- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 25, 2001

LOPE RESERVE, Gabon Every day, National Route 1 rumbles under the weight of Gabon's rain forests being slowly hauled away.
The sound of a seemingly endless stream of enormous trucks carrying 40-foot logs out of the forests is enough to make conservationists shudder. But it's also a sound that makes clear just how complicated environmentalism can be in this part of the world.
"It's too easy to say loggers are bad and we are good. You can't paint it as a black-and-white thing," said Lee White, a British ecologist and zoologist who has spent more than a decade working in the Lope Reserve, a 2,000-square-mile protected island of equatorial rain forests and rare wildlife.
Faced with balancing the threat to rain forests and animal species with the need for one of the world's poorest regions to create jobs, conservationists in central Africa are turning to an unlikely ally for help the timber industry.
It's a move that angers some in the conservation movement, but to scientists like Mr. White, it's the only choice left.
"We're all aware that logging is going to go on," said Mr. White, a scientist with the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (https://wcs.org) who has been in the forefront of working with logging companies. "You're not going to set aside all of Gabon as a protected area."
With that in mind, environmentalists like Mr. White have begun working closely with timber companies. They negotiate land swaps with loggers, keep track of long-term logging plans, and even arrange purchases of timber concessions for particularly valuable areas.

Where wildlife is tame
Some of the most pristine wilderness left on earth is in this part of Africa, small enclaves in Gabon, Congo and Republic of Congo so isolated that animals in some places have no fear of humans. They don't know enough to fear them; they've rarely seen people before.
Footage shot by the few scientists who have made it to these areas show entire families of gorillas perplexed but seemingly unconcerned staring back at the sudden human interlopers.
Throughout much of the forest, the profusion of plant life blocks out the equatorial sun, allowing only a gentle light onto the animal trails that cut through the trees. The forests are filled with wildlife: gorillas, deer, buffalo, various varieties of monkeys and birds, chimpanzees and spectacularly colored mandrills.
Other than a handful of scientists and the occasional eco-tourist, the only signs of human life in the Lope Reserve are the crumbling remains of ancient iron furnaces, mounds of dirt a couple feet across that mark where long-gone forest people made their tools.
It's from the air, though, that the true vastness of the wilderness can be seen, and it becomes apparent why people could think the forest would last forever and why it took so long before the fighting over Gabon's rain forests grew bitter.
From 2,000 feet up, an ocean of green stretches to the horizon in every direction. Thin logging roads, orange-red ribbons that cut through the trees, are all that interrupt the view. And even then, not very often.
But the areas open to logging in Gabon have increased dramatically in the past few decades. Where most of the country was once protected, now most of it is available as timber concessions.

Economic pressure rises
Until recently, the modern world had little interest in reaching the most pristine areas, which are in the deepest recesses of the forest and often cut off by small mountains and swamps.
But with rain forest timber growing ever scarcer, and with the price of oil, the main export for many central African nations, far below its peak, isolated sections of timber are looking increasingly profitable.
Roads are moving deeper and deeper into the forests, and the pristine enclaves are growing rarer. More and more, the thin strips of dirt road lead past vast areas of stripped forest, laid bare by chain saws and bulldozers.
The reason is simple: money.
The nations of central Africa may be rich in natural resources, but they're far from affluent. Poverty is the norm across the region, and the life expectancies are often 25 years below what they are in the West. The Congo has been ripped into feuding territories by war, and the Republic of Congo endured its own bloody civil war in the late 1990s. Gabon's economy stumbled badly as the price of oil fell.
As a result, the timber industry its profits and its jobs has grown increasingly important. In Republic of Congo, for instance, timber companies employ 10,000 people and bring in 7 percent of foreign earnings, the second-most important sector of the economy after oil.
Such numbers leave these countries with a fairly simple equation, even for the people dedicated to protecting the environment: "It is impossible to protect all the tropical rain forests in Republic of Congo, because the country needs to develop," said Marcel Nguimbi, a government wildlife conservation officer.
In early July, about 100 square miles of Republic of Congo rain forest was declared protected land in an agreement reached by government officials, the Wildlife Conservation Society and CIB, a German logging company.
The Goualogo Triangle, as it's called, has some of the highest densities of gorillas, chimpanzees and forest elephants in central Africa. It also contains large tracts of mahogany and other valuable hardwoods that, if harvested, could bring about $1.5 million a year into the country's fragile economy.

Husbanding nature's capital
Speaking at a New York news conference announcing the agreement, CIB President Hinrich Stoll said that the trees in the Goualogo were worth about $40 million and that the company was "giving up one of the richest places on earth."
"The forest is the capital of Congo and we need to use it, but we need to use it in a sustainable way, and that's what we're trying to do," he said.
Some in the timber industry have decided that being environmentally friendly can be good for profits. Environmentalists say part of the reason loggers have been willing to work with them is because they want to be identified as "green" companies, avoiding negative publicity or even boycotts for having run afoul of the conservation movement.
While seemingly illogical at first glance, careful logging can help protect natural areas, scientists say.
In West Africa, which is much more heavily populated than the center of the continent, most protected wilderness areas are little more than isolated islands of trees surrounded by farms and villages. Too small to support much wildlife, and under unrelenting pressure from nearby villagers who use them for hunting and firewood, these wilderness areas turn into forested patches of ecological emptiness, largely devoid of animals.
Long-term logging plans, though, which carefully prescribe cutting in timber concessions in 30-year-long cycles, can create semiforested buffers, separating true wilderness from villages and towns.
"I really think you can establish a synergy between protected areas and logging," said Mr. White. "Elephants can walk into logging concessions without being shot migratory birds can cross the forest and go back."
Last year, the Wildlife Conservation Society made big news in environmental circles by helping arrange a deal that traded away about 260 square miles of the Lope Reserve where a confusing web of legislation and old agreements still allowed logging in some areas to a timber company. In exchange, about 160 square miles that had been set aside for logging was added to the reserve along its southwestern boundary. In addition, logging was forbidden throughout the reserve.
Mr. White believes that while the Lope lost about 80 square miles in total area, the reserve came out the winner, gaining "one of the most pristine blocks of forest in Gabon."
From his research station, a series of wooden buildings overlooking the forest and the base from where a generation of scientists have done their fieldwork, Mr. White pointed south, toward that pristine block he helped trade away. "It's about 25 days walking that way. That's the only way to go there."
But the deal infuriated some of the most strident anti-logging conservation organizations.
"We weren't sure what was really traded was like for like," said Simon Counsell, director of the Rainforest Foundation in Britain (https://www.rainforestfoundationuk.org).
Mr. Counsell also believes such agreements give too much positive publicity to logging companies, which are, in many cases, already legally bound to take care of any land where they work. "The public are expected to applaud the timber [companies] for doing these things, but the law says they have to do them anyway," he said.
To Mr. White, though, dealing with timber companies is something that has to be done and done now before the forests are stripped away. Ask him whether it bothers him, and he replies like the realist he is.
"I like wood. I really like a nice wooden table," he said. "These countries have to make money somewhere."

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide