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Can capitalism save the rainforests?

Can capitalism save the rainforests?

The global fight against climate change depends on us protecting the natural resources we still have left. We should be prepared to pay for that

Lopé and Libreville

Night had already fallen when the cry went up: “Elephants!” Twelve – a matriarchal family including three youngsters – have strayed into the garden of a Lopé national park hotel and are foraging in the trees beneath a street lamp for food. It is unusual to see such a large group together, and so close – but fruits are running low. Forest elephants – 90,000 of which live in Gabon, 60 per cent of all their remaining species – are going hungry. They shouldn’t be here. But then neither, really, should we.

The elephants are suffering because of the impact of humanity; because communities have cut down parts of the Congo Basin rainforest to grow crops and companies have destroyed swathes for profit; because on the border with Cameroon poachers will start gun-battles to seize their ivory; because man-made climate change is altering the forest’s ability to provide them with sustenance. Their world is shrinking because of mankind’s consumption.

Here in Gabon – on the Atlantic coast of Central West Africa – they still have a better chance than they do elsewhere. 23 million hectares – 88 per cent of Gabon’s territory – is covered in the dense and towering rainforest of the Congo Basin. One of the most intact areas of rainforest in the world, a third the size of the Amazon but here since the Pleistocene, it is one of the last refuges not only for forest elephants but also for gorillas, giant pangolin, the entire wild population of mandrills, and troops of chimpanzees who swing through the branches and race, on powerful arms, across the savannah. 

Yet this forest is at risk. Gabon’s 2.2 million human population is largely young (half are under 20), urban and poor. The government needs to create 800,000 new jobs in the next 15 years to support them. But its oil reserves, which have previously supported 60 per cent of the economy, are declining. “If Gabon is to maintain – just maintain – the quality of life here, we have to find a way to replace that 60 per cent of the economy,” says Lee White, Gabon’s minister of forests and oceans. Gabon doesn’t really have much tourism or a service sector; it has little agriculture and imports most of its food; the only industry is based on natural resources. It has little option but to look to the forests. 

Developing countries with high levels of forest often lose their canopy as their economies expand. “West Africa has lost much of its forest. Cameroon is starting to go, DRC is starting to go. It is just Gabon and northern Congo that remain,” says White. “In DRC, they are now destroying a million hectares [10,000 km2] per year.” 

If Gabon followed the same path, it would be a disaster for Africa and for the world – because the rainforest within its borders is a crucial part of the global fight against climate change. As well as being rich in biodiversity, ten years’ worth of global emissions are stored within it – that’s all the time we have left, according to the IPCC, to crack climate change – and it continues each year to absorb more, as the Amazon turns from a carbon sink to a carbon source. So much more, in fact, that Gabon takes in 140 million tonnes of carbon dioxide every year, 100 million more than it emits. 

The forest also creates clouds – great wisps of white that rise from the canopy and pour rain on the Sahel, and on the Ethiopian Highlands from where it runs down to feed the Blue Nile, sustaining agriculture in Egypt. “If you lose the Congo Basin, you also lose those ecosystem services, amongst them rainfall, so you would greatly accelerate the impact of climate change,” says White. Average rainfall in this region has already been decreasing; at the same time floods and deluges are projected by the IPCC to increase, putting homes and food supplies at risk. The impact on Gabon, White says, is existential. “If 100,000 Nigerians have to move south because there isn’t any rainfall and there is no food, then Gabon ceases to exist.”

That leaves Gabon with a mighty challenge that is, ultimately, the same that faces all of us. How can the finite resources of this Earth, in which we all have a stake but which just a few govern, be used but not consumed? How can they be simultaneously drawn upon to improve the quality of lives now, while being protected for the benefit of all life, including ever more human ones, in the future?  

Full disclosure: it’s a problem without a clear answer. But in Gabon, at least, the government offers this suggestion: “We have to make sure that sustaining the forests is the profitable way to manage them,” says White. Because if the forest goes, Gabon goes with it. And so, ultimately, will we all. 

