In June 2021, Gabon became the first African country to receive payments for reducing emissions through forest protection.
The central African country has just over 2 million population and 88% of its territory is forest cover. Gabon received $17m from Norway in a deal brokered by the Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI) in 2019 through which Gabon will receive about $150m over ten years.
The payment, according to CAFI, was based on independently verified evidence of reduced deforestation and forest degradation in 2016 and 2017.
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Gabon has shown commitment to conserving its forests over the years. Its rainforest has survived largely intact in contrast to the clearing, logging and overhunting of large expanses of tropical rainforest that go on in central and western Africa.
With an annual deforestation rate lower than 0.1% (data from the National Climate Council), Gabon is the second most forested country in the world (87% of its territory). It now has 13 national parks and its forests are home to about 60% of the critically endangered African forest Elephants.
Gabon’s forests have survived due to factors like low population, and the country’s dependence on oil. Oil accounts for 80% of exports, 45% of GDP, and 60% of fiscal revenue. However, as the potential of oil dwindles, Gabon is looking to diversify its economy through a low-carbon pathway.
Alvina Owono Essono is the CAFI Assistant Programme Coordinator at the National Climate Council. According to Owono Essono, the Emerging Gabon Strategic Plan (PSGE), “aims to develop the agricultural sector, meet national needs and benefit from its agricultural potential”.
“The diversifying the economy vision also involves the development of the industrial sector, the strengthening of infrastructures, equipment and services. These sectors require the creation of large areas of land and can impact on the forest cover,” Owono Essono continued.
As a result, the possible limitation to forest conservation in Gabon is that it “continues to be at the expense of the country’s economic development.” This is why it is important to “find financing mechanisms that allow Gabon to implement a Low Emission Development Strategy.” Results-based payments (PBRs) are relevant financing mechanisms to help implement this type of strategy.
This is where the CAFI initiative comes in. CAFI, established in 2015 at the United Nations General Assembly, serves as a Trust Fund supporting direct investments in central Africa. It also is a political negotiation platform that aims to drive high-level policy dialogue.
Lee White, the Minister of Water, Forests, Seas and Environment, said in a CAFI report that “this first payment of ODA financing will finance projects that preserve Gabon’s forests. It also supports Gabon in finalising the systems that will enable the country to formally sell carbon credits in the future.”
Intact tropical rainforests across Africa are vital to reducing carbon emissions from the atmosphere. Scientists believe rainforests remove 1.1 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year, a rate which is three times the UK’s CO2 emissions in 2019.
Gabon’s forests make up 12% of the Congo Basin’s rainforests. They absorb 100 million tons of carbon dioxide annually, according to data from the National Climate Council.
Curbing deforestation is one of the most cost-effective solutions to reducing carbon emissions and consequently global warming.
According to Professor of Global Environmental and Climate Governance Chukwumerije Okereke, the payment “demonstrates an understanding of the value of African forests. It also shows the role forest conservation can play in tackling the problem of climate change.”
He added that this also shows that international collaboration is key to solving climate change.
However, Okereke was not sure of whether the high price is worth this approach to forest protection.
Rights of communities
Professor Okereke also worries whether the deal respects the local communities. He worries about indigenous communities not having adequate knowledge of this deal. In additon, Okereke wonders whether the deal protects their interests sufficiently or even harms them.
Owono Essono explains that Gabonese legislation recognises the right of local communities and the public to engage in the forest sector.
She explained that government instituions consult local communities when a forestry project might impact their livelihoods. “The State ensures that the projects go ahead without deteriorating the populations’ subsistence conditions,” stated Owono Essono.
The National Land Allocation Commission (CNAT) brings together a range of actors from sectors directly involved in this area. The Commission ensures the technical and legal feasibility of land allocation and conflict resolution. The CNAT has the possibility to involve civil society organisations in its work in an advisory capacity.”
Marc Ona is the Executive Secretary of the Gabon-based NGO Brainforest. One believes that the government engages with local communities “to please the international financial bodies.” But in practice, he affirms, “the government is reluctant to implement them.”
According to Ona, the government has organised public consultations “just to have a sign-up sheet and justify consultations with communities.” Ona is sceptical towards this approach to forest protection in Gabon.
The principle of free, informed and prior consultation stipulates that if communities oppose a project, the project must either be reviewed or cancelled. However, in Gabon, the communities are consulted once the project has been planned. Thus, “this intimidates communities into accepting the projects with the argument that ‘the land belongs to the state’,” Ona added.
The limits to an effective forest protection in Gabon are “linked to corruption within the administration,” continued Ona.
The second limitation is how communities are regarded. “While their knowledge is an asset, their activities are perceived as an obstacle,” he said.
Nevertheless, the payment for forest protection in Gabon is a positive development. Africa’s forests are important to fighting climate change. But all too often these forests are threatened and depleted due to economic reasons. Paying countries to keep their forest intact, therefore, provides an incentive to fight climate change.