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Gabon appoints popular environmentalist, ‘Mr. Green’ as new forestry minister

Lee White, who has lived in Gabon for three decades and is a citizen, takes over one of the most sensitive jobs in the country.

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Gabon appoints popular environmentalist, 'Mr. Green' as new forestry minister
Newly appointed Gabon Minister of Water and Forests, British Lee White was, before his appointment, the head of Gabon's National Parcs (Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux, ANPN). -(AFP)

Here’s your new job: You have to protect the country’s precious tropical forests. You have to stop illegal logging and fight the entrenched corruption backed by powerful forces which goes with it. By the way, you are a committed environmentalist — and you are foreign-born.

This is the challenge facing Lee White, a green activist born in Britain, who this week was named minister of water and forests in Gabon.

Related: Gabon vows no mercy over $250 million hardwood theft

White, who has lived in Gabon for three decades and is a citizen, takes over one of the most sensitive jobs in the country.

Long-running tensions between logging and conservation have been sharpened by corruption and falling revenues from oil, Gabon’s main money-earner.

“My appointment was a surprise for many people here,” White admitted in an interview with reporters after President Ali Bongo Odimba appointed him on Monday.

He said Bongo had asked him to “put an end to bad practices… (as well as) the corruption in the ministry”.

Related: Mystery in Gabon: Illegal haul of sacred wood disappears

White acknowledged the scale of the tasks ahead.

“We have to sustainably manage the Gabonese forest to improve the living environment of the Gabonese people, to stabilise its natural treasures and to preserve our ecosystems,” he said.

Almost 80 per cent of Gabon is covered by forests.

The forestry sector is a historic pillar of the economy, accounting for 17,000 jobs and 60 per cent of output excluding oil.

About a quarter of Gabon’s population live in rural areas, and many people depend on the forests for food and livelihood.

At the same time, the forests themselves are a treasure trove of biodiversity, much of it rare or endangered. 

Gabon appoints popular environmentalist, 'Mr. Green' as new forestry minister
Tropical forest exploitation, Gabon. Biosphoto / Jean-Francois Noblet

Related: Gabon threatens crackdown over theft of sacred wood

They are a haven for great apes, forest elephants and the black panther, as well as rare species of trees, some of them giants towering up to 60 metres (200 feet) high.

Manchester-born –

White, 53, was born in the northwestern English city of Manchester but grew up in Uganda — in a biography he recalls fighting at school with the son of former dictator Idi Amin.

In 1989, he arrived in Gabon, where he studied for a doctorate in zoology.

He took up Gabonese nationality in 2008 and the following year took over as head of the National Parks Agency (ANPN), a massive conservation project of 13 wildlife zones set up by the late president Omar Bongo, the incumbent’s father.

He was decorated by Queen Elizabeth II in 2010 for his dedication to nature conservation in Central Africa.

Lee’s high-profile defence of the rainforest and wildlife — often with the verdant Raponda Walker Arboretum near Libreville as a backdrop — made him a familiar face in the national media, which dubbed him “Monsieur Vert” (“Mister Green”).

Bongo turned to him for the job after firing the last forestry minister over a timber-smuggling scandal.

Related: Gabon’s president sacks vice president and forestry minister

Analysts say the job will require remarkable skills, juggling tact and principles, as well as rock-solid support from the top.

“This appointment can only be good news for protectors of the environment in Gabon,” said Gaspard Abitsi, director of a US-based NGO, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), in Gabon.

“He is perfectly familiar with the challenges of conservation on a national and international level.”

Graft –

Others are more cautious about the prospects of reform.

“There are enormous management problems at the ANPN, and this agency only accounts for 10 per cent of the land,” said Marc Ona, president of an NGO called the Brainforest Association and a member of the opposition.

“From now on, Lee White will have to manage all of the forests in Gabon… If he hasn’t succeeded at the ANPN, why would he succeed with the whole expanse of the territory?” 

“The problem,” said Ona, “is not which individual heads the ministry but the whole forestry system, which is corrupt.”

In a report issued in March, a British NGO, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) pointed the finger at a Chinese group, Dejia, which has wide-spreading logging interest in the Congo Basin.