Under grey skies, a forklift truck prises great stacks of okoume tree from a long, open train, and loads them onto a lorry. It’s just a short drive from there to one of the many factories in Gabon’s Special Economic Zone, 27 kilometres from the capital Libreville, where it will be turned into planks, plywood or unrolled into veneer.

This wood, which grows one centimetre per year, is valuable. The government wants to make more money from it, doubling the volume of wood logged in Gabon – currently, trees are only felled in half the country’s concessions, but they could be felled in all of them. It also wants to eke out more money from every tree, after banning the export of unprocessed timber in 2009. Wood now has to be turned into something else – a plank at the very least – before it can leave for France, China or elsewhere.

The policy is showing signs of economic success. Before 2009, just 8 per cent of the value of a tree was kept in Gabon, while 92 per cent went abroad. The only jobs available were low-paid – as chainsaw operators or lorry drivers. Ten years later, the country is now taking 16 per cent of the value of every tree, has three times the economy and four times the number of jobs. 

They want to take it further – transforming everything into finished or semi-finished items that could make the forest economy overall ten times bigger. In a furniture showroom, Lee White proudly shows off products favoured by the Chinese market for the red colour of the wood, and coffee tables inlaid with gold glitter.

Soon, all concessions in the country will in theory also have to meet FSC standards – that’s the Forest Stewardship Council, whose little tree logo you see on paper goods – by 2022. The standard will allow Gabon to market its tropical wood – of which western buyers are currently so suspicious that France banned all use of tropical wood in construction for the 2024 Olympics – to sell it to consumers prepared to pay a premium for sustainable products.  

In practice, Covid and a stroke suffered by the president mean that companies aren’t yet up to scratch. Most could be, by 2024 or 2025. If they are not, they will have to pay about £1.20 (900 Central African Francs) per hectare for uncertified concessions, instead of about 40p (300 Central African Francs) per hectare for FSC certified wood. That will cost the average-sized concession about £175,633 instead of £57,080. 

It’s not clear whether that will be enough to nudge companies towards sustainable foresting. It’s also strange, when planning how to conserve the rainforest, to be thinking about how to sell it. And there are good reasons to doubt the motives and expertise of the forests’ custodians. 

After all, Gabon is not a free country. It’s a place where the sons of fathers with power become powerful themselves; where elections happen but turnouts are impossibly high; where oil makes a few rich while the majority stay poor; and where a British conservationist who flicks over the badge of a policeman to reveal his name can be unceremoniously thrown into a hidden, windowless and overcrowded airport cell. According to Freedom House, “President Ali Bongo Ondimba maintains political dominance through a combination of patronage and repression.”

In 2019, the vice president and the then minister for forests and oceans, Professor White’s predecessor, were fired for their involvement in an operation smuggling kevazingo, a valuable hardwood banned for export. The Environmental Investigation Agency found that Chinese companies operating in Gabon routinely bribed officials to cut illegally sourced wood, which then ended up in US markets.

Yet, the government’s interest in protecting the Congo Basin rainforest isn’t just greenwashing. Over the course of two decades, Gabon’s presidents have consciously chosen policies that protect its rainforest – seemingly because they, too, were in awe of the life within the trees.

In 1999, two Americans – an explorer called Mike Fay and photographer called Nick Nichols – walked a slow and winding 2,000 miles through the Congo Basin rainforest to the Atlantic in an expedition called the MegaTransect. “Humans were gobbling up the forest from both sides and this was the largest still virgin stands of forest left in all of central Africa,” said Mike Fay, at a National Geographic event in 2018, to explain his motivation. 

Over 456 days, guided by Congolese and Gabonese people who knew parts of the rainforest’s character, they collected data and images of every aspect of human and animal life they saw. When they later met with Omar Bongo, Gabon’s then president and father of the current president, Ali Bongo, the ruler was astounded by what lay within his realm. Most Gabonese have never visited the rainforest, let alone its depths. In 2002, Bongo declared that 13 national parks should be created in Gabon. And so they were.

