Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Gabon: Marc Ona Essangui -- Winner of the 2009 Goldman Environmental Prize

Photo: Candace Feit

"...this fight gives meaning to my life" -- Marc Ona Essangui, 45, winner of the 2009 Goldman Environmental Prize. Ona is president and founder of the environmental NGO Brainforest and president of the network of NGOs called Environment Gabon. Wheelchair-bound due to childhood polio, Ona also works for handicapped rights and Internet availability for Africans.


From the Goldman Environmental Prize website:
Gabon is part of the Congo Basin Rainforest, the second largest rainforest in the world... since 2002, the integrity of the national parks system has been repeatedly threatened by resource extraction and infrastructure development. Most critical is the proposed Belinga mine development project, a $3.5 billion project that includes a mine, a dam, railroads and a deep-water port facility...

a project of this scale in a national park has implications for Gabon’s wider conservation efforts, possibly leading to the declassification of the national parks system as well as leaving vulnerable ecosystems exposed to logg ing and other destructive industries...

The project highlights the growing environmental concerns about Chinese investments in the region. Many African governments are drawn to the no-strings-attached approach of the Chinese, who offer aid or loans not linked to demands for good governance, transparency or improvements in human rights, which are often required by Western governments.

In 2007, Ona located a leaked copy of the Belinga mine project agreement between the government and the Chinese company. Until then, the terms of the contract had been hidden from the Gabonese people. The contract stated that Gabon would receive only 10 percent of the mining profits while the Chinese corporation, CMEC, would receive a 25-year tax break...
...with his kids (Photo: John Antonelli)
Ona and his colleagues repeatedly called for a full environmental impact assessment of the proposed dam and advocated for an alternative site outside of the national park at Tsengué-Lélédi Falls, which they argued would be cheaper to build and of greater benefit to local communities. They also argued that the 7,700 square-kilometer Belinga concession would be excessive and would lead to damaging environmental impacts. Brainforest, along with Environment Gabon, worked to inform local communities about their rights.

Due to Ona’s efforts, the government is re-evaluating the size of the Belinga concession. The area to be affected by the dam project has been substantially reduced from 5,700 to 600 square-kilometers. The road through Ivindo Park was rerouted through less of the protected area, and President Bongo agreed to place two representatives of local NGOs from Environment Gabon on a social and environmental monitoring committee for the project.

Under intense public scrutiny led by Ona and aided by the World Bank, Gabon renegotiated the mining contract on more favourable terms in May 2008. However, the project is currently on hold, and it is unclear whether or not the Gabonese government will stand by calls for environmental responsibility and transparency.

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