In Gabon, a country without a culture of civic engagement, Marc Ona led efforts to publicly expose the unlawful agreements behind a huge mining project threatening the sensitive ecosystems of Gabon’s equatorial rainforests. Ona’s efforts led to an unprecedented victory for civil society in Gabon, with the government adopting new environmental oversight regulations and significantly reducing the size of the mining concession.
Gabon for Sale
Gabon is part of the Congo Basin Rainforest, the second-largest rainforest in the world. Its 3,000 square-kilometer Ivindo National Park was established in 2002, when Gabonese President Omar Bongo, who is Africa’s longest-ruling leader, helming the government for over 40 years, declared 10 percent of Gabon’s territory as national park land. With rich biodiversity and endemic species, including populations of forest elephants, western lowland gorillas, chimpanzees, and forest buffalo, the park is cherished by the Gabonese people. The park is also home to the Kongou and Mingouli Falls, the most admired waterfalls in the equatorial forests of Africa, drawing international tourists to the rural West African country.
However, since 2002, the integrity of the national parks system has been repeatedly threatened by resource extraction and infrastructure development. Most critical is the proposed Belinga mine development project, a $3.5 billion project that includes a mine, a dam, railroads and a deep-water port facility.
Throughout the project’s development, the parties associated with the Belinga mine have negotiated in secrecy. Affected communities were not consulted and are largely unaware of the potential impacts that the dam and mining concession will have on their environment. In July 2007, the Chinese company, CMEC, in flagrant violation of Gabon’s Environment Code, began constructing a road directly through Ivindo National Park to the waterfalls. No environmental impact assessment had been carried out. A project of this scale in a national park has implications for Gabon’s wider conservation efforts, possibly leading to the declassification of the national parks system as well as leaving vulnerable ecosystems exposed to logg ing and other destructive industries.
The project highlights the growing environmental concerns about Chinese investments in the region. Many African governments are drawn to the no-strings-attached approach of the Chinese, who offer aid or loans not linked to demands for good governance, transparency or improvements in human rights, which are often required by Western governments.
Demand for Transparency
Marc Ona Essangui is president and founder of the environmental NGO Brainforest and president of the network of NGOs called Environment Gabon. Wheelchair-bound due to childhood polio, Ona also works for handicapped rights and Internet availability for Africans.
In a country that encourages foreign investment for development, Ona is a tireless voice protecting the forest and its people. In 2007, Ona located a leaked copy of the Belinga mine project agreement between the government and the Chinese company. Until then, the terms of the contract had been hidden from the Gabonese people. The contract stated that Gabon would receive only 10 percent of the mining profits while the Chinese corporation, CMEC, would receive a 25-year tax break.
Ona and his colleagues repeatedly called for a full environmental impact assessment of the proposed dam and advocated for an alternative site outside of the national park at Tsengué-Lélédi Falls, which they argued would be cheaper to build and of greater benefit to local communities. They also argued that the 7,700 square-kilometer Belinga concession would be excessive and would lead to damaging environmental impacts. Brainforest, along with Environment Gabon, worked to inform local communities about their rights.
Due to Ona’s efforts, the government is re-evaluating the size of the Belinga concession. The area to be affected by the dam project has been substantially reduced from 5,700 to 600 square-kilometers. The road through Ivindo Park was rerouted through less of the protected area, and President Bongo agreed to place two representatives of local NGOs from Environment Gabon on a social and environmental monitoring committee for the project.
Under intense public scrutiny led by Ona and aided by the World Bank, Gabon renegotiated the mining contract on more favourable terms in May 2008. However, the project is currently on hold, and it is unclear whether or not the Gabonese government will stand by calls for environmental responsibility and transparency.
A Choke on Civil Society
Ona faces considerable personal risks in campaigning for environmental and social issues. In January 2008, the minister of the interior suspended the activities of the NGO coalition that Ona coordinates on the grounds that, “local NGOs were interfering in politics.” After much outcry, the suspension was lifted. In March 2008, a break-in at the office of Brainforest resulted in the loss of sensitive information relating to the Belinga mine project. Ona and his family were recently evicted from their home, as the landlord felt the risks of having an activist on his property were too great. Three times during 2008 the federal police refused to let Ona travel out of the country, without explanation.
In December 2008, Ona and several other civil society leaders were arrested and held without charge and without access to legal representation in deplorable conditions in a basement cell for five days. Ona was later transferred to prison and charged with possession of documents allegedly for dissemination and propaganda with intent to incite rebellion against the state authorities, a charge which he denies. After media reports about the unlawful arrest from outlets in Africa, the EU and the US, the government released Ona, though the charges have not yet been dropped.
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