China's Sinopec 'illegally' destroying Gabon
These investments have been greeted with enthusiasm by many but in the West African state of Gabon, the activities of a Chinese oil company have created uproar among donors, conservationists and even within the government itself.
In 2002 Gabon designated a quarter of its territory as nature reserve - a move designed to protect 67 000km2 of mainly pristine rainforest that is home to a wealth of plants and animals.
Four years on the government of President Omar Bongo, who has ruled the country for nearly 40 years, has run into its first major conflict of interests involving one of these nature reserves.
State-run Sinopec, the largest refiner in energy-hungry China, has been prospecting for oil in the Loango national park in southern Gabon and has employed methods that critics said respect neither the law nor the environment.
The company, which has declined all comment on the affair, was ordered by Libreville this month to halt all prospecting activities in the park. But the embarrassing case continued to cause upheaval in a country torn between the pressure to develop and the pressure to preserve its natural heritage.
The problem began before the summer, when teams from a US environmental organisation, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), accused Sinopec of abusing its oil exploration licence in Loango.
Far from protecting an area lauded in travel magazines as "Africa's last paradise", Sinopec was accused of dynamiting and polluting the park, tearing up the forest to create roads and generally destroying the habitat on which Loango's plants and animals survive.
In addition, WCS accused the Chinese company of acting completely illegally because the environmental impact study it was obliged to conduct in Loango had not been approved by the Gabonese environment ministry.
"This study is completely phony," said one observer, who asked not to be named, "and Sinopec's activities in Loango are therefore illegal".
In early September a government delegation visited the park and confirmed that Sinopec was guilty of several of the abuses logged by the WCS in its report on the company.
The affair has aroused fury and concern among Gabonese conservation bodies.
"What is happening in Loango calls into question all the commitments that Gabon has made to protect the environment," said Nicaise Moulombi, head of group Croissance Saine Environment (Healthy Growth - Environment).
"It proves that our authorities prefer the immediate gains obtained from oil to the long-term gains obtained from conservation," added Marc Ona Essangui from Brainforest, another non-governmental organisation.
The scandal has also sparked anger among Gabon's international donors who include the European Union, France, the United States and the World Bank, which has earmarked $10mn for Gabon's nature reserves.
In a letter addressed to Gabon's forestry minister, Emile Doumba, the donors recently complained that Sinopec's activities "pose a threat to the biology and tourist potential of Gabon's parks and to the credibility of the government and recommend that oil exploration there be halted".
The scandal has even caused tensions within the government itself.
"What Sinopec is doing is unacceptable," Doumba said. "If we find a huge reserve under a park we're not going to ignore it, that's for sure," he continued. "But I think it is better to favour the long term and the development of ecotourism, which has considerable potential in Gabon."
After lengthy discussions, the national parks council has finally ordered Sinopec to halt its exploration activities and WCS reported that it had begun this week to pull its workers out of Loango.
While they were celebrating this conservation victory, environmentalists fear this conflict would be only the first of many to come as the Chinese firms try to secure resources for its rapidly expanding economy.
An immense iron ore mining project was about to get underway in Belinga, northern Gabon, and it was also being run by a Chinese company.
"If Sinopec can get away with this in Loango, we risk seeing a whole
string of abuses in Belinga," one conservationist said. "We don't intend
to stop Gabon exploiting its underground resources but it has to show a
good example by enforcing its own laws." Sapa-AFP
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