CENTRAL AFRICA: Logging threatens Gabon’s forests

Gabon's forests are being threatened by a handful of logging companies which export primarily one species of trees to only a few countries around the world, according to the first report to present up-to-date and peer-reviewed information on the logging industry in the country.

“Gabon has vast forest resources but the rapid growth of logging activity threatens it,” said Bruno Mikissa, one of the authors of the report. Last week, a British newspaper revealed that tropical forests are also under threat from bribery of government officials by multinational companies, pressure on developing countries to repay debt and misdirection of EU funds (see related story).

While the report, A first look at logging in Gabon, estimates that at least two-thirds of Gabon’s original forest is still untouched, the actual extent of current forest cover is unknown. In 1995, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation estimated that it was around 18 million hectares, compared with Gabon’s total land area of 26.8 million hectares.

According to the report, published by the World Resources Institute (WRI) as part of its Global Forest Watch (GFW) initiative, exploitation of the country’s forests will continue to grow as the country’s oil revenues decline. It is estimated that at the current rate of clearing, Gabon will lose half its forests over the next 100 years.

In 1957, fewer than 10% of Gabon’s forests were allocated as logging concessions. Today, more than half are allocated as logging concessions and these areas have more than doubled in the last five years. In 1997, 221 companies and individuals held logging concessions, of which 13 companies held 50% of the total area or about 21% of the total forest cover. Today concessions cover half of the county’s forest areas.

Gabon’s logging industry is heavily dependent on one species of tree, the Okoumé. More than 90% of the county’s log production is exported, with 73% of this being Okoumé . Found only in Gabon and parts of the Congo and in Equatorial Guinea, Okoumé is primarily exported to make plywood, although recent uses have been in the National Library of Paris and the Eurostar Train.

“To maintain current Okoumé production levels, Gabon can no longer rely on establishing new concessions in previously unexploited regions,” warned Omer Ntougou of Global Forest Watch – Gabon. Most of the forest which contains Okoumé are already covered by logging concessions.

The new Forestry Law, first proposed in 1997, can provide an opportunity to help rectify the problems that face forestry by setting new standards for better natural resources management, according to the report. If these are enacted and implemented it is believed they would represent a first step towards managing forests for long-term gain, rather than short-term profit.

Gabon’s forests contains some of the Congo Basin’s most biologically diverse and most threatened forests. The Congo Basin’s tropical forests, which covered more than 198 million hectares in 1995, are the second largest contiguous rain forests in the world after those of the Amazon. It runs through six Central African countries, including Gabon.

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