The decision about where the parks went wasn’t random – it was informed by data, collected by scientists based at a research centre in Lopé national park since 1986. Today, the centre leads a biomonitoring programme – capturing 50,000 photos from 220 cameras over three years – to document the animal species in Gabon. “We are at the forefront of conservation in Central Africa – not just on carbon but in forest ecology,” says David Lehmann, the French director of research at Gabon National Parks. His team crawled inside pangolin burrows to discover, in 2019, that bats carrying coronaviruses share the holes with pangolin – which are then traded and eaten by people. Such an intricate understanding of how humans, wildlife and the forest interact can be, as we now know, invaluable. 

They are also building a massive dataset on the carbon stocks and sequestration potential of the forest. Vincent Medjibe, the scientist in charge of Gabon’s carbon accounting programme explains that their team walk on foot to hundreds of sites deep in the forest to measure the diameter and height of trees and to calculate the levels of carbon stored in the forests and soils – known as its carbon stock – and how much more it can sequester, or capture. 

It is through this research that they know logging a forest doesn’t mean destroying it. When you imagine a logged rainforest, you may see great rectangles of grey, decimated landscape. But according to Medjibe, it is possible to log just one or two high-value trees per hectare (factoring in the plantlife lost as collateral damage in the way of roads that get those sought-after trees out of their rooted spot) and boost sequestration. An established forest will store carbon, but carbon is absorbed fastest when there is space in the canopy for new growth to fill. “Because we have this project, we have data at the national level that allows us to know the true level of carbon,” he says.

That knowledge has already brought money to Gabon. In June, it received $17 million US dollars from Norway through the Central African Finance Initiative (Cafi) in reward for two years of emissions reductions. It was the first time that an African country had been paid for reducing emissions from its forest, but it might not be the last. Gabon is gambling on being able to turn its carbon store and ability to sequester more into marketable credits, too.

Historically, companies with concessions in Gabon have had a license to log trees. In 2016, the government decided that those same companies should be able to sell carbon, as well as logs, to others operating in Gabon. If a company can prove that they have managed the land in such a way that it has lower emissions than it would if it was unmanaged, they get a credit, best imagined as a gold star on a good behaviour chart. They can then sell those gold stars to someone else in Gabon (an oil company, for example) that has been rather worse behaved. 

This makes the badly behaved company look good – but it would also offer a way for Gabon to fund the protection of its forests. The established international system rewards countries that reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation. A country like Gabon, which had low rates of deforestation in the first place, misses out on this existing support. By creating a system of credits – the tradeable gold stars – Gabon created its own way to be rewarded for hanging onto its rainforest. 

Ahead of Cop26, the government is doubling down on the idea. On 13 September, a council of ministers decided that these gold stars should be sold to other countries, too. If parliament approves the notion, then ministers will arrive at Cop26 in Glasgow with this proposition for the high-polluting nations of the world in hand. There’s no guarantee that they will get any buyers – as I previously wrote for Tortoise, the interests of developing nations are often overlooked at such UN meetings. But the offer is, at least, on the table.

The reality is that any proposal to save the rainforest has to work for the people who live beside it and among it. It has to work on the ground. 

Twice a week, Chantal Dibakou and Marie-Christine Adegho haul supplies three kilometres across the savannah back home. The women, aged 55 and 58, both mothers and grandmothers multiple times over, have to plant their crops behind a government-funded electric fence, in place since 2020. If they don’t, the elephants will emerge from the forest to eat their stocks. The women, and their families, will go hungry.

In the past, people killed elephants to rid themselves of the problem. The margins of their own survival were too small not to. Now, the women say they don’t mind that the government wants to protect elephants, so long as their families are protected by the fence, too. “[The fence] is a good solution,” says Dibakou. “We are at peace. We are able to eat.”

Until now, Gabon has been able to keep deforestation rates low and remain a home for the forest elephants because it has a small population and because it has taken steps to manage moments where that population interacts with the forest and its creatures. As poachers and illegal loggers prove, when governance fails, the forest suffers. It needs to be actively protected.

But the forest cannot be protected unless people are there to protect it. People will not be there to protect it unless they are trained and paid to do so. They cannot be paid unless the state can afford to pay them. 

The rapaciousness of capitalism and the human desire to consume has got us into the climate emergency. But it is too late to turn back the clock. As much as we may wish to, we cannot rewind our history of exploitation and destruction. We cannot undo the Empire, or send Henry Morton Stanley – the Anglo-American explorer who oversaw King Leopold II of Belgium’s brutal exploitation of people and natural resources in the Congo Basin – scurrying back down the Congo river. 

