structural Adjustment Programme, SNBG has become one of the main stakeholders in the consortium which has taken over the running of the Transgabonais railway. Other consortium members include the German development agency, DEG, and forestry companies such as the French company Thanry (see page 63). The 649 kilometre-long Transgabonais railway is one of the major transport routes in the country, running from Franceville in the east of the country to Owendo (the port near the capital, Libreville) in the west, via Lastoursville and Ndjolé. Some 28% of the freight traffic is logs.18

Forest policy and practice

The forestry sector is the second source of foreign exchange after oil, accounting for 15% of exports in 1995.12 Like its Congo Basin neighbours, the Gabonese government and international donors regard the exploitation of timber as central to macro-economic development. This policy is causing a rapid increase in logging.

Although Gabon’s forests are often described as being relatively undamaged and offering great potential for long-term sustainable timber production, it is clear that industrial forestry within the current policy framework threatens their future integrity and the country’s biodiversity. Production levels are already considerably above the official sustainable production estimates and are set to continue rising. The contribution which forestry sector revenues make to the country’s population as a whole and to people living in the locality of forestry operations is questionable.

The entities responsible for regulating the logging industry in Gabon are the Ministry of Water and Forests (Ministère des Eaux et des Forêts), which has responsibility for implement and monitoring forest policy, and SNBG, Societé Nationale des Bois du Gabon (see box over).

Gabon’s current forestry code dates from 1982. The legislation was designed explicitly to facilitate commercial logging and has promoted the dominance of overseas capital in the forestry sector.19 But the legislation is incomplete and ill-enforced. Nearly three-quarters of the decrees planned for the 1982 Law were never written. The procedures and regulations governing company management plans have not been defined. Article 20 requires concession owners to obtain authorisation from the Ministry of Water and Forests before beginning any forestry activity, but the procedures for obtaining such an authorisation were never defined.20

The area of concessions has increased considerably in the last 40 years. Whereas in 1957, less than 10% of Gabon’s forests (some two million hectares) were allocated as logging concessions, in 1997, eight million hectares were held under concession21 and the estimate for 1999 is 11.9 million hectares.22 Logging has moved over time from the coast to the interior, and most large concessions are now in the interior of the country.

According to the Ministry of Water and Forests, the sustainable annual harvest is 2 million cubic metres. In 1996, total exports amounted to 2.3 million cubic metres and in 1997 to 2.7 million.23 This trend is likely to continue, given national and international imperatives to diversify the economy away from its reliance on oil.

Enforcement and monitoring of companies’ activities is weak,24 largely because the Ministry of Water and Forests does not have sufficient capacity. Only 40% of its agents are assigned to local inspection and offices in charge of field operations. On average, a Ministry agent oversees 86,400 hectares of logging concessions. Agents also lack transport — in several provinces, there is just one vehicle for more than 240,000 hectares of concession area; in the Estuarie province around Libreville, one vehicle is shared by 20 agents.25 The majority of logging companies do not have management plans; in 1999, only five of more than 200 logging companies operating in Gabon had started or planned to start writing a management plan. The rate of wood processing within the country is currently very low at just 7% and taxes are not fully recovered by the government.26

In the coastal logging zone which is reserved for Gabonese nationals, logging is commonly sub-contracted to foreign logging companies. This practice, known as fermage, creates disincentives for sustainable forest management because it fosters rent-seeking and involves uncertain short-term agreements. Permit owners receive large rents without feeling responsible for investing in their concessions; logging companies have no interest in doing so either. Moreover, fermage means a loss of tax revenue to the government because the transfer of logging rights is poorly regulated. Although the law stipulates that logging permits are strictly personal (and thus not transferable), the decrees to regulate the procedures for the approval of qualifications and the assignments of logging authorisations were never written, thus the law is interpreted in different ways.27 The law also stipulates the minimum means and material a family must possess to obtain a household permit to log, but the Ministry of Forests and Water does not verify this requirement when granting such permits. Therefore, without sufficient means to exploit their land, villagers turn to large logging companies.28

A new forestry law was drafted in 1998 under pressure from the IMF and World Bank, its costs covered by a World Bank loan,29 but it is still awaiting approval by the legislature. Such approval may be affected by the run-up to legislative elections in 2001.

