by Benjamin Evine-Binet on 31 March 2021
- Transport Bois Négoce International (TBNI), a Chinese forestry company, has built new roads in preparation to cut timber in a concession which includes a previously unlogged forest in northeastern Gabon.
- Residents of the village of Massaha, on the northern edge of this forest, have been managing hunting and other use of this forest since 2019; they formally requested reclassification of the forest as a protected area in August 2020.
- Gabon’s forest code makes explicit provision for local communities to initiate reclassification of sensitive forest as a protected area, and villagers are anxious for the government to respond before TBNI advances any further.
A forestry company in Gabon has built new roads to log a forest in the northeastern province of Ogooué-Ivindo. Villagers had applied to the government last August to reclassify this valuable forest as a protected area, and say they are alarmed by the company’s rapid advance while they wait for a formal response.
Rural communities in this area rely on local forests for fishing, hunting and gathering. These livelihoods and the wildlife populations they depend on are increasingly threatened by mining, intensive logging, and poaching for the illegal ivory trade and unregulated commercial hunting for bushmeat. A massive increase in logging by foreign companies over the last decade — around 40 companies hold logging concessions covering most of the area — and associated road building has opened access to formerly intact forests and razed local ecosystems.
In response, three Ogooué-Ivindo villages have taken steps to protect the environment and their way of life. The villages of Latta, Ebessi, and Massaha have established management plans to regulate hunting practices and delineate informal protected reserves in their forests.
Massaha village: the first Gabonese community to apply to the government to declare its forest a protected area
With logging rapidly expanding, the village of Massaha, 56 kilometers (35 miles) from the provincial capital of Makokou, has gone one step further. A portion of the forest relied on by villagers is also part of a vast 41,000-hectare (101,300-acre) logging concession (called UFG-2, Unité forestières de gestion 2) held by a Chinese forestry company, Transport Bois Négoce International (TBNI). The company was the subject of a 2019 investigation by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), which exposed TBNI’s involvement in bribery, transfer pricing and other corrupt methods to evade taxes and maximize profits.
Massaha has submitted an official request for 11,300 hectares (27,900 acres) of UFG-2 to be reclassified as a protected area with sustainable hunting management.
|A pioneering application of Gabon’s Forest Code: Under Articles 55 and 67 of Gabon’s Forest Code, an area already allocated for forestry may be declassified when “significant biological richness, high heritage value, or substantial environmental risks” are identified. The villagers of Massaha have applied for 11,300 ha (27,900 acres) of the logging concession known as Unité forestières de gestion 2 to be declassified following the procedure set out in Article 2 of Decree No. 001032-PE-MEFEPEPN of 1/12/2004, which states that such a process may be initiated at the request of a local community.|
According to Gabon’s Forest Code, forest already allocated to a logging concession may be declassified if it is found to have “significant biological richness, high heritage value, or substantial environmental risks.” Outlining the procedure for such reclassification, the code explicitly states that the process may be initiated “at the express request of a local community.” This is the first time that a rural Gabonese community has launched such an appeal.
The forest in the concession area south of the Liboumba River has never been logged. It is home to threatened species such as forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis), chimpanzees, gorillas, leopards, and pangolins, as well as an abundance of centuries-old trees including protected species such as moabi (Baillonella toxisperma) and kevazingo (Guibourtia tesmannii).
The villagers use their forest for hunting, fishing, and farming; the forest here also contains ancestral villages and ritual sites of invaluable cultural wealth. Serge Ekazama-Koto, a local researcher, explains what is at stake for his community: “TBNI’s logging practices in this area will inevitably destroy the entire foundation of our village. We do not want to be a village without roots or history; our ancestors founded this village, their graves are found there, and the forest is sacred to us.”
Two new logging roads already open, sign of imminent logging by TBNI
Since 2018, authorization for logging is conditional upon companies having a state-validated wildlife protection plan, drawn up with the participation of all stakeholders and readily accessible to all interested parties. While its wildlife protection plan is still under review, TBNI has been allowed to continue logging. The company’s wildlife manager for the area, Junior Peme, told Mongabay the company is using camera traps to determine the species diversity in the area, and mapping the impacts of human activity in the area on medium-size and large mammals.
The company’s environmental integrity has been called into question by the village of Latta (whose forest lies in a section of UFG-2 that TBNI has already logged). Community patrols there have found evidence of hunting with wire snares (illegal in Gabon) by company employees inside the village’s self-designated management area, where they themselves have prohibited hunting by outsiders. The village’s management plan is not legally binding but has been acknowledged by both provincial authorities and TBNI.
Peme declined to comment on Massaha’s reclassification request, but the company has already completed an inventory of timber in a portion of the logging concession within the proposed protected area. In February 2021, it built two new logging roads there, running from the national road that passes through the village to near the northern shore of the Liboumba River. Logging could begin at any time, threatening the reclassification request before it has been formally considered. All this with the results of TBNI’s inventories of flora and fauna not available.
Massaha awaiting response from national authorities
The village delivered its request in official letters to the governor of Ogooué-Ivindo, the provincial director of water and forests, and TBNI on Aug. 6, 2020. The provincial director formally responded to the request on Aug. 19, and transferred the file to the national ministerial authority the next day. Following this, village leaders met with him several times. A string of back-and-forth correspondence among the various entities has ensued, but no concrete action has yet been taken. All the while, preparation for logging in the proposed protected area moves forward apace.
The provincial director of water and forests was unavailable for comment, as he is currently out of the province on extended business. But villagers say they are confident their request will find a favorable audience in government. In May 2020, Lee White, Gabon’s minister of forests, oceans, environment and climate change, said the country “must take ownership” of the initiative to protect 30% of lands and seas by 2030, proposed under the Convention on Biological Diversity.
At a village meeting held in Massaha on Feb. 20 this year, the villagers reaffirmed their commitment to seeing their forest reclassified as a protected area. On March 3, they delivered another letter to the provincial director of water and forests, asking for news on the status of their application.
They have yet to receive a reply. But TBNI employees have since arrived and are now staying in the village.
On March 30, the village wrote a letter addressed to the national minister stating they “reserve the right to take multifaceted actions if an answer is not given […] as soon as possible.”
Benjamin Evine-Binet is the director of Ivindo FM community radio station in Makokou. Madeleine Barois contributed to producing this report.
Banner image: Massaha community members in a hunting management meeting. Image courtesy Graden Froese.