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Gabon's tricky balancing act with a growing timber industry and the environment

Posted November 1, 2019 9:53 a.m. EDT
Updated November 1, 2019 10:32 a.m. EDT

— It's a tiny country in West Africa, but 80% of Gabon is covered in tropical rainforests, which has given rise to the country's second highest export -- timber.

The country manufactures and exports veneer, thinly sliced hardwood that is laid over produced wood to give furniture, cabinets, and floors a polished look.

Gabon is the second most forested country in the world, according to Lee White, the country's Minister of forests, who says the country has ambitious targets to meet with its natural resources.

"We produce about 500 million euros of timber exports. Our vision is to get to five billion euros over the next 6 years," White told CNN

Fighting climate change

But beyond exporting large quantities of wood, Gabon wants to ensure it does not damage its rainforests and the environment while at it. In September Gabon received $150 million in international funds to preserve its rainforest.

Using the funding, Gabon will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and battle deforestation.

For many years, the country has been a leader in Africa in preserving its rainforests.

In 2010, it banned the exportation of all logs as a way of protecting the country's natural resources and to prevent the waste of raw materials.

And in April, it imposed another ban on three highly priced wood species to protect its processing sector.

Gabon also established its first national park system at the 2002 World Summit in South Africa.

The park system consists of a network of 13 parks. One of them, Lope-Okanda national park, is listed as a UNESCO natural heritage site.

Depleting natural resources

Besides these regulations, timber companies operating in the country are under pressure to comply with the international Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) regulations.

The regulations revolve around ensuring that the forests of the world meet economic, social and ecological needs without depleting natural resources. The country also hosts more than 50% of the surviving forest elephants on the continent, which the Central African forest initiative (CAFI) has described as a "key indicator of sound natural resource governance."

Henri-Roland Michel of Precious Woods, Swiss-owned, producers of tropical hardwood in Gabon, says FSC regulations have 10 worldwide standards that must be adhered to.

"You have ecological aspects, financial aspects and the basis of these ten points: every year, you have some accredited auditors of the FSC Organisation that come and visit Gabon and they audit," he told CNN.

Some of the regulations include creating a due diligence system for timber companies to evaluate their suppliers and specification of the age range for personnel involved in hazardous work.

The FSC certification will be mandatory for all players in the timber sector by 2022 says White, Gabon's Minister of forests.

Illegally logged wood

Despite the effort to improve the country's forest industry, Gabon still faces hurdles.

In June, following a scandal in which nearly 5000 cubic meters of illegally logged wood were found at Owendo Port in Libreville, the country's former vice president and the former forest minister were fired.

White, who was appointed in June this year, says there is still room to grow the sector. And one of the ways is through transforming wood into furniture and other similar products, which he is doing with Gabonese owned companies such as Gorilla In & Out Furniture.

The garden furniture company ships its products around the world with distributors and in European countries and Mexico, the company told CNN.

White says with companies like this Gabon is able to create thousands of much needed jobs in the forests sector.

And while it is a delicate balance protecting the country's natural resources while boosting the economy, Gabon appears to be leading the way on the continent.

"I think maybe for the rainforest countries, we are on the frontline of maximizing the value of our timber such that we maintain the forests," White says.

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