Central Africa's "Most Beautiful Waterfall" Under Threat

Nadine Stella
Friday, November 2, 2007

Originally published in Inter Press Service

Kongou has apparently been earmarked as the site for a hydro-electric dam to power the Bélinga project, a 3.5 billion dollar initiative to mine iron ore in north-eastern Gabon that is being carried out with financing from Chinese firms in a consortium headed by CMEC. Work on Bélinga is scheduled to get underway before the end of the year, with the first cargo of ore making its way to China by 2011. China will be the sole client of the project, which also involves the construction of 560 kilometres of railroad and a deepwater port. In addition, some 30,000 jobs are said to be in the offing.

Such figures understandably galvanize politicians in a country looking to diversify its economy in the face of dwindling oil revenues, long the economic mainstay of Gabon. But, conservation groups fear the construction of a dam at Kongou, located in the Ivindo National Park, could have a negative effect on this forest environment. While an official decision on the hydro-electric site is still pending, Brainforest -- a non-governmental organisation (NGO) based in the Gabonese capital, Libreville -- claims in the Sep. 1 issue of 'Brainforest Info' that the director-general of energy and hydraulic resources has confirmed the choice of Kongou.

The concerns of the conservation groups were laid out in a document presented to President Omar Bongo towards the end of September under the auspices of a coalition called Environnement Gabon (Environment Gabon). The groups question why a decision on dam location appears to have been made before an environmental impact assessment of construction was undertaken, as required by law. The statement further calls on the Ministry of Mines to make public the feasibility study which indicates that about 30,000 jobs stand to be created. Of these jobs, it asks, "how many are reserved for the Gabonese, when we know the natural tendency for Chinese firms...to bring in, extensively, workers from their country...?"

Furthermore, "if we consider the state of impoverishment of most Gabonese, in spite of significant oil, mining and logging revenues, we may think that it will be the same for revenues from the iron exploitation of Bélinga!" Gabon's oil sector has been surrounded by allegations of corruption, and claims that oil revenues have not fully benefited the country's citizens. "It is difficult to trace how oil monies have been spent -- even for the International Financial Institutions," notes a 2003 report from the global aid agency Catholic Relief Services, titled 'Bottom of the Barrel: Africa's Oil Boom and the Poor'. According to the document, "Gabon was the epicenter of a string of scandals associated with (French oil company) Elf Aquitaine throughout the 1990s, including allegations of hidden oil deals and the use of its banks for massive money laundering linked to French politicians and party financing...".

Conservation groups suggest that the dam rather be built at the Tsengué-Lélédi falls, a site recommended in a study dating back to the 1960s that was carried out by Electricité de France (Electricity of France), a public enterprise. They claim that construction of the dam at this site would be cheaper, and more beneficial for local communities. The Tsengué-Lélédi falls are located outside the Ivindo park. But, they are also further away from Bélinga -- an added distance that will increase project costs, says Mines Minister Richard Auguste Onouviet. He claims that about 1.2 billion dollars are needed to build a dam at Tsengué-Lélédi and 435 million dollars to conduct electricity from this location to the Bélinga mine, compared to 754 million dollars for construction at Kongou. Other points raised in the September statement include concerns about how the contract for the Bélinga project has yet to be made available for public consideration.

Bongo has been angered by the campaign for greater scrutiny of Bélinga. The project has become the centrepiece of his latest term in office, which began in January 2006 (the 72-year-old leader has been in power for 40 years). Government reportedly views the environmental groups as puppets for Western multinationals opposed to China's exclusive involvement in the project. The head of state has also issued warnings to NGOs and foreign governments which "dream of making Gabon a mere animal sanctuary, to the detriment of its development, noting that "no matter what happens, no matter what is said about this, Bélinga will go ahead!"

In addition, officials are encouraging demonstrations in support of the Bélinga project. These have taken place throughout the country under the slogan "Bélinga Will Go Ahead". But, says the Environnement Gabon statement, "The question is not whether this iron mine must be exploited or not, as it will be exploited at some time or other." "The question is rather how will this exploitation be carried out? In a completely uncontrolled way and going against a policy of sustainable development? Or, in a way that is transparent, considered and that meets the criteria of sustainable development?"

Certain environmentalists believe that construction of the dam will also lead to the declassification of Ivindo National Park, opening the door to commercial exploitation of Gabon's 12 other parks. These reserves were only created in 2002, when government made a decision to set aside about 10 percent of national territory for conservation. The country's sole national maritime park, a home to whales and marine turtles, is already under threat: a permit has been issued to the Chinese petrol firm Sinopec to prospect for petrol in this conservation area. In a development that may have given hope to conservations groups, Deputy Environment Minister Georgette Koko recently ordered Chinese investors to stop work on a road leading to the Kongou falls that was linked to the hydro-electric project.

The Sep. 1 issue of 'Brainforest Info' includes a copy of what the NGO claims is the letter that initially authorised the road, signed solely by Onouviet. Brainforest points out that any such activities in a national park need to be given the green light by the environment ministry, and alleges that certain government departments are encroaching on others -- in defiance of laws stipulating the responsibilities of each minister.
For their part, the Chinese companies funding Bélinga have remained silent. Trade between Africa and China has increased substantially in recent years as the Asian giant has turned to Africa in search of raw materials to fuel its economic growth. However, China has been accused of disregarding human rights and environmental concerns in its efforts to secure African resources. Gabonese NGO representatives have agreed to take part in a commission that has been put in place to address the Bélinga controversy. But, they say they will not allow themselves to be silenced on this issue.