Libreville, Gabon – In a thick tropical jungle in a small Central African country, a guide stops by a huge tree. The Niove tree, he explains as he cuts 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 from his hand, Abdul Koumangye, a ranger at Pongara National Park in Gabon, thanks the tree for allowing him to cut it down and repair it.
“We have to take care of the trees because they have a soul,” he told Al Jazeera. “We exist in perfect harmony: trees breathe our carbon dioxide.”
The tree is just one of thousands of species found in the Congo Basin rainforest, the second largest in the world 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 are part of the rainforest such as Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo struggle with conservation due to lack of funds or rogue groups.
Gabon, on the other hand, claims that it has preserved its natural environment with satellite imagery and environmental priority policies, and some industry experts agree.
“Between 2010 and 2020, Gabon alone lost approximately 12,000 hectares (29,652 acres) of forest, which is less than 0.1% per year,” said George Akwah Neba, Congo Basin Program Coordinator at Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).
“We have seen a huge regeneration of degraded forests since the early 2000s with several courageous decisions that put Gabon as a leader in environmental and forest management policies.”
Use of satellite images
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 COP27 (United Nations Climate Change Conference), in Egypt in November. Experts say Gabon will use the conference as an opportunity to position itself as a model country for the conservation of tropical forests, which cover 88 percent of the country.
One of the main challenges in the Congo Basin is ending illegal logging.
In 2009, President Ali Bongo automatically took 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 environment ripe for widespread human rights violations and corruption in oil-rich Gabon, civil society and think tanks say.
Dozens of foreign companies pay bribes to corrupt officials to raze vast areas of rainforest that are home to endangered elephants and gorillas. Most of the wood will end up as furniture in homes in the US, Europe or Asia as companies find ways to hide origins.
But in Gabon, satellite imagery is being used to track down and arrest illegal loggers.
“If we see suspicious activity, we alert the authorities,” said Larissa Mengue, an engineer at AGEOS, Gabon’s satellite observation center.
After verifying with the government that the deforested area is not a legal logging site, park rangers are sent deep into Gabon’s thick undergrowth to find out why the trees are no longer there.
Officials say illegal mining sites are the latest threat to the forest, as a crackdown on poaching has pushed poor communities to seek other sources of income.
The observation center is unique in Central Africa and provides Gabon with precise data on how its rainforests are changing. Between January and March of this year, a total of 2,615 hectares (6,461 acres) of forest was lost to activities ranging from legal logging to illegal mining.
A controversial government crackdown on public sector corruption has spilled over into the environment and is even paying off, experts say.
“The state has worked hard to eradicate corruption in the timber sector, there is leadership at the highest level of government,” said Jean-Paul Obame Engone, World Wide Fund Gabon forestry program coordinator.
Indeed, Lee White, the minister for forests, oceans, the environment and climate change, entered the government in 2019 after his predecessor and the vice president were sacked over a scandal involving corruption and illegal logging.
Tracking and certification records
Large multinational timber companies come to Gabon mainly for the indigenous Okoumé tree, which is used to make plywood, veneers, boats, decks and furniture.
In 2018, the government set a bold target to ensure that all timber concessions (areas where logging is permitted) must be FSC certified by 2025. Certification, a global standard for ethical forest management, ensures that all timber is sourced in a sustainable way.
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 tracking system to trace logs from the forest to the ports. Forêt Resources Management, an environmental consultancy, has already implemented a tracking system known as TraCer that verifies the origin of logs entering Gabon’s Special Economic Zone (GSEZ), where roughly a third of the country’s timber is processed.
“We do due diligence on all the logs that enter the economic zone: it’s about a million cubic meters (35.31 million cubic feet) of wood a year,” said Cécile Hervo, a forest management specialist. “We checked four things. Does the company have papers to prove that 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 the protection of 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 production peaked in the late 1990s, the lumber industry was seen as the next big driver of job creation and government revenue. “Within the next 10 years we should be able to build a $10 billion lumber industry that creates about 300,000 jobs,” White said.
In 2010, the government implemented a total export ban on all logs to encourage companies to set up manufacturing plants in Gabon. Although this initially curtailed activity in the sector, hundreds of companies have since set up operations in the special economic zone, where they receive tax breaks and other benefits.
“It changed the whole structure,” said Mohit Agrawal, general manager of the zone. “Companies were forced to set up industries here.”
The industrial park extends over 1,200 hectares (2,965 acres) on the outskirts of Libreville. It’s a hive of activity with more than 150 companies making 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 trees are cut down. Every 25 years one or two trees per hectare are felled, said the Minister of the Environment.
Thanks to its huge rainforests and small population, Gabon is one of the most carbon-emitting countries in the world. Its carbon dioxide emissions are estimated at 40 million tons per year (excluding 16 million tons from oil exports) compared to the 140 million tons it absorbs through its rainforests.
White said Gabon hopes to produce 187 million carbon credits that can be sold or used to back innovative loans in the form of green bonds. The credits are sold as carbon that Gabon has removed from the atmosphere to investors and companies that want to offset carbon emissions.
Gabon will exchange 10 million credits per 1 billion tons of net removal, monitored by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Each credit is worth 10 tons of carbon removed, which is 10 times more than the average credit, the minister said.
The money raised will be redirected to further conservation efforts that are critical to the world’s efforts to combat climate change.
“If we cut down the forests in Gabon, we will lose the rain in northern Nigeria, in the Sahel,” White said.
“If you cut down the rainforest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, you lose the rain in Ethiopia and the Blue Nile, and if you lose that, then you lose agriculture in Egypt. To get the bigger picture, it is imperative that we keep the Congo Basin standing.”