Community forests in Gabon open economic pathways for locals, but future remains uncertain
The reforestation project that Mfane oversees happens for one reason only: his village, Ebyeng, now manages 1,200 hectares of forest, the stewardship of which means, at once, conserving nature and benefitting people. Repopulating their ancestral forest with species such as the Moabi, which has become almost extinct due to long term haphazard harvesting, was a priority for the villagers of Ebyeng.
"For decades this forest has been ransacked," says Mfane. "There were no rules, no control. Everyone could enter and do whatever they wanted. We are now here as guardians and we must ensure that our children and grandchildren will get to see Moabis just like we did when we were growing up."
As the first ever community forest attributed in Gabon, Ebyeng is now showing the way for responsible resource management, which at the same time yields attractive benefits for the community. On the other side of the dirt road that crosses their village, they set up a tree nursery, where they grow hundreds of seedlings they intend to sell to the logging companies operating in their province, so they too can reforest their concessions. The community also started an artisanal logging project: they cut and process the wood themselves, then they use it for building much-needed infrastructure in their village.
Although forests cover roughly 80% of the country, therefore virtually bordering the vast majority of rural settlements, community forestry is relatively new in Gabon. The law provided for it already in 2001, but the idea only started taking shape in earnest in the late 2000s, through a joint Nature Plus-WWF project called DACEFI (Développement d’Alternatives Communautaires à l’Exploitation Forestière Illégale), funded by the European Union Commission. Ebyeng opened the way, and to date is one of only three permanent community forests in the country.
Why so few community forests in Gabon?
Community forests are part of what is known as “rural forest domain,” which is very loosely defined in the legislation. Another problem stems from the fact that along the years, the government has allocated land for various land uses, including agroforestry, from the rural forest domain, thus severely limiting the areas where community forests could be established. Moreover, as the administrative process is tortuous and expensive, many communities are discouraged from even embarking on this process.
Apart from the permanent three, only a handful of other villages have so far received temporary community forest permits. One of them is Nze Vatican, which is situated about 100 kilometers away from Ebyeng, and which now manages 5,000 hectares. Here, villagers started a banana plantation, after they sustainably deforested 1 hectare. Instead of using the damaging slash-and-burn technique, the villagers cut only selected trees and left the undergrowth untouched, for proper fixing and nutrition of the soil.
Nze Vatican also runs an artisanal logging project, and they have already managed to strike a deal with a carpenter business in a nearby town to sell their wood. They estimate that their first shipment would bring the community a profit of about 3 million Central African FCFA francs (US$ 5,700). They are worried, however, about the future. Even if their permit will be renewed, they are wondering how they will be able to proceed with their activities as DACEFI is drawing to an end in December, as is all the logistical support that has been provided through the project, such as basic equipment to harvest, carry and saw the logs.
“Look around us! We are in the middle of the forest, far away from the road. How will we be able to move and process the wood?” asks one villager, Benga Lazar, explaining that buying new gear would mean an investment of about 10 million FCFA (US $19,000), which is a prohibitive sum for the village.
The residents of Nze Vatican are hoping that authorities will step in and support this and other communities in a similar situation.
“After all, this is not only our gain,” Benga says. “Community forests are the solution for Gabon. Who better to conserve the forests than us? We already have conservation in our tradition.”
For more information, contact Sinziana Demian, Communication Officer, WWF Green Heart of Africa, SMDemian@wwfcarpo.org