Gabon sets example of how to preserve the Congo Basin rainforest

In a thick tropical rainforest in a tiny country in Central Africa, a guide pauses next to a huge tree. The Niove tree, he explains while cutting 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 off his hand, Abdul Koumangye, a ranger at the Pongara National Park in Gabon, thanks the tree for allowing him to slash it and patches it back up.

“We have to take care of the trees because they have souls,” he told Al Jazeera. “We exist in perfect harmony – the trees breathe in our carbon dioxide”.

The tree is just one of the thousands of species found in the Congo Basin rainforest, the world’s second-largest one 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 form part of the rainforest like Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo struggle with conservation due to a lack of funds or rebel groups.

Gabon, on the other hand, claims it has preserved its natural environment with satellite imagery and environment-first policies – and some industry insiders agree.

“Between 2010 and 2020, Gabon only lost approximately 12,000 hectares (29,652 acres) of forest which is less than 0.1 percent per year,” said George Akwah Neba, the coordinator of the Congo Basin Programme at the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

“We’ve seen a huge regeneration of degraded forests since the early 2000s with several courageous decisions that set Gabon apart as a leader in environmental and forest management policies”.

Using satellite imagery 

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 the COP27 (United Nations Climate Change Conference), in Egypt in November. Experts say that Gabon will use the conference as an opportunity to position itself as a model country for preserving rainforests, which cover 88 percent of the country.

One of the chief challenges in the Congo Basin is putting an end to illegal logging.

In 2009, President Ali Bongo automatically assumed 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 enabling environment for widespread human rights violations and corruption in oil-rich Gabon, civil society and experts groups say.

Dozens of foreign companies pay corrupt officials bribes to tear down vast areas of rainforest that is home to endangered forest elephants and gorillas. Most of the wood will end up as furniture in houses in the US, Europe or Asia as companies find ways to conceal the origins.

But in Gabon, satellite imagery is used to track down and bust illegal loggers.

“If we see suspicious activity we alert the authorities,” said Larissa Mengue, an engineer at AGEOS, Gabon’s satellite observation centre.

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