In Gabon, Activists Challenge Chinese Mine

Marc OnaSix relatively unknown grassroots activists from around the globe receive a moment in the spotlight when the Goldman Environmental Prize announces its list of annual recipients. The prize, now in its 20th year, is considered the Nobel Prize for the environment. Past recipients include Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai, former Brazilian environment minister Marina Silva, and Nigerian environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was killed seven months after his recognition.

The Worldwatch Institute is honoring this year's prize winners with a series of profiles based on personal interviews. Click here for additional profiles.

A treasure trove of iron lies beneath virgin tropical forest in the West African country of Gabon. Since the discovery of the Belinga deposit in 1895, the infrastructure costs required to tap the ore, one of the last major undeveloped iron reserves in the world, had scared away investors.

But three years ago, Gabon's future appeared set to change.

In 2006, a Chinese-owned consortium, CMEC, agreed to provide $3.5 billion to develop the Belinga mine as well as associated roads, rail, seaport, and a hydroelectric dam. The support seemed like a blessing for impoverished Gabon, until media reports revealed that the country would receive only 10 percent of the mine's profits and that CMEC would receive a 25-year tax break.

Moreover, CMEC was granted 7,700 square kilometers for the mining operations, even though only an estimated 600 square kilometers were considered necessary for development, according to Marc Ona Essangui, president of the Gabonese environmental group Brainforest.

"We didn't understand why the government gave this area to the Chinese company," said Ona, who obtained the leaked contract and distributed it to the press. "The reality is that President [Omar] Bongo didn't have the right information about this contract."

The project, as originally designed, would have inundated more than 5,000 square kilometers of Gabon, displacing upstream villages and threatening several nearby protected areas. The country's gem, Ivindo National Park, was put at risk in 2007 when CMEC began constructing a road directly through the reserve. Hunters have already used the road to access and poach formerly sheltered forest elephants, Ona said.

Ona, who was honored last week with the 2009 Goldman Environmental Prize for Africa, is credited for his government's decision last year to revise the deal so that Gabon receives greater economic benefit as well as enhanced forest protection.

"Without Marc and his colleagues at Brainforest, the iron ore and the dam would likely be under construction with devastating impacts on the environment, little benefit for Gabon's population, and long-term risks for the Chinese investors," said Peter Bosshard, policy director at the environmental group International Rivers.

Ona's efforts to fight the multi-billion dollar contract have not been without risk. Although President Bongo appears supportive of his work, Ona accuses various government ministers of attempting to silence him. The interior minister has suspended the activities of a non-governmental coalition that Ona coordinates, and the Brainforest office was ransacked in March 2008. In December, Ona and other civil society leaders were arrested without charge. After five days in a basement cell, Ona was accused of possessing propaganda documents with the intent to incite a rebellion.

"We were arrested because of this small reason, but the real reason is that we're fighting against corruption," said Ona, who denies allegations that he seeks to start a revolution. Until his trial is held in May, Ona has been barred from leaving the country. He was arrested when he boarded his flight to San Francisco earlier this month to accept the Goldman award. The U.S. ambassador to Gabon intervened to allow his departure, Ona said.

"It's been very tough for my family," Ona said. "But they understand that I have to do this to help the country."

Ona has decided to challenge a significant new force in Africa. More than 800 Chinese companies, many of them state-owned, now operate in 49 African countries. China's direct investment in Africa is estimated at $2-6 billion annually to feed the Asian giant's expanding appetite for resources, including oil from Sudan and Angola, copper from Zambia and Congo, and platinum from Zimbabwe. In exchange, China often supports a variety of infrastructure developments.

Ona appears an unlikely character to confront powerful Gabonese and Chinese authorities. Wheelchair-bound, he contracted polio as a child. Raised in a small village 25 kilometers from the northern village of Oyem, he traveled to school on his father's back.

But the Belinga mine may not proceed due to Ona's efforts. The renegotiated contract reduced the forest area affected by the dam and road construction, limiting the project's territorial scope. But the initiative, which has not undergone an environmental impact assessment, still violates the social and environmental requirements of its Chinese financier, according to a letter Ona sent to China Ex-Im Bank [PDF] in October.

The project is now on hold, Ona said, due to uncertainty caused by the international financial crisis and Gabon's 2012 presidential election.

Ona's father promised not to abandon him when he could not walk. Likewise, Ona said that if the mine project resumes in the future, he will be sure that Ivindo park and its Kangou Falls remain preserved. "As long as Kangou Falls is still breathing, I will not leave it behind."

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at

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