Gabon: Mining, dams and repression

‘It’s fantastic, the forest, fantastic. There is peace, tranquillity, one breathes in the freshness - no pollution and it’s magnificent. If we destroy this forest, we will have aggression from everywhere that will reach the wider population’, Marc Ona Essangui, President of Brainforest and winner of the 2009 Goldman Environmental Prize.

The small village of Mananga lies next to the Ivindo River in Ogooué-Ivindo province, north-eastern Gabon. The 150-strong Kwélé population of Mananga are hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists but their main livelihood is fishing. Further downstream, 200 predominantly Kota people live in the town of Loaloa. Like the Kwélé, the residents of Loaloa have always been dependent on the natural resources of the Ivindo River and forest, particularly the prime fishing waters of the Kongou falls. Kota people also have a spiritual and cultural connection with the river where Assayoko, a protective genie, resides. Two different ethnic-minorities in two different towns but linked by a reliance on the Ivindo River for livelihoods and by the fact that this livelihood and their traditional lands are threatened by the Belinga iron ore mine and its associated hydroelectric dams.

Gabon is one of Africa’s richest countries with a wealth of natural resources, such as iron, oil, timber and hydropower. Yet, it is the political elite President Ali Bongo Ondimba, his friends and family who have profited from exploiting the country’s natural resources over the past 40 years;  local communities who live in areas rich in natural resources have not felt the benefits.

Iron ore reserves were discovered in Belinga in 1895 but the area is so far largely untapped. But in 2008, China Daily reported that the China National Machinery and Equipment Import and Export Consortium (CMEC), financed exclusively by the Export Import Bank of China, had signed a 25-year agreement with the Gabonese government to develop a mine, and build two hydroelectric dams to power the mine, a railway line and a deep-water port to transport the iron ore to China.

A good deal for China, but what would this mean for the Gabonese outside of the political elite? For the Kota and Kwélé, who had already suffered restricted access to natural resources following the creation of the Ivindo National Park on their lands, this would mean more upheaval given that one dam would be situated on their favourite fishing ground, the Kongou falls.

Any hope that investment would benefit local peoples by addressing problems of inadequate housing, a lack of infrastructure and poor access to healthcare and electricity were promptly crushed. A report by environmental NGO Brainforest, argued that the project would result in mass deforestation, displace people, and that pollution of rivers through mining would threaten the health of local communities through poisoning fish and drinking water. The report called for transparent discussion between the Gabonese government, CMEC and local communities and guarantees that the local communities would genuinely benefit from the project. However further investigation uncovered that the agreement between CMEC and the government not only guaranteed that China would benefit from 90 per cent of the wealth that the mine generated but also that the amount of land leased to CMEC was far more than necessary for the Belinga project.

In 2009 the terms of the agreement with CMEC were altered to award Gabon greater economic benefits and forest protection, which would positively affect the Kota and Kwélé. It appeared that media and international pressure founded upon Brainforest’s report had been victorious. However, in 2011 Reuters reported that Anglo-Australian giant BHP Billiton were in talks to secure permission to develop the mine. It appears to be a case of one step forward, two steps back for the minority groups affected by the Belinga project; if another deal is reached it seems inevitable that they will have their lives, livelihoods and natural resources snatched from beneath their feet.

Daniel Openshaw

Photo: Canyon Blanc, Gabon. Credit: huguesn

For more information, look out for MRG's State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012 report (published 28 June).

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Date: 20/06/2012




State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012
Indigenous Peoples
Natural resources
Land Rights

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