Libreville, Gabon – In a thick tropical rainforest in a tiny country in Central Africa, a guide pauses next to a huge tree. The Niove tree, he explains while cutting it with a machete, produces a dark red sap that looks like blood and can be used as an antiseptic to treat wounds.
After wiping the sap off his hand, Abdul Koumangye, a ranger at the Pongara National Park in Gabon, thanks the tree for allowing him to slash it and patches it back up.
“We have to take care of the trees because they have souls,” he told Al Jazeera. “We exist in perfect harmony – the trees breathe in our carbon dioxide”.
The tree is just one of the thousands of species found in the Congo Basin rainforest, the world’s second-largest one after the Amazon. Despite the critical role it plays in absorbing carbon from the atmosphere, the rainforest has long been under serious threat from logging and other illegal activities.
Many of the countries that form part of the rainforest like Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo struggle with conservation due to a lack of funds or rebel groups.
Gabon, on the other hand, claims it has preserved its natural environment with satellite imagery and environment-first policies – and some industry insiders agree.
“Between 2010 and 2020, Gabon only lost approximately 12,000 hectares (29,652 acres) of forest which is less than 0.1 percent per year,” said George Akwah Neba, the coordinator of the Congo Basin Programme at the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).
“We’ve seen a huge regeneration of degraded forests since the early 2000s with several courageous decisions that set Gabon apart as a leader in environmental and forest management policies”.
Using satellite imagery
This week, Gabon is hosting Africa Climate Week in Libreville, the capital.
The UN-backed conference aims to find solutions to Africa’s climate challenges ahead of the COP27 (United Nations Climate Change Conference), in Egypt in November. Experts say that Gabon will use the conference as an opportunity to position itself as a model country for preserving rainforests, which cover 88 percent of the country.
One of the chief challenges in the Congo Basin is putting an end to illegal logging.
Dozens of foreign companies pay corrupt officials bribes to tear down vast areas of rainforest that is home to endangered forest elephants and gorillas. Most of the wood will end up as furniture in houses in the US, Europe or Asia as companies find ways to conceal the origins.
But in Gabon, satellite imagery is used to track down and bust illegal loggers.
“If we see suspicious activity we alert the authorities,” said Larissa Mengue, an engineer at AGEOS, Gabon’s satellite observation centre.
After cross-checking with the government that the deforested area is not a legal logging site, park rangers are sent deep into Gabon’s thick bush to work out why the trees are no longer there.
Officials say that illegal mining sites are the newest threat to the forest as a crackdown on poaching has pushed poor communities to look for other sources of income.
The observation centre is unique in Central Africa and provides Gabon with pinpoint data on how its rainforests are changing. Between January and March this year, a total of 2,615 hectares (6,461 acres) of forest were lost in activities ranging from legal logging to illegal mining.
In 2009, President Ali Bongo automatically assumed office after the death of his father, Omar Bongo, who ruled the country with an iron fist for 42 years.
And that dynamic has created an enabling environment for widespread human rights violations and corruption in oil-rich Gabon, civil society and experts groups say.
A controversial crackdown on public sector corruption by the government has extended to the environment and is even yielding results, experts say.
“The state has worked hard to stamp out corruption in the logging sector, there is leadership at the highest level of government,” said Jean-Paul Obame Engone, the forest programme coordinator of World Wide Fund Gabon.
Indeed Lee White, the minister of forests, oceans, environment and climate change was brought into the government in 2019 after his predecessor and the vice-president were fired over a scandal related to corruption and illegal logging.
Tracking and certifying logs
Large multinational logging companies come to Gabon primarily for the indigenous Okoumé tree which is used to make plywood, veneer, boats, decking and furniture.
In 2018, the government set a bold target to ensure that all logging concessions – areas where logging is allowed – must be FSC certified by 2025. The certification, a global standard of ethical forest management, ensures that all wood is sustainably sourced.
Although uptake has been slower than expected – the target was initially set for 2022 – Gabon has reached 2.4 million hectares (5.93 million acres) of certified forest – almost half of the 5.4 million hectares (13.34 million acres) certified within the Congo Basin.
The government is implementing a sophisticated QR-code tracing system to track logs from the forest to the ports. Forêt Resources Management, an environmental consultancy, has already implemented a tracking system known as TraCer that checks the origins of logs entering Gabon’s Special Economic Zone (GSEZ), where approximately a third of the country’s wood is processed.
“We do due diligence on all of the logs which come into the economic zone – it’s about one million cubic metres (35.31 million cubic feet) of wood a year,” said Cécile Hervo, a forest management specialist. “We check for four things. Does the company have papers to prove it exists? Do they pay taxes? Do they have the right to cut down trees? Do they take care of the local population and civil society?”
A key pillar of Gabon’s conservation efforts has been finding the right balance between a thriving timber industry and protecting the rainforest.
Gabon is one of the largest oil producers in sub-Saharan Africa with a population of only about two million people.
After oil output peaked in the late 1990s, it looked to the timber industry as the next big driver of job creation and government revenues. “Within the next 10 years we should be able to build a $10bn timber industry that creates around 300,000 jobs,” said White.
In 2010, the government implemented a total ban on the export of all logs to encourage companies to set up manufacturing plants in Gabon. Although this initially reduced activity in the sector, hundreds of companies have since set up operations in the special economic zone, where they receive tax breaks and other perks.
“It changed the whole structure,” said Mohit Agrawal, the general manager of the zone. “Companies were forced to set up industries here”.
The industrial park spreads out over 1,200 hectares (2,965 acres) on the outskirts of Libreville. It is a hive of activity with more than 150 companies that make everything from plywood to high-end furniture.
Gabon is now one of the world’s largest veneer producers and a growing producer of plywood.
The industry is largely sustainable due to the incredibly selective way in which trees are logged. One or two trees are cut per hectare every 25 years, the environment minister said.
Thanks to its huge rainforests and small population, Gabon is one of the most carbon-positive countries in the world. Its carbon dioxide emissions are estimated at 40 million tonnes per annum (excluding 16 million tonnes from oil exports) compared with the 140 million tonnes it absorbs through its rainforests.
White said Gabon is hoping to produce 187 million carbon credits that can be sold or used to support innovative borrowing in the form of green bonds. The credits are sold as carbon that Gabon has removed from the atmosphere to investors and businesses wishing to offset carbon emissions.
Gabon will exchange 10 million credits for a billion tonnes of net absorption, overseen by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Each credit is worth 10 tonnes of removed carbon which is 10 times more than the average credit, the minister said.
The money raised will be redirected into further conservation efforts which are critical for the world’s efforts to beat climate change.
“If we cut down the Gabonese forests we lose the rainfall in northern Nigeria, in the Sahel,” said White.
“If you cut the rainforest in the Democratic Republic of Congo you lose the rainfall in Ethiopia and the Blue Nile, and if you lose that, then you lose agriculture in Egypt. For the bigger picture, it is imperative we keep the Congo Basin standing”.