The new law, as described by the US-based NGO Global Forest Watch in its recent review of Gabon’s forest policy and practice,30 has been designed to address some of the current technical shortcomings in forest policy and to increase domestic wood processing. Logging permits will be granted for between 20 and 40 years on a public auction system linked to the financial and technical capacity of the company. The maximum size of permits will be for 600,000 hectares, which is considered more appropriate to meet technical sustainable forest management objectives than the current 200,000 hectare limit. Management plans will have to be submitted and approved within three years for all logging operations. There are also plans for the establishment of a National Forest Fund to maintain sustainable management practices. Most of the forest will be classified as production forests and protected areas; some forests will become rural forests, reserved for rural communities who can obtain revenues either by logging them or renting them out to logging companies.31

The new forestry law promotes further industrialisation of the forests and does little to address the dominance of foreign capital in the industry. There are no provisions to ensure that industrial forestry contributes to poverty alleviation other than in the broad expectation of its increased fiscal contribution. It is not clear how the new laws will tackle the under-resourced forestry department or how they will ensure that forestry operations are properly monitored and laws enforced. If the public auction system follows the model established in Cameroon, it will favour financial over technical capacity, that is, those who are the most technically competent to implement long-term sustainable forest management in any one concession will not necessarily be the company to be awarded the concession (see Cameroon section, page 13).
Logs transported by river Ogouué to Port Gentil

Production and EU trade

Gabon is Africa’s second largest timber producer after Cameroon and the world’s largest supplier of Okoumé logs, which accounted for 70% of log exports in 1997.32 There are 60 wood species exploited in Gabon, but Okoumé and, to a lesser extent, Ozigo represent the bulk of production — together they account for up to 80% of total timber production in the country.33 Estimates show that Gabon’s reserves of Okoumé amount to 100 million cubic metres — about three-quarters of world reserves.34

Total timber production increased from approximately 1.6 million cubic metres in 199135 to 2.5 million cubic metres in 1996.36 In 1996, Okoumé production totalled 1.9 million cubic metres. These amounts are well above the level of production established by the Ministry of Water and Forests as sustainable: 2 million cubic metres in total of which 1.2 million cubic metres is Okoumé.37

In 1997, total exports increased to 2.7 million cubic metres, including 1.9 million cubic metres of Okoumé.38 But as a result of the Asian economic crisis and the downturn in demand for logs, exports in 1998 dropped to a total of 1.7 million cubic metres of which 1 million cubic metres were Okoumé.39 1999 saw exports increase again, reaching 2.3 million cubic metres, including 1.5 million cubic metres of Okoumé.40

Until the mid-1990s, Europe and the countries of the Mediterranean Basin (mainly Turkey and Morocco) were the primary importers of Gabon’s timber. France was the largest single importer of Gabonese wood. Since 1993, however, Asia has progressively become the primary destination of Gabon’s timber, and China has replaced France as the largest single importer.41 In 1992, 62% of Gabonese logs exports went to Europe and 12% went to Asia.42 In 1995, more than 40% of total exports went to Asia, mainly to China, Indonesia and South Korea. In the following year, Asia was the destination of 51% of Gabon’s timber exports, whereas Europe and the countries of the Mediterranean Basin accounted for 38% of exports.43 In 1998, largely because of the Asian economic crisis, Europe regained its position by a small margin as the main importer of Gabonese timber.44

In 1999 Asia once again became the largest export market, with China accounting for a total of 906,000 cubic metres of logs, of which 835,000 cubic metres were Okoumé and Ozigo.45 France was the second largest destination country, accounting for 521,000 cubic metres of logs exported from the country, of which 373,000 cubic metres were Okoumé and Ozigo.46

International financial assistance

In 1999, France’s AFD suspended funding of all projects in Gabon until further notice, linking its decision to Gabon’s failure to service its debts.47 Prior to this, AFD provided funding to enable French forestry companies to develop management plans. The EU’s ECOFAC project continues to operate in the Lopé Reserve.

Environmental impacts

Despite the frequent assertions of the potential sustainability of Gabonese forestry, little is known about the forest eco-systems. Systematic assessments of the impact of logging on Gabon’s forests have not been undertaken.48 Production figures exceed the Ministry of Water and Forests’ estimates of annual sustainable harvest levels.49

Logging in Gabon is selective — only a few trees are cut down — but not sustainable. Logging causes on average a 10% canopy loss and up to 50% of canopy disturbance because several trees are usually damaged or destroyed in the process of reaching and felling the tree to be harvested.50 It has been argued that, as only a small number of Okoumé trees are removed, they would easily regenerate. Recent studies, however, suggest that this is not the case and that creaming off the best trees results in lower quality timber.51 The director of SNBG recently admitted that one of the reasons for the supply of lower quality Okoumé logs to the French markets was the declining availability of high quality logs from Gabon’s forests.52

Commercial bushmeat hunting, which is facilitated by logging operations, has led to declining wildlife numbers throughout the region. Recent field work undertaken by the Gabonese NGO, CIAJE, found that, besides directly and indirectly increasing the levels of bushmeat hunting, logging companies operating in Gabon cause two other environmental problems: soil erosion, in particular on slopes, and pollution.53 The chemicals used to treat the wood cause water pollution while the burning of unused logs increases dust particles in the air. (see CIAJEReport, pp 50-52)

