Foresters in Gabon struggle to make their voices heard in international discussions on environmental protection

Foresters in Gabon struggle to make their voices heard in international discussions on environmental protection

Gabonese loggers have been trying to meet the environmental criteria set by the international community for over 20 years. New rules on padouk exports were adopted without taking into account the reality on the ground, they say.

(Sophie Eyégué)

Seated behind his solid wood desk, Marius Kombila, director of Global Forest Environment Consulting, a Gabonese firm that supports local forestry operations in their efforts to achieve sustainable timber management, is being inundated with requests from all sides. “I’ll be with you in a minute,” he says, alternating between his role as CEO of a company and his role as technical adviser to the Syndicat des Industriels et Aménagistes Gabonais (SIAG), which represents several forestry companies. “So, you want to talk about padouk?” he asks with a nervous laugh. “It’s a sensitive subject”.

In November 2022, representatives from all over the world gathered in Panama City at the 19th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Following discussions that took place there, several additions were made to Appendix II of the Convention, which designates species requiring protection. Barring the publication of a Non-Detriment Finding (a study that assesses whether trade in a species will endanger its survival), padouk, Gabon’s fifth largest wood export, is now listed as endangered. As of 23 February 2023, the decision has resulted in major administrative barriers on Gabonese foresters since. Each shipment destined for export now requires a permit, which has significantly slowed down economic activity.

“We haven’t even received instructions on how to proceed. In the meantime, all production has come to a halt,” says Jean-Christophe Ricordeau, managing director of Société Équatoriale d’Exploitation and president of SIAG. Indeed, foresters have thus far been left in the dark on how to obtain a permit that would allow them to continue exportation. Padouk represents 5 per cent of the company’s production. Because of its high price, Ricordeau estimates that the measure will cause the company to lose 3 to 5 per cent of its turnover. “For me, this production is secondary. But for some it means losing half of their income.” Since the end of February, these companies have not been able to fulfil their orders, apart from those already in transit, due to the uncertainty surrounding the measure’s implementation.

Many in the industry are confounded by the decision to list padouk as a species requiring protection, as the wood is not endangered in Gabon. “The problem that arose in Panama City was how to differentiate between East African padouk, which is at risk of extinction, and Gabonese padouk,” explains Jean-Louis Doucet, professor of tropical forestry at the University of Liège in Belgium. “This places significant constraints on forestry companies, which in my opinion are not justified from an ecological point of view. Efforts should be made within importing countries to distinguish between different species within the same genus.

The decision has delivered a major blow to Gabon’s economy. The timber industry is the country’s largest private sector employer, though it only accounts for 3 per cent of the growth rate and employs 7 per cent of the working population. Around 10,00 households could see their income fall and face poverty if the padouk trade slows down.

Gabon struggles to make its voice heard

“CITES gave Gabon three months to establish non-detriment to prove that these species are not endangered here and that foresters can establish export quotas,” explains Lucien Boussougou, a researcher at the Gabonese Ministry of Water and Forests. “We knew that it would be impossible to take an inventory of 22 million hectares in three months”.

While Gabonese representatives at the conference in Panama City warned of the economic risks and pointed to the conclusions of recent scientific symposiums, which do not designate padouk as an endangered species in Central Africa, their voices alone, without the support of their neighbours in the Congo Basin, were not enough. Gabon’s foresters have been left feeling frustrated. “This is yet another decision taken by the great minds from their nice offices in New York who have never set foot in Gabon,” says Ricordeau.

Some view the decision as a strategy by China and its allies to maintain their leading role in the processed wood trade. Gabon, the world’s second largest exporter of plywood (made from okoumé, another species found in local forests) and the largest on the African continent, has little chance of competing with China. “Our country accounts for one-twentieth of global tropical wood production. This represents less than 5 per cent of the world’s consumption, whether raw or processed,” says Ricordeau. “Global production is centred in China and India, and we are far from being able to compete with them.”

The financial cost of conservation measures and the effect of Chinese competition

Environmental standards, taxes and directives intended to protect forests have multiplied over the last 30 years. In 2018, for example, President Ali Bongo Ondimba wanted all Gabonese forest concessions to be certified by the NGO Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). This comes at a high cost for local companies, which must then hire experts, often European, restart the inventory of operations, invest in employee training, etc. “We are being asked to take care of the forest at our own cost without receiving anything in return,” says Ricordeau.

These costs come on top of the cost of inflation. “The only thing that is not rising is the price of wood,” says the SIAG president. Between 2002 and 2022, while the price of pick-ups soared from 5 or 10 million CFA francs (or US$8,000 to US$16,000) to an average of 20 million CFA francs (US$32,000), the price of wood rose much more slowly. A cubic metre of okoumé, the most produced wood in Gabon, sold for 70,000 CFA francs (US$112) in 2002; today, it sells for only 90,000 CFA francs.

“The result is that we don’t have enough money to ensure production, storage and delivery. That’s why all the national companies have been bought up primarily by Chinese and Indian investors,” he says.

Chinese companies own a quarter of the forest area exploited in Gabon. According to the NGO Brainforest, these investors bring with them a qualified workforce according to their standards, thus eliminating local jobs. “With the exception of a few companies such as Honest Timber Gabon, whose ratio of Gabonese employees is very high (80 per cent) compared to that of foreigners, including Chinese (20 per cent), all other Chinese companies essentially employ nationals of their own country and a marginal number of Gabonese.”

Promises made by the international community

The burden of environmental measures on the timber industry and the unfair distribution of the profits generated by the exploitation of forest resources were at the heart of discussions at the One Forest Summit, held in Libreville on 1 and 2 March 2023. Several promises were made at the summit.

International companies such as Eurazeo, Eramet, Flying Whales, Touton and Valgo committed to creating 10 million jobs in sustainable tropical forest management by 2030. However, no details were given on where and for whom these jobs will be created.

A €100 million fund, 50 per cent of which is financed by France, will help set up a mechanism to compensate countries that are exemplary in forest conservation. Countries that receive financial assistance from this fund will be issued ‘biodiversity certificates’, which they can exchange for financial compensation from governments or companies that wish to offset their greenhouse gas emissions.

These proposals will allow Gabon to be remunerated for its environmental efforts and could offset the costs of meeting international environmental requirements. However, states have no obligation to redistribute the resources, which can then be reinvested as governments see fit.

This article has been translated from French.