Marc Ona Essangui, who won the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2009 for his fight to preserve the Ivindo National Park in Gabon, talked to GoodPlanet Info about his association’s (Brainforest’s) activities and especially, the part it played in the Belinga affair. This name refers to a mining industry project to build a mine, a dam, a railway, a road and a deep-water port at the heart of the Ivindo National Park in the North-East of Gabon near the Kongou Falls which are amongst the most beautiful in Africa.
Marc Ona, you are the president and co-founder of the NGO Brainforest. Where does the name “Brainforest” come from?
It is Giuseppe Vassallo, an Italian friend of mine with whom I co-founded Brainforest, who chose the name. He thought that the forest acts as a brain for the planet just as the brain does for the body. He was actually the one who created Brainforest in 1998. He literally fell in love with the Kongou Falls in the North-East of Gabon, and he wanted to create Brainforest to preserve them. When he died in 2000, I took over. He also wanted the Gabonese people to carry on his work. And today, our mission and our actions go beyond protecting the Kongou Falls and the Ivindo forest. We are now active in three main areas: forest management, the exploitation of natural resources and governance.
Forest management, the exploitation of natural resources and governance are exactly the three components of the Belinga affair. Why were you opposed to this project?
In 2007, the Gabonese government concluded a mining convention with the Chinese company CMEC to exploit a very large iron deposit, in Belinga, in the North-East of the country. However, this contract included the construction of a mine as well as a dam, a railway and a deep-water port right in the middle of the Ivindo Park near the Kongou Falls. Such constructions are a significant threat for local populations and ecosystems and they would have had irreversible effects on the region’s environment. Moreover, CMEC has already built a road up to the Kongou Falls, in total violation of Gabon’s Environment Code which means poachers now have access to areas which had been protected up until then. As an environmental protection NGO, it was our duty to denounce these risks.
This is why you fought for the project to be suspended and the convention between the government and the CMEC to be revised. How did you go about doing this?
When we got a copy of the convention in 2007, we discovered that no environmental impact assessment had been undertaken for the mines, the dam, the railway or the deep-water port. The Gabonese people had also not been informed of the consequences of the Belinga project, nor had they been consulted as stipulated by Gabon’s Environment Code. We also discovered that the contract included clauses that were much more favourable to the Chinese party than to Gabon. For example, it was stipulated that CMEC would be granted a 25 year tax exemption and that Gabon would only receive 10 % of the exploitation’s profits. We then found out in the course of our investigations that only a few ministers had been involved in signing the agreement and that the vast majority of the government, including the president, Omar Bongo, had not heard of it. When we revealed the contract’s contents to President Bongo, he immediately summoned the ministers involved and decided to suspend the project.
But your success did not stop there.
Indeed, following our efforts, the government renegotiated more favourable terms for the exploitation contract of the Belinga mine and a new convention was signed on May 24, 2008. It included the creation of a social and environmental technical monitoring committee, and reduced the surface area which was going to be used to build the dam from 7 700 to 600 km2. It was already a first victory for us and the whole of Gabonese civil society but we are still being vigilant.
In this affair, your campaign was therefore beneficial to Gabon. However, you spent thirteen days in prison at the end of 2008 beginning 2009. What is your relationship with the government?
It isn’t exactly perfect but it has improved slightly. Now, the government no longer considers us as spoilsports. The Belinga affair legitimised our existence in its eyes. It realised that we were not here to constantly oppose all its decisions and that our actions could be useful for the whole country. Moreover, we are not against a foreign company coming to exploit Gabon’s natural resources. We know that this is how the country’s economy will develop. However, we want the government and the Gabonese population to benefit from the ensuing revenue and the environment to be taken into account correctly and protected appropriately.
Propos recueillis par Benjamin Grimont