Gabon appoints popular environmentalist, 'Mr. Green' as new forestry minister

It accused the firm of exceeding its logging quotas and spinning a web of patronage extending to ministers as well as the opposition.

The then forestry minister, Guy Bertrand Mapangou, initially lashed the report as biased and “inquisitorial” and seeking to “discredit” the country.

But within weeks, the government suspended Dejia’s licence at two logging sites.

Related: Gabon recovers 200 containers of rare hardwood, 153 still missing

On May 21, it fired Mapangou and Vice President, Pierre Claver Maganga Moussavou over the so-called “kevazingogate” scandal.

In February and March, authorities had seized nearly 5,000 cubic meters (176,000 cubic feet) of banned kevazingo wood — the equivalent of about 150 large container-loads, valued at around $8 million (seven million euros).

The contraband timber was found at storage sites belonging to Chinese companies at Libreville’s Owendo port — some of it disguised in containers bearing the stamp of the forestry ministry.

Related: 30 containers of kevazingo seized in Gabon

Kevazingo, also known as bubinga, takes many years to mature. Logging the wood is illegal in Gabon, but the temptation to flout the ban is huge. In Asia, kevazingo can fetch up to $2,000 per cubic metre.

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Gabon’s Ali Bongo vows to “complete mission” despite health challenges

Bongo said he was “fiercely determined” to push ahead with a campaign against graft

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Gabonese President Ali Bongo vows to "complete mission" despite failing health

Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba on Wednesday completed a decade in office, vowing to push ahead with economic reforms and an anti-corruption drive despite questions over his health after suffering a stroke nearly a year ago.

“I feel good. And feeling better and better each day,” Bongo said in an interview published on Wednesday in the pro-government daily, l’Union. 

“I will complete my mission.”

Bongo said he was “fiercely determined” to push ahead with a campaign against graft. Government departments have been shaken up in recent weeks with a string of top-level changes.

“Mistakes were made in the past, but they won’t be able to be made again in the future,” Bongo said.

“Over time, the standards I require of government members has increased while my level of patience has fallen,” he said.

During his months-long absence abroad for treatment, speculation over Bongo’s fitness surged and the army quashed a brief attempted coup.

At one point, his spokesman was forced to deny rumours that Bongo had died and been replaced by a lookalike, while opposition members made an unsuccessful attempt to have a court assess whether he was fit to rule.

Since returning home, Bongo has attended several well-scripted public events, but every appearance is widely scrutinised for any signs of any disability.

READ: Gabonese President Bongo undergoes ‘routine medical checks’ in London

Nostalgia for father –

The drama has played out against the backdrop of a stuttering economy in the country of two million. 

Bongo initiated an array of major infrastructure projects after coming to power, such as new roads and stadiums, which drew on a flurry of investment from China.

But oil prices slumped after 2014, provoking an economic crisis and discontent, although the country’s political opposition is fractured.

There is widespread nostalgia for the free-spending reign of Bongo’s father, Omar Bongo Ondimba, who ruled the country for 42 years until his death in 2009, when he was succeeded by his son.

“Gabon has fallen into deep sleep,” said 33-year-old Gael Ndong, reflecting a commonly-expressed opinion.

“It was better before.”

“Ali Bongo has never enjoyed the legitimacy that his father was able to have,” said Florence Bernault, a professor of sub-Saharan history at Sciences Po in Paris.

His reputation was further battered after elections in 2016 marred by deadly violence and allegations of fraud, she added. His current term ends in 2023. 

READ: Gabon’s Ali Bongo makes post-stroke appearance

Diversify –

Under Bongo senior, Gabon became an oil major. Today, hydrocarbons account for 80 per cent of exports and almost half of GDP.

Under Bongo junior, the government is trying to diversify the economy, turning to managed forestry, minerals and other underdeveloped sectors to pick up the slack.

But the president’s vow 10 years ago to place Gabon on the path to emerging nation status remains “far away” from attainment, said Gabon economist Mays Mouissi.

Gabon may rank among Africa’s most prosperous countries but still badly lacks adequate roads, hospitals, homes and schools.

