By Chris Lang
Recently Gabon became the first African government to be paid supposedly for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. Gabon received US$17 million as part of an agreement between Gabon and the Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI). The deal was signed in 2019 and could see Gabon receiving a total of US$150 million over ten years. The money comes from Norway.
Sveinung Rotevatn, Norway’s Minister of Climate and Environment, commented,
“It is extremely important that Gabon has taken this first step. The country has demonstrated that with strong vision, dedication and drive, emissions reductions can be achieved in the Congo Basin forest.”
The payment is for the years 2016 and 2017.
Gabon is not “simply slowing deforestation”
Lee White, Gabon’s Forestry Minister said,
“We are working with partners to develop payment mechanisms that will enable us to stabilise forests and reverse deforestation and forest degradation in HFLD (high forest/low deforestation) countries, rather than simply slowing deforestation.”
White is correct that Gabon isn’t “simply slowing deforestation”. Tree cover loss in Gabon, according to Global Forest Watch, has been less than 0.1% per year between 2001 and 2012. Since then it has increased, reaching 0.2% in 2014. Part of the reason for the increase is that since 2011, the government has promoted the development of oil palm plantations in the country.
(Gabon uses a different methodology to Global Forest Watch to measure greenhouse gas emissions from its forests. Gabon’s Proposed National REDD+ Forest Reference Level is outlined in a 151-page long report, submitted to the UNFCCC in February 2021.)
Joe Eisen, executive director of Rainforest Foundation UK, pointed out to Climate Home that CAFI handed over the money “without the Gabonese government necessarily having taken any action whatsoever to reduce deforestation”.
Eisen added that,
“While increased finance for forests and the communities that inhabit them is urgently needed, this payment risks being as much a PR exercise as it is for actual and verifiable reductions in deforestation. If anything, this seems like ‘payment for non-performance’.”
In an interview with Bloomberg Green Lee White acknowledged that Gabon is not actually reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. “We’re trying to push the idea, rather than pay us for reducing emissions, pay us for absorbing emissions,” White said.
And after Gabon received the money from Norway, White went on CNN and gloated that Gabon had succeeded in being paid, in effect for doing nothing:
“The great thing about this agreement with Norway is that they validate the systems that we’ve put in place over the last decade to monitor forests and to quantify our carbon emissions. And so we can now show with confidence that Gabon is absorbing net 100 million tons of CO2 every year. We’re absorbing almost a third of the UK’s annual emissions and we’re doing that by preserving the rainforest and preserving all of the wildlife and the ecosystem services that go with that.”
Marc Ona Essangui, executive secretary of Brainforest, told Climate Home that CAFI’s press statement is “false advertising”. Gabon and CAFI signed an agreement in 2019, three years after the start of the period for CAFI’s “results-based payments”.
Marc Ona said,
“If we were going to reward the result of Gabon’s policies, then payment by results should start from 2019, when we are able to follow the evolution of the situation.”
African Conservation Development Group
Gabon has handed over 731,000 hectares of the country to a company called African Conservation Development Group. The company used to be called SFM Africa, and claims that it will develop this land “sustainably” for commercial agriculture, forestry, and tourism.
African Conservation Development Group was founded by Alan Bernstein, who was also a founder of Sustainable Forestry Management Ltd, a company incorporated in the Bahamas in 1999. Sustainable Forestry Management was part of a web of offshore companies involved in selling carbon credits, transfer pricing, and tax avoidance.
Bloomberg Green reports that logging will take place on one-third of the land on a 25-year cycle. In theory, tree growth will exceed the amount of timber removed. One-third of the land will be protected and will generate carbon offsets.
100,000 hectares will become a cattle ranch, and another 23,000 hectares will be converted to a sugar plantation. Bernstein writes that this will take place on “largely degraded grasslands”. The project will cost US$250 million in the first five years. African Conservation Development Group is working with Pollination Group, a climate change advisory and investment firm that was registered in the UK in March 2019.
In January 2021, African Conservation Development Group started construction of a 24-bed luxury safari lodge in Loango National Park. The only access to the lodge is by aeroplane. It is the first of a series of safari lodges that African Conservation Development Group plans to build in Gabon’s national parks.
Bernstein is also a founder of Conservation Corporation Africa, that develops luxury safari lodges and camps in Africa, Asia, and South America, under the name &Beyond. According to a 2019 article in Bloomberg, a week’s stay at one of &Beyond’s lodges in South Africa would set you back US$8,800. That’s per person.
Olam Gabon: 40,000 hectares of forest cleared
In 2016, Brainforest worked on a report published by Mighty Earth titled “Palm Oil’s Black Box: How agribusiness giant Olam’s emergence as a major palm oil trader is putting forests in Southeast Asia and Gabon at risk”.
In May 2020, Etelle Higonnet, then-Senior Campaign Director at Mighty Earth, said that, “Olam cleared nearly 40,000 hectares of Gabonese rainforest to make way for vast oil palm and rubber plantations in Gabon.”
The Forest Stewardship Council has an on-going investigation into Olam’s operations in Gabon.
Timber exports from Gabon hit the headlines
A few weeks before Gabon received US$17 million from Norway Lee White visited the port of Owendo. He was there to observe the largest shipment of timber in the country’s history. White supervised the loading and shipment of 26,000 cubic metres to China.
White told the website HumAngle,
“This is a historic shipment because it is the largest timber shipment in the history of Gabon. This demonstrates that in spite of the COVID-19 health situation, the forestry industry continues to wax strong and exports to China have started spiking. That gives hope.”
Hope for the logging industry, perhaps.
In mid-June 2021, police in Rotterdam seized 820 cubic metres of azobé sawnwood. The International Timber Trade Organization reports that the timber was “said to have been shipped from Gabon and Cameroon”. The timber was seized because the importer could not provide documents to satisfy the EU Timber Regulation.
Norway’s REDD payments to Gabon are remarkably similar to the payments it made to Guyana – another “high forest low deforestation” country. In a 2019 paper about the failure of Norway’s REDD payments to improve the way Guyana (mis)manages its forests, Andrew Hook of the University of Sussex concluded that,
the programme would always have fallen short of the kind of paradigmatic shift implied by the grand policy rhetoric because it was never equipped to re-fashion the socio-ecological relationships underpinning Guyana’s resource-based economy.