The country's "Green Gabon" sustainable development policy has proven a success. The question now is: How can Gabon reap the financial rewards of its preservation efforts?
I'm in the Gabonese rainforest, just a few meters away from one of the last representatives of the great apes of Africa: the western mountain gorilla.
There are 35,000 of them living in Gabon. They dwell secluded in the depths of the forest, continuously retreating as humans advance, and as the climate changes. But here, in the vast, 155,000-hectare Loango Park, human activity remains minimal. It's as if time stands still.
Gabon has maintained the thick forests that cover 88% of the country through strict monitoring and logging restrictions. Deforestation avoided through the country's biodiversity management policy has already helped to sequester 90 million tons of carbon.
The country's new challenge: turning that environmental success into a financial one, as well.
Since 2010, Gabon has implemented a sustainable development policy, called "Green Gabon," which aims to combine responsible timber exploitation and protection of the fauna and flora.
Just over 2 million people live in this small country, which is almost entirely covered by forests. Loango Park is just 300 kilometers from the capital, Libreville, but getting there isn't easy. The bravest take the road and face two to three days of rough terrain until they reach Port Gentil, the center of the oil industry.
From there, it takes four hours of driving through forest roads and tracks, passing along the Ozouri Bridge. Financed almost entirely by a Chinese bank, it's the longest bridge in Central Africa and at 4,700 meters, the third longest on the continent.
The road continues, plunging deep into the forest and becoming a steep trail. Forest extends as far as the eye can see.
The animals in this area live in almost complete freedom, protected by a natural barrier of rivers, lagoons, oceans, forests, and mangroves. Padouk trees with red sap and resin-scented Okoumé trees grow in the lush Mount Cristal Reserve, and the breathtaking Pongara reserve is home to some of the world's tallest mangrove trees, which grow up to 60 meters tall. Mangroves are essential for keeping rising sea levels at bay, but they are threatened by illegal logging and human activity.
Elephants walking on a beach in Gabon.
Via Facebook - See Wild Travels Ltd
Strict standards and monitoring help to maintain forests
To fully understand Gabon's strategy for protecting biodiversity, one must visit the Nkok Special Economic Zone. The 1,200-hectare timber-processing area was set up after Gabon banned the export of unprocessed logs in 2010, in an effort to cut down on illegal logging and encourage local industry. The zone operates as a one-stop-shop, housing administrative services including immigration and labor inspection, as well as a residential area and training center with a capacity of 1,000 students. To encourage local development, logging companies are required to contribute 800 CFA francs per cubic meter to community projects.
Gabon's forests are now harvested to national standards, with a rotation system in place to allow for regrowth. Only 1-3 trees per hectare are allowed, and forests are rented to logging companies for a fixed term based on a management plan. About 90% of the exported timber is Okoumé, which is particularly prized in boatbuilding.
Loggers are closely monitored by satellite and a tracking system that allows the origin of each log to be traced. The Gabonese government said in 2018 that companies would have to comply with international Forest Stewardship Council standards for logging by 2022. That date has been pushed back to 2025, and the battle is not yet won: of 65 wood-processing companies, only 15 have been certified.
Aerial view of a tropical forest in Gabon.
Will rich polluters pay up?
Gabon's decision in 2010 to ban the export of uncertified wood — since adopted by Congo as well — encouraged the creation of thousands of direct and indirect jobs.
After the UN recognized Gabon's forest preservation efforts last year, the country announced the world's largest-ever offering of carbon credits: 90 million tons, worth an estimated $2.25 billion on the market. Honduras and Guyana have since followed suit.
The REDD+ mechanism, created under the COP Paris Agreement to encourage sustainable forestry and cut emissions, should help countries like Gabon to profit from their environmental efforts by selling carbon credits to polluting countries. But the money is dependent on the will of major polluters to fulfill their commitments, and Gabon has struggled to find buyers. If sales don't pick up, the country says it may have to relax logging restrictions.
This was one of the objectives of the One Forest Forum held in Libreville in March, which saw the launch of a €100 million fund to reward countries' efforts in preserving tropical forests.
But the Congo Basin, and Gabon in particular, need much more than promises. And time is running out.