Industrial logging in Gabon is also characterised by wastefulness. Companies often cut down trees which are not used; logs are burnt and abandoned along the forest trails and in the logging camps. During CIAJE’s recent field work, researchers found 77 abandoned logs along one stretch of road, 47 of which had been left by FOBO, a Malaysian company, and 30 by SHM (see Interwood, page 59).54

Logging concessions have been granted in the Lopé Reserve, the ECOFAC conservation project in the centre of Gabon.55 Covering 536,000 hectares, the Lopé Reserve was created in 1946 and hosts a diverse range of species. It has ancient historical sites indicating human occupation dating back 350,000 years.56 Inconsistent and overlapping legislation means that logging in the reserve is legal according to one law but illegal according to another. This legal contradiction, a source of tension between the various stakeholders, was resolved in July 2000 when logging companies Leroy Gabon and Rougier both relinquished logging rights in the heart of the Lopé Reserve. In return, Leroy Gabon received an Okoumé-rich area of forest on the eastern flank which was excluded from the reserve.57

Another contested area has been the Ipassa Mingouli region near Makokou. Identified as a critical site for protection because of its high biodiversity and outstanding natural beauty, the area overlaps with logging concessions allocated to Rougier, who started logging in the area in 1994. As with the Lopé Reserve, the company relinquished rights to part of the area and signed a "convention to declare the site known as the falls of Mingouli a protected area" on 11 February 1998 with the Gabonese government (see Rougier, p. 60).58
Erosion caused by logging

Social impacts

Gabon’s high dependency on foreign companies and the export of natural resources makes it vulnerable to global economic fluctuations. This was exemplified by the Asian economic crisis in 1997-98 which led to layoffs in Gabon. Prior to the crisis, the number of people employed by the forestry sector had been rising from 2,750 in 1992 to 6,000 in 1997. According to SNBG, the reduced quotas led to a 65% reduction in work.59 Between July and September 1998, Leroy Gabon sacked 140 workers who had been on temporary layoffs.60 Some commentators believe that the 1998 crisis could have been contained among the big companies had the wood market been diversified.61 The crisis and the reduction in the workforce led to the abandonment of the logging villages, presumably increasing pressures in the cities.

Local people do not have legally recognised rights over their lands, hence companies have no formal obligations towards them. Because of resulting conflicts, companies tend to locate their operations as far as possible from villages to avoid problems.62 But in spite of the distances, villagers and companies cannot ignore each other completely. Logging operations have negative and positive impacts. The European companies tend to build schools and health centres for the company workers and villagers, but these are of variable quality, and some companies make promises that are not fulfilled. (see box page 50)

The social conditions for many logging company workers are less than ideal. Food is generally sold at very high prices, encouraging workers to turn to bushmeat hunting. The standard of workers’ accommodation is variable; in some camps, there is insufficient ventilation. In some logging areas, only higher-level managers have access to running water; the majority of the staff have to depend on rivers which are far away and whose water is not always potable due to pollution caused by the forestry operations. There is little provision for leisure activities, a problem because of the isolation of the logging areas. 63

The operations of the logging companies have several health impacts. Logging trucks often transport over 50 tonnes of timber, even though this volume is illegal. Road accidents are frequent. In 1998, for example, a log fell off a truck, killing one villager of Mibaka (near Lastoursville); in 1996, a similar accident also near Lastoursville killed four people and injured many others. Dust from logging operations dirties the laundry of villages near the concessions, considerably increasing women’s workload, and causes coughs in children. The services provided by health centres vary. Because of the isolation of logging camps, workers cannot easily travel to villages or cities to obtain medical services, which exacerbate the deficiencies in health centres. The health centre at the logging area of Mboumi, near Ndjole, has no medicines, for instance, not even basic painkillers such as aspirin, nor the means to deal with accidents in the processing plant.64

Companies logging the forests of Gabon

There is a lack of transparent information about logging companies operating in Gabon,65 including about who is operating where, which hinders attempts to evaluate their performance. It is virtually impossible to assess whether these companies are contributing to the development of the country or just taking the country’s natural resources without leaving anything positive and lasting behind. The map and data on concessionaires (see map page 38 and Appendix) are taken from an official 1997 Ministry map which is not freely available and is of questionable accuracy. When researchers from the US group, Global Forests Watch, tried to obtain information about companies, the government referred them to the companies and the companies referred them to the government.66

It is known, however, that foreign capital dominates the timber sector in Gabon. Asian logging companies have now established an increasing presence in Gabon. Bordamur is owned by the Malaysian company, Rimbunan Hijau, and has been described as the largest concession holder in the country, with over one million hectares mainly in the north-west of the country.67 Another significant Malaysian-controlled operation is FOBO. But European-owned companies remain significant concession holders, for example, Rougier (700,000 hectares), CEB-Thanry (505,000 hectares), Leroy-Sonae (654,000 hectares), SHM-Interwood (estimated 300,000 hectares) and Basso Timber Industries (450,000 hectares) (see Part III — Company Profiles).68