Marc Ona Essangui is president and founder of the environmental NGO Brainforest and president of a 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 CMEC. Until then, the terms of the contract had been hidden from the Gabonese people. The contract stated that Gabon would receive only 10% of the mining profits while 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 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 favorable 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.
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 national 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 that 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.