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The Guardian: Chop and change

The Guardian: Chop and change

Wednesday June 16, 2004

Gabon’s forests are some of the most pristine in the world for both wood and animals. John Vidal reports from Makokou on the battle to prevent logging companies from destroying this area of natural beauty

Kong Chiong Lok – known as “King Kong” – is the face of the global logging industry; a middle-aged, cheerful Malaysian working right on the equator deep in the Gabonese forests, cutting African wood with American machinery to make flooring and plywood for the Chinese and European markets.

His company, Bordamur, the biggest logging firm in the world, has already stripped much of Malaysia and the Solomon Islands, worked its way through large parts of Cameroon and Papua New Guinea, and is now deep in Russia, Guyana and the Congo basin – the largest and most biodiverse forest left intact in the world, excluding the Amazon.

As one of two Bordamur concession managers in Gabon, Kong’s job is to legally extract the most valuable timber from a vast 1,000 sq km rectangle of the 32,280 sq km Minkébé forest, populated by elephants, gorillas, buffalo and antelope. In seven years, Bordamur has constructed more than 250 miles of logging roads, taken out approximately 500,000 of the biggest and best trees, and next year will move on to its slightly smaller neighbouring concession, on the edge of the Minkébé national park, which covers 23% of the forest.

According to Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth International and the Environmental Investigations Agency, Bordamur has a poor record in its global logging empire. In Indonesia, it is accused of using the army to threaten local communities; in Russia, it has been fined repeatedly for violations of regulations and environmental laws; and in Papua New Guinea, it has been accused of human rights abuses on many occasions. In Gabon, however, it is widely considered to be the most responsible of all the companies.

Kong sits swotting mosquitoes in his spartan logging camp as his colleagues watch videos. “Wood from Gabon is the best in the world,” he says. “The trees are huge here. There are so many varieties, and they are so colourful. But it is becoming very expensive. The government taxes the land, the trees and exports. It costs $60 a cubic metre just to transport the wood to Libreville [the capital], and then the shipping costs have doubled in the past few years.”

He invites us to go with Filipino surveyor Arnelio Mallari 40km from the camp into an area of virgin forest that Bordamur is working. Waiting for us is a gang of Gabonese loggers. Felix wields the chainsaw and Eric drives the “dosser” – a small bulldozer. Together, they crash their way 1km from the road into the undergrowth, heading for a previously identified, 30m high, 1.2m diameter okan tree, used in China for railway sleepers and cheap flooring.

Eric starts cutting. Within five minutes, the tree has fallen, with a terrible crash, nowhere near where it was intended to go, felling or splintering 10 other smaller trees. Light floods in to the forest and, for more than a minute, it rains leaves, bees and birds’ nests. The silence is immense – but it lasts only a few seconds because Eric and the dosser move in fast.

Eric is a maniac on the dosser. His machine whirls like a dervish, churning up the orange earth, ripping out yet more trees, and clearing the land to put a chain around the fallen okan. In just a few minutes, he has dragged it to a clearing with 30 other similar sized logs. He and Felix are paid according to how many cubic metres of wood they fell in a day – they can earn $100 in a good week – and they head on, deeper into the forest, for their next log, a huge 40m high Moabi tree, whose fruit is eaten by elephants, which disperse the tree’s seeds in their dung.

The process is called selective logging, but it’s hardly sustainable. Research suggests that about 15-20% of the forest is completely destroyed just getting out the three or four trees that are felled on average in each hectare. No replanting is done and the foresters work only to the market, taking out whatever trees they have orders for.

Five years ago, there was huge demand for Gabon’s redwoods; now Bordamur is returning to previously logged areas to harvest the paler species that only a few years ago was considered unsaleable. As world demand rises, and especially as China develops, other, cheaper woods are becoming saleable and the forest is being systematically logged out.

“First, we cut the best quality for the European market, the next best goes to the Asian market, and the Chinese take the worst,” Kong says. “The market decides what and when we take the trees. We don’t clear fell. In Papua New Guinea, where we had problems with indigenous peoples, we could take out 30-40 trees a hectare. Here, the market is more difficult.”

The small trees will grow again. In a few years, it will be inpenetrable jungle here. Except that none of the large trees will be left. “Never again the big trees,” Kong agrees. “Part of me is sad about this, too. But it’s sad, too, that the concession areas we have are not big enough.”

Over the course of the next 30-50 years, 83% of Gabon’s pristine forest will be selectively logged, mainly by European-based companies – some of which have been fined substantially for running logging operations in protected areas and taking illegal wood, such as ebony. Pauwel de Wachter, Minkébé project leader for WWF Gabon, says that the scale of the logging is going to be shocking. Gabon, he says, has anything up to 17,000 elephants living in its forests, more even than in Kenya. “The whole forest will change immensely and inevitably,” he says.

The good news is that, two years ago, in a move that surprised many people, President Omar Bongo decided to create 13 large national parks, covering 11% of the country. Some overlap existing logging concessions, but conservationists welcomed the initiative, which is backed by at least $5m as part of the Congo basin initiative that was announced at the Johannesburg world summit in 2002. Two weeks ago, Bongo was invited to Washington to meet President George Bush.

According to both the WWF and Shell Gabon, the country’s forests have remained intact largely because of oil, discovered more than 25 years ago off the coast. As with many other oil-rich developing countries, most of the government’s energies went into developing the oil sector, and timber exploitation was not seen as a priority; from more than 80% of Gabon’s national income, it accounts for only 13% now. Three million tonnes of wood are exported a year, but this is expected to increase as the oil dries up. Compared to Cameroon and Congo, De Wachter says that there is little illegal forestry.

The park authorities, the WWF and the government have drawn up a legal document, which has been signed by Bordamur and local villages, to try to prevent hunting in the forest by gangs of professional hunters, goldminers and forestry workers. Bush meat is a popular source of food, especially for the thousands of people who work for the logging companies, and WWF now employs a team of seven “eco-guards”, who are allowed to stop and search vehicles, and confiscate any illegally-killed animals and unlicensed guns. Villagers are now allowed to hunt only on foot within 20km of their villages. De Wachtel hopes to sign up all logging companies working near the park.

Bordamur is happy with the arrangement. “It is good for us”, says Kong. “Workers always complain, but we say that when they hunt they don’t work. This is good for everyone. I don’t mind national parks. It is good to conserve forests, too. No more wood in Malaysia, all national parks now. So we come here.”

http://society.guardian.co.uk/societyguardian/story/0,7843,1239235,00.html

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