Gabon’s Lords of Poverty

Published on Pambazuka News, by Khadija Sharife, Jan. 27, 2011.

A multi-billion dollar iron ore deal involving lifetime dictators and a system of power through patronage makes for a toxic mix that is bad for the people of Gabon, writes Khadija Sharife.

Gabon’s Ba’aka pygmy population may soon be saying au revoir to smoked fish and nihao to tofu, if the $3.5 billion Belinga iron-ore mining deal, awarded to a Chinese consortium in 2006, goes off without a hitch. The ore, billed as one of the world’s last remaining major untapped deposits, was first discovered in 1885 in a remote forested region located in the Ogooue-Ivindo province, and is estimated to hold one billion tons of ore with iron content of 64 per cent … //

… But profits from finite resources are largely derived from taxes – including mineral tax (royalties), and corporate tax, via region-specific resources. Meanwhile, the proposed 26,850 jobs appear unlikely to materialise as China’s leitmotif is generally to export Chinese labour, save that of mining. Transmission lines, supplying power to end destinations, often amount to half the project’s costs, bypassing populations in favour of mining facilities. 

The proposed Kongou Dam, situated in the Invindo National Park – Gabon’s share of the Central African rainforest, inhabited by unique and endangered species such as the forest elephant – jeopardises the ‘ecological commons’, primarily used by indigenous people for survival and income. Long before environmental impact assessments (EIAs) were conducted, China began paving the 42 km road to Kongou Falls, facilitating poaching, wildlife trafficking and the logging of one of the world’s last remaining ancient rainforests and carbon sinks absorbing 20 per cent minimum of emissions annually. The letter of agreement was signed by Gabon’s Mines Minister Richard Onouviet.

What does Gabon and the world stand to lose?

The subsidy, according to 40 years of research conducted in Gabon by fellows from the University of Leeds, is economically valued at £13 billion each year. Globally, the Central African rainforest is second only to the Amazon. Ironically, the loans violate China Exim’s own social and environmental guidelines -article six and 12 – referring to social, ecological, employment, security, health, migrant and land acquisition.

Thanks to a network of local civil society groups, headed by Brainforest, a Gabon-based NGO environmental organisation, China Exim appears to have postponed financing until China National Machinery and Equipment Import and Export Corporation (CEMEC), is investigated for alleged ecological violations. Brainforest’s efforts have resulted in concessions initially marked at 5,000 square kilometers reduced to the actual size required: 600 square kilometers.

But Belinga remains the only hope for the export earnings required by Bongo and Co., as well as resource-hungry China.

‘Whatever happens and whatever anyone says, Belinga will go ahead,’ stated Omar Bongo in 2007.[8] Bongo Sr’s extraordinary ability to undermine and ‘purchase’ opposition parties has rendered Gabon a nation of imprisoned citizens, lucubrating the fiction of ‘flag independence’ – a situation benefitting the ‘khaki coup’ of Bongo Jr. in the recent elections.

Yet Beijing’s footprint, if properly engaged, may just be the catalyst needed to inspire a movement toward liberation from internal and external colonialists, whatever the skin color.

(full text).

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