Q&A with Gabon’s environment minister, Lee White


  • There are limits to the potential of ecotourism to meet development needs, says Gabon’s environment minister.
  • Beneficiation of timber and controlled, selective logging means fewer trees can be cut while the people of Gabon benefit from higher earnings and more sustainable jobs.
  • FSC certification and tighter controls at Gabon’s port, along with stiffer minimum sentences for corruption and audits of logging companies will curb illegal operations.

DURBAN, South Africa — Lee White was appointed minister of water and forests, the sea and the environment, in charge of sustainable development objectives and the land use planning for Gabon in June 2019. The UK-born biologist was previously head of the Central African country’s national parks for 10 years. He spoke with Mongabay on the sidelines of the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment in South Africa in November 2019. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Mongabay: The government of Gabon talks about the importance of its rainforests and the need to conserve them in the same breath as it talks about developing its timber sector. Are these two things compatible?

Lee White: I’ve spent most of my life trying to keep trees standing. I even worked for Prince Charles and his rainforest project, when he was trying to convince the world to make trees more valuable alive than dead. That was the beginning of the UN’s REDD (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) climate change mitigation process.

Now part of my remit is to cut trees down. The question is how do you do that sustaianbly.

Gabon is 88 percent rainforest. In percentage terms, we are the second most forested country on the planet, behind Surinam, who have 92 percent. We have a lot of protected forests. We have protected the most biodiverse parts of our forest, what we think has the most tourism potential and the most important ecosystem services, such as providing water to hydroelectric dams.

But we can’t develop our country, which is almost all forest, through eco-tourism alone. Some NGOs say: you should not log tropical forest, you should do eco-tourism; you should not plant oil palm, you should do eco-tourism. But eco-tourism requires spectacular features… incredible wildlife. While we have spectacular features and amazing wildlife to attract tourists, there are obvious limitations to how scalable eco-tourism can be in a densely forested nation such as ours.

There are only so many places you can do eco-tourism. And there are very few examples, maybe Costa Rica is a slight exception, of countries that have developed entirely through eco-tourism. It’s just not impossible.

So we have to find a way to make the forests valuable. I must prove to you, if you are a potential buyer of a beautiful table from Gabon, that the table is legal and it’s sustainable. In return, I expect you and the rest of the world to place real value on this beautiful, precious resource. We plan to market Gabonese wood as a premium, sustainable resource, so that we can command a premium price for it.

Timber exported by the Wan Chuan Timber SARL, seized in Belgium in July. Photo: Philippe Verbelen/Greenpeace

What do you mean by sustainable logging?

Back in 2001, Gabon passed a law that obliges logging companies to do sustainable logging. Before that, we were a country that was cutting trees down with no plan whatsoever.

When I did my PhD [1989-1992], the forestry companies I met were mostly run by French people, mostly mechanics from the south of France. In those days forestry was mostly about maintaining bulldozers. So they were mechanics who enjoyed the life in Africa. They did not have maps or management plans, they just cut trees down.

Most of the French people said to me they had been in the Ivory Coast. Pretty much every single one of them said to me, over a Ricard, an aniseed drink, that they were obliged to leave the Ivory Coast because the government had mismanaged its forests. Ivory Coast ran out of trees, today it has only 3 percent forest cover. Eighty percent of its protected areas have been deforested.

My vision of horror talking to them was that in 20 years time these guys were all going to be in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), telling the same story, saying, ‘We were in Gabon, it was a lovely country, the government mismanaged the country and we were forced to move to the DRC.’

When Ali Bongo was elected president in 2009, he banned the export of unprocessed logs. He said, ‘For 120 years you have been ripping timber out of my country and it has been seen as this cheap resource of unprocessed natural resources.’ According to the forestry law, by 2009 they should have been processing 70 percent of their timber in-country, but they were only at 15 percent.

So he banged his fist on the table and said, ‘OK: 100% processing in Gabon, you may no longer export raw lumber.’

Everyone said he was crazy, what a silly idea it was… but the president stuck to his guns. It hurt us at first. A lot companies went out of business, some did not want to invest in processing. We lost about half of 15,000 forestry jobs. But today we are up to 27,000 forestry jobs. So that has doubled the number of jobs and tripled the contribution of forestry to GDP over eight to 10 years.

We were exporting 3.5 million cubic meters of unprocessed timber in 2009, and last year we harvested 1.6 million cubic meters. So we are harvesting half as much timber and we are making three times as much money and have created twice as many jobs.

So, on the win-win thing: it’s a work-in progress. We continue to open more processing factories and interest from companies wishing to invest in timber processing, particularly at our specialized timber processing export facility at Nkok, is growing. A lot of what we were exporting was plywood and sawn timber, but now we are starting to export furniture, doors and window frames. We have gone from no processing to producing more and more value added. It’s creating more and more jobs.

