Gabon’s forests nourish the Sahel and Blue Nile. What happens if they vanish?

By Fred Harter

Posted on Monday, 15 November 2021 08:08
A lone elephant grazes at a clearing in the rain forest of Lope Reserve, Gabon. (AP Photo/Saurabh Das)

As oil dwindles, Gabon is looking for new sources of revenue. It wants to be paid for preserving its virgin rainforests -- which is equivalent to around a year's worth of global emissions.
The consequences of Gabon chopping down its forests, argues Gabon forests minister Lee White, would be catastrophic: no more clouds feeding the Blue Nile and the Sahel, which could push tens of millions of Nigerians and Egyptians off their land.

Clad in camouflage and grasping a tape measure in one hand, Vincent Medjibe is hugging a tree in the Gabonese rainforest, trying to gauge its size. Since 2011 he has been in charge of calculating how much carbon is locked into his country’s trees, one of the world’s last remaining tracts of intact tropical forest.

“It’s very labour intensive work,” said Medjibe, who dispatches teams deep into the jungle to measure trees and take samples from the soil. “Normally you have to walk 3 or 4 days into the forest before you can even start. Then you can have anywhere up to 400 trees to survey.”

Roughly 90% of Gabon is covered by thick jungle, an area around the size of the United Kingdom. This forest, part of the Congo Basin, is teeming with biodiversity, home to lowland gorillas, chimpanzees and most of Africa’s critically endangered forest elephants.

It also acts as a massive carbon sink.

According to the data collected by Medjibe’s teams, Gabon’s forest absorbs 140 metric tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere each year while its annual emissions are 40 metric tonnes, making the central African country one of the few nations that absorbs more carbon that it emits. In total around one year’s worth of global emissions are thought to be stored in its trees and soil.

For decades Gabon has relied on offshore oil for its revenues.

But with reserves running low it now wants to be paid for having preserved this vast natural resource, rather than chopping it down for wood or to clear the way for palm oil plantations, which has happened across the border in Cameroon and Congo. If Gabon is not rewarded for its efforts, there are fears the forest may be felled as the country is forced to find other income sources once its oil dries up.

“At the moment we have oil, so we can limit the pressure on the forest,” Tanguy Gahouma, head of Gabon’s National Climate Council, told The Africa Report. “But after that, if we do not get paid to maintain the forest, this will put Gabon in a very difficult situation. We need to find a solution before we end up like other countries.”

The solution Gabon is pushing the ability to sell credits on international markets based on the amount of carbon its forest holds. The idea is that a factory in Germany, for example, could offset its emissions by buying carbon credits generated by Gabon’s trees, allowing the factory to maintain production while keeping the rainforest standing.

Lee White, an environmentalist from Altrincham near Manchester, who serves as Gabon’s forestry minister, says Gabon can make more money from its forest this way than clearing it for agriculture. “If you look at the Democratic Republic of Congo’s, their forest is going up in flames, but if they had got $5 tonnes per tonne of carbon in their forest, that would have made them way more money than the farms that are there now,” he said.

He adds that making money out of the forest some other way is crucial to ensure its continued survival. “No country on Earth has developed while maintaining its forest cover. That is just a fact. So it’s inevitable it’s going to happen here if we don’t make the forest valuable.”

If Gabon were to lose its forest, the effects would be disastrous not just for Africa but for the world. The clouds it and the wider Congo Basin generate go on to water the Sahel, an arid strip of land south of the Sahara already wracked by droughts that are helping fuel Islamic extremism. They also feed the source of the Blue Nile in Ethiopia.

“If we lose the Congo Basin’s forest, we lose this rainfall,” said White. “That means we lose agriculture in the Sahel and you’ve got 100 million Nigerians looking for a new home, and you lose the Blue Nile, which means you’ve got 100 million Egyptians also looking for a new home…Paying for the ecosystem services the Congo Basin provides would be much cheaper than dealing with the social and economic costs of these people heading to Italy.”

Gabon’s President Ali Bongo Onbimba delivers his message during a session on Action on Forests and Land Use, during the UN Climate Change Conference COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. (Paul Ellis/Pool Photo via AP)

Gabon has managed to keep much of its rainforest due to the unlikely conversion of the country’s former strongman ruler, Omar Bongo, to environmentalism in the early-2000s, just as deforestation was starting to ramp up. The spark was an epic 2,000 mile hike through the forest undertaken by explorer Mike Fay and Nick Nicholas, a photographer, in 1999.

Bongo was a city-dweller who, like most Gabonese, seldom ventured into the forest. When he was presented with pictures taken during the trip, showcasing his country’s natural riches, he revoked all logging permits and declared 13 national parks, which today make up around 11% of Gabon’s landmass and protect its most valuable habitats.

As a result, Gabon’s wildlife is booming at a time when animal populations are plummeting elsewhere in central Africa. Logging can only be done according to strict management plans that ensure the canopy of each patch of logged forest returns to its original size within 25 years.

Corruption, however, is a problem. In 2019, Gabon’s vice president was sacked along with White’s predecessor as forest minister after 300 containers of illegally felled kevazingo, a rare hardwood, were discovered at a port. White has had to send his children back to the UK out of fears for their safety while cracking down on well-connected ivory smugglers.

Many Gabonese also complain that there are too many elephants, which break into their farms and trash their crops. Electric fences are being erected to deal with this problem, but they are expensive: in some parts of the Gabon fences have been built to protect just one or two families at a cost of $50,000 to $100,000, says one conservationist.

Yet Gabon’s conservation policies are already starting to pay off.

In June it became the first country to be paid for protecting its forest when it received $17m from a Norwegian-backed fund called the Central African Forest Initiative (Cafi), the first instalment of a grant worth $150m. The payment was made under a scheme called REDD, short for reducing emissions and forest degradation.

However, the price Gabon got for the carbon stored in its trees was low: just $10 per metric tonne compared with the European market average of around $60 for each tonne of carbon scrubbed from factories. Gabon wants REDD replaced by an international market that will allow it to sell around 1 billion tonnes worth of carbon credits directly to companies in Europe and North America at a much higher price.

Not all environmentalists are on board with this idea. Joe Eisen, director of the Rainforest Foundation, describes it as a “distraction” based on unproven scientific claims that undermines efforts to reach net zero.

“The oil and gas industry is the biggest cheerleader of this idea because they could simply buy these credits in order to keep emitting…but that’s not how the environment works” he said. “There is a risk that these carbon credits will be used to delay proper action in the Global North.”

Eisen also raises the prospect of “green grabs” by large Western companies keen to hoover up cheap land in Africa and elsewhere in order to generate forest-based carbon credits they could then sell for a healthy profit. “You’re going to see huge demand for land in the Congo Basin that could push out indigenous people with huge implications for human rights and food security,” he said.

Others have raised eyebrows at the Gabonese government’s data, suggesting they have massaged figures in order to demonstrate cuts in emissions that only exist on paper while raising fears about increasing rates of illegal logging over recent years.

Despite these criticisms, White and other officials in Gabon remain adamant that creating a market for forest-based carbon credits is critical in order to save the world’s remaining tropical forests and prevent temperatures rising above 1.5 degrees.

“Gabon is the most carbon positive country on Earth,” said White, sitting beneath the canopy of Gabon’s Pangora National Park. “We’ve put in place policy decisions and laws. We’ve put people’s lives on the line defending our national parks. We’ve done our bit. But if we don’t get a deal, we’re all in trouble.”

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