Our relentless pursuit of profit has, up to now, done untold damage to the planet – and to Africa. But we are in too deep, with too little time to escape, to save ourselves outside its logic. High-emitting countries have less than ten years to dramatically cut their emissions, but it is not our place to tell people who are living hand to mouth – in Gabon, or anywhere – that they do not deserve the economic development that will bring them the food, shelter, medicine and security that they want.

We will not get out of the climate emergency unless we begin to value the sustainability, rather than the destruction, of the Earth’s natural resources. In Costa Rica, Cameroon, Brazil and even Gabon, people have proven they will pay to tear the forest down. We should not flinch at the idea that we must pay to keep it standing.

Mobilising finance for highly forested developing nations is critical to combating climate change

In the run-up to Cop26, the world is focused on climate change mitigation efforts such as carbon capture, renewable energy and reversing deforestation. Lip-service is paid to the crucial role highly forested nations play as global carbon sinks.

Some 21 developing countries protect 24 per cent of the world’s remaining forests. Bahamas, Bhutan, Cameroon, Colombia, Republic of Congo, Costa Rica, the DRC, Fiji, French Guiana, Gabon, Ghana, Guyana, Malaysia, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Samoa, Sao Tome and Principe, Seychelles, Suriname and Zambia.

Each has over 50 per cent forest cover and a deforestation rate of less than 0.22 per cent per year – largely because they have small populations, especially in rural areas, and because governments and the private sector have taken specific measures to protect them.

However, economic development means that forest cover in many HFLD countries could drop below 50 per cent if they are not financially supported to maintain them. And as it stands, they aren’t. 

Countries where forests have rapidly been destroyed are encouraged to slow deforestation down through the UN-endorsed REDD (Reducing Emissions through Degradation and Deforestation) programme. Yet the rules of REDD exclude forests that are not under immediate, measurable threat. That means HFLD countries are missing out on climate finance.

In February 2019, HFLD countries called for the global capital markets for help in sustaining high forest cover, protecting forests and sustaining economic growth. “HFLD countries are in dire need of international climate finance, technology transfer and capacity building to transition towards climate-resilient and low-emission development and achieve the SDGs and the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change,” they said. 

Gabon, Bhutan, Suriname and Guyana are among very few countries with a positive carbon sequestration position (they remove more carbon from the atmosphere than they emit). In 2010, Gabon absorbed 140 million tonnes of carbon while emitting around 35 million tonnes. Even if Gabon set aside 50 per cent of its net positive emissions to contribute to the global fight against climate change, the country would have more than 55 million tons of CO2 to sell as credits each year. Sadly however this simple construct is not yet globally accepted. 

The African Conservation Development Group (ACDG) is working closely with the Gabonese government and global carbon experts to develop a system that recognises how land-use planning can avoid the impact of deforestation in tropical forest landscapes. 

ACDG has methodically recorded how unplanned development – with associated agricultural expansion, forest use, increased exploitation of mineral resources and rapid human settlement – leads to rapid destruction of tropical forest coverage and degradation of ecosystems. By contrast, carefully planned sustainable development can unlock economic and social value, while conserving the natural environment and avoiding substantial carbon emissions. 

For example, sustainable forestry – including selectively felling trees to stimulate growth in mature forests – can actually improve carbon sequestration. The forestry sector must be incentivised to improve its methods. 

There is no clear path to delivering climate mitigation without investing in nature. The 2019 Dasgupta review on the Economics of Biodiversity and the Nature and Net Zero paper published by McKinsey and the World Economic Forum made that clear. 

It is high time, however, that talk progresses to tangible action – and investment. Gabon and other HFLD countries urgently need financial incentives to continue to advance sustainable forest management, a goal formally recognised in SDG target 15.b. 

There is no time to waste – nearly a quarter of the globe’s forests are at stake.  

Alan Bernstein is chairman of The African Conservation Development Group, a company with a 7,300km2 concession in Gabon.

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Photograph Ellen Halliday