“Bongo did not know how to efficiently use the oil wealth he benefited from at the start of his first term,” said Mouissi, describing the “lost decade” as a wasted opportunity. Joblessness among the young is more than a third.

Bongo, in Wednesday’s interview, argued the reforms are “beginning to bear fruit.”

READ: Ali Bongo joins independence celebration in Libreville

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) this month predicted growth will reach 3.4 per cent this year compared with 0.8 per cent in 2018, although “ambitious macroeconomic measures and far-reaching structural reforms” were still needed.

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Doctors in DR Congo to deploy second Ebola vaccine in November

It will arrive in the eastern city of Goma, in North Kivu province, on October 18 and be used from the beginning of next month

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Doctors in DR Congo to deploy second Ebola vaccine in November

Doctors will use a second Ebola vaccine from November in three eastern provinces in the Democratic Republic of Congo to fight the deadly virus, medical officials said Sunday.

“It’s time to use the new Ad26-ZEBOV-GP vaccine, manufactured by Johnson & Johnson’s Belgian subsidiary,” said Dr. Jean-Jacques Muyembe, who leads the national anti-Ebola operation in the DRC. 

It will arrive in the eastern city of Goma, in North Kivu province, on October 18 and be used from the beginning of next month, he added.

READ: Uganda begins trial of “MVA-BN” Ebola vaccine

DRC’s latest Ebola epidemic, which began in August 2018, has killed 2,144 people, making it the second deadliest outbreak of the virus, after the West Africa pandemic of 2014-2016.

Muyembe said the communes of Majingo and Kahembe had been selected to receive the vaccine as they were considered the epicentres of the epidemic.

“We will extend this vaccination to our small traders who often go to Rwanda to protect our neighbours,” he added.

“If it works well, we will expand vaccination in South Kivu and Ituri.”

DR Congo’s eastern provinces of Ituri, North Kivu and South Kivu sit on the borders with Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.

The Belgian laboratory will send a batch of 200,000 doses to neighbouring Rwanda and 500,000 doses in the DRC, Muyembe said.

READ: Kenya becomes 3rd country to adopt world’s first malaria vaccine, RTS,S

More than 237,000 people living in active Ebola transmission zones have received a vaccination produced by the pharma company Merck Sharpe and Dohme since August 8, 2018. 

The J&J vaccine had been rejected by DRC’s former health minister Oly Ilunga, who cited the risks of introducing a new product in communities where mistrust of Ebola responders is already high.

But Ilunga’s resignation in July appears to have paved the way for approval of the second vaccine. He currently faces charges that he embezzled funds intended for the fight against Ebola.

READ: Doctors Without Borders accuses WHO of rationing Ebola vaccine in DR Congo

In his letter of resignation, Ilunga said “actors who have demonstrated a lack of ethics” want to introduce a second vaccine, but did not elaborate. 

Muyembe, who took over the Ebola fight in the DRC in July, said “The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has the most science-based data.” 

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Official cargo plane of DRC goes missing with 8 aboard

The plane, carrying four crew and four passengers, was “providing logistics” for the president,

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DRC cargo plane goes missing

A cargo plane that was providing logistical assistance for a trip by DR Congo President Felix Tshisekedi has gone missing, the country’s Civil Aviation Authority said on Friday. It said air traffic controllers lost contact with the Antonov 72 on Thursday, 59 minutes after it took off from the eastern city of Goma.

The plane, carrying four crew and four civilian and military passengers, was “providing logistics” for the president, the authority’s director general, Jean Mpunga, said in a statement. The aircraft, carrying six hours worth of fuel, had been scheduled to land in the capital Kinshasa in the late afternoon.

Mpunga said air traffic control centres on its intended route have found no trace of the plane, and a search operation has been ordered. Tshisekedi returned to Kinshasa on Thursday evening after a four-day visit to the east of the country.

Aircraft accidents involving Antonovs are common in the Democratic Republic of Congo, sometimes involving a large loss of life. In September 2017, an Antonov cargo plane chartered by the army crashed near Kinshasa, killing all 12 people on board.

The country’s deadliest Antonov disaster was in January 1996 when an overloaded plane overshot the runway in Kinshasa and crashed into a popular market, killing hundreds on the ground.

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