If you sell raw lumber, as Congo and Cameroon do today, you tend to make an average of US$200 a cubic metre. If you turn that same wood into parquet flooring or window frames or chairs and tables you are easily going to get up to US$2,000 and for the precious woods, like bubinga, that markup can be even more, very significant.

You are making the resource more valuable and it’s going to push us to manage our natural capital with much more care. Because if we manage it well, then we can continue to make this furniture into the future. If we manage it badly as many countries have done, then we lose that potential for a renewable forest economy.

Currently we have 23.7 million hectares of forest. The forest economy is about US$800 million today, about 15% of GDP, and it’s increasing every year. If you look at Malaysia, it has 21 million hectares; it makes US$3.6 billion from its forestry and they have 321,000 jobs. So we’re doing something wrong.

But is the Malaysian forestry model sustainable?

They are not necessarily our model. They import a lot of wood and have both natural and fast-growing plantation forests. But it gives an indication. If you are going to do a sustainable harvest of a particular species of slow-growing hardwood, you might have to have a very long rotation. If you only have precious hardwoods you are limited in how you can process it. But if you can cover cheap eucalyptus wood with just a slice of beautiful hardwood veneer, then your hardwood goes a lot further and you can make a lot more from your forests.

So, it seems counterintuitive, but I actually believe if we can make the forests more valuable in this way, we can make it more interesting for the government and for the Gabonese people to maintain those forests.

The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) exposed a Chinese company, WCTS, as extracting timber over quota, evading tax, using cover companies. What is your government doing to stamp out illegal timber harvesting and exports?

The EIA did an investigation between 2015-2017. As head of the national parks, I worked with them on that investigation.

It was a perfect storm in a way: When we banned the export of unprocessed timber, these Chinese companies had been making 30-40% profit. Suddenly they had to find ways to maintain their profit margins because they were not interested in long-term sustainable investments. They were looking for 30-40% you want in Africa because of the politics and instability and so on.

The only way they could find to maintain those margins was to go corrupt, to go illegal. We did not predict that. We did not reinforce the forestry police. We caught up partly with the help of the EIA.

They came to me with the first films they made in 2016.We went into the fields, into the forestry concessions to check whether what they were saying on the tapes was true.

WCTS is a good example: within their management plan they had defined the area that they were going to log over 25 years. Every year there is an area that is mapped where they should be active. What we found was that they were going through their 25-year rotation in eight years and they were also cutting undersized trees.

The jobs for the people of Gabon in that region, which would have been sustainable for 50 years, would only have lasted for eight years because this company was trashing the forest.

When I did the calculation for all this illegal logging, for the years 2015-2017, we had 15 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions we had not accounted for in Paris.

Our president announced in 2017 we would insist on Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) certification for all forestry in Gabon by 2022. That was the first step in our response to this increase in illegal logging.

Transporting timber. Image by JBDodane via Flickr (CC BY-NC-2.0)
Transporting timber. Image by JBDodane via Flickr (CC BY-NC-2.0)

How do you actually make that happen? Presumably Gabon is constrained by its own lack of finance, for enforcement and monitoring… How do you make it work in practice?

It’s my job to make it work. My predecessor and the vice-president of Gabon were fired in May 2019 because they didn’t make it happen.

All of the timber has to be processed and it goes out of two ports in Gabon, Libreville and Port Gentil. Overland timber is not an issue, 99% goes through the ports. So if you reinforce the control in the ports and if you have a dynamic state prosecutor, which we do right now, who has support from the president and the prime minister… Instead of just leaving customs and forestry to deal with it on its own. We brought in the police and we put in mixed teams with close supervision.

We did an investigation about three months ago, we seized about 10,000 cubic metres of illegal timber in the port. We passed a new penal code about two months ago which is extremely tough on corruption in government, including minimum sentences of 10 years in prison, which wasn’t the case in the past.

We have made it very clear it’s a government priority. The prime minister has just launched a big anti-corruption campaign.

By controlling the ports… we won’t allow any timber out the port unless the timber companies can prove where it came from and that it was legal. This has slowed all this illegal export down and we are now auditing all these companies to see which are the good ones and which are the bad ones. We are going through a process so that by the end of 2020 will have got rid of most of the illegal logging. We will have EIA come back in and audit us and see how we have done. In fact, they have already been back to monitor.

Banner image: Aerial shot of Nyonié, Gabon. Image by Christian Vigna via Wikicommons (CC BY-NC-4.0)

Matthew Hattingh co-directs Roving Reporters training programme, Developing Environmental Watchdogs.

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This story first appeared on Mongabay

South Africa Today – Environment

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