AN AFRICAN FOREST HARBORS VAST WEALTH AND PERIL
By Howard W. French
OVERVIEW & SOURCE
The New York Times reports on logging in the largest remaining patch of equatorial forest in Africa. The area is about the size of New York state. Although having less than 40,000 people, typical forest threats including logging by a French company seems to portend forest destruction here as elsewhere. This item was posted in econet's rainfor.general conference.
The following article is from THE NEW YORK TIMES, Wednesday April 3, 1996
AN AFRICAN FOREST HARBORS VAST WEALTH AND PERIL
By Howard W. French
EVELA, Gabon -- The forest grows so thick at the edge of this tiny settlement that event the N'tem River, a sizable Central African waterway, is completely obscured in the riotous greenery. Asked what lies beyond, a Fang villager shrugs and says "nothing."
From time immemorial, for the Fang -- one of the Bantu peoples who make up the bulk of Central Africa's population -- this area has been known as the edge of the world. But in fact, the land beyond this point has always been home to others: small groups of Pygmies, whose hunting-and-gathering livelihood had until recently changed little in a millennium.
The equatorial forest inhabited by Gabon's Pygmies, an area about the size of New York state, is at the heart of Africa's last intact belt of rain forest. It is still peopled by fewer than 40,000 inhabitants. But now it is facing changes of a pace and a magnitude far greater than anyone here, Fang or Pygmy, has yet grasped.
Only a few dozen miles from this village, convoys of lumber trucks filled with stone are bringing material to French-led crews laying the paved roads that will open up this area as never before. In the capital, Libreville, and in the head- quarters of European logging companies, plans are already being laid for the forest's exploitation.
At the same time, groups from the World Wildlife Fund to the World Bank are racing to mount efforts to inventory the huge catalogue of plant and animal species that live here and to identify areas for strict conservation on Gabon's last frontier for commercial forestry.
With its sparse human population and its dense canopy still intact, international environmental experts say that what happens to this jungle in Gabon will be an important bellwether for Africa's last major belt of relatively pristine rain forest, a vast area that stretches from the continent's equatorial coast across Gabon and well into the Congo River basin deep in Zaire.
"A lot of money is being spent in places like Brazil, in area trying to rescue forests that have already been devastated," said Kathryn Simons, an American environmentalist who is studying conservation efforts in Gabon. "In Central Africa, where relatively little has been done so far, we have a unique opportunity to save a major tropical forest before it is destroyed."
It was in this forest, too, that the Ebola virus appeared in humans last year, killing some people in Gabon before it swept into Zaire and killed 244 others. Some experts warn that opening the forest, where unidentified animals are believed to harbor the disease, could unleash more epidemics.
If northern Gabon still boasts some of Central Africa's densest remaining woodlands, in particular, the Minkebe forests, both experts and residents of this area can point to signs of an endangered future. Major logging companies and sawmills have not yet reached this forest, but already to the south and east of here, small operators have begun chipping away at this habitat in search of Okuome, the most readily exploitable tree species, which is use mostly for plywood.
Wildcat gold miners, too, have been reported operating deep in the forest, where they fell trees and dig deep pits, dumping mercury and other highly toxic chemicals in the ground or in streams.
An arduous two-week hike away from Evela, along ancient footpaths traversed by thick columns of army ants and spied upon by tree leopards, live Pygmies who have never set eyes on Westerners. But already, around the fringes of the Minkebe forest, more and more Pygmies are being drawn into the life of modern Africa and its cash economy.
Throughout Gabon, wild game is considered choice dining. And in towns like this and in nearby Minvoul, Pygmies wait for city folk or Bantu agriculturist to hire their services asa master hunters of the prized forest elephants.
Setting out armed with old 12-guage shotguns and a few shells each, the hunters can spend weeks in the forest, wandering a landscape teeming with wildlife. The forest's estimated 65,000 elephants, along with Zaire's elephant population the largest in Africa, are the most prized game, but the array of potential targets is mind-boggling.
Pygmy hunters say their prizes include 30-foot boa constrictors, antelopes, gorillas, porcupines, boars and monkeys of all kinds. But if the variety is rich, the Pygmies themselves say that their search for game becomes more difficult each year as the hunting parties multiply.
"When we were young men, the hunt was done with arrows," said Omer Amaya, a 58-year-old Pygmy hunter whose settlement lies in a forest clearing at the edge of Minvoul. "We could go out for eight or nine hours and come home with a big catch. Nowadays you must walk at least three days before you can count on even seeing anything interesting."
For the hunters, the reason for this increasing scarcity seem simple: their hunting has thinned game populations. "Wherever the barrel of the gun belches, the animals will try to avoid," said Hilarion Mikou. "After a time, if all is quiet, the animals will come back."
For environmental experts, however, the picture is more complex. "These forests are still primary forests in their structure, but already they are being exploited," said Marc Languy, a forest expert with eh World Wildlife Fund. "We have noted a decrease of 80 percent in chimpanzee populations. If it is true that they can rebound, this is a process that might take 15 or 20 years."
The recent outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in the town of Mayibout, another small Bantu outpost in the forest 130 miles to the southeast of here, has reminded many of another possible consequence of the forest encroachment. The outbreak killed less than 20 people in Gabon, but swept through the Zairian town of Kikwit with devastating effects a last year, quickly killing 244 people.
The origins of the virus are not known, but it is presumed to have a natural host somewhere in the forests, from which it infects primates. Those who died in Gabon had recently feasted on chimpanzee meat.
Scientists at a major international conference on Ebola held in Kinshasa, Zaire, earlier this month theorized that environmental damage to previously pristine forest areas brought about the emergence of Ebola as a major health threat.
"In Gabon, gold prospectors went deep in the forest, they cut down trees in all direction, they dug up and destroyed a part of this environment," said Jean-Jacques Muyembe, a Zairian Ebola researcher. "This gave rise to the emergence of the virus." His theory si that the virus was dormant until its environment was so severely disrupted.
Pygmy hunters, meanwhile, say that in recent months they have encountered increasing numbers of dead gorillas and chimpanzees in the forest, where they have been felled by a mysterious affliction.
"You can hardly find any live gorillas anymore," said Mr. Mikou. "We've never seen this before. A big game animal that fears nothing is just dropping dead."
If conservation groups are beginning to marshal an effort to save Gabon's northern forests from the heavy logging that has taken place almost everywhere else in this country, tropical wood interests would seem to have the early upper hand.
A Dutch concern known as Wijima has already secured rights to just over one million acres of the Minkebe forest. And Gabon's President, Omar Bongo, has roped off another 542,000 acres of virgin forest for logging, just to the south of Minkebe.
"This is the last place that good supplies of wood are left in the country," said Pierre Mezui M'Eyie, a Government forest inspector based in the provincial capital of Oyem. "Right now, no one seems to know what kind of wealth there is here, but once the first commercial permits are issued, you will see a flood of applications.
"Then it is only a matter of time before the Minkebe is destroyed."
Is anyone working on this?
Does anyone have any ideas on what can be done about this? I am working up an action alert now, but what else? I think there is special potential for French and Dutch actions.
Please contact me with ideas.
Tim Keating, Director
R A I N F O R E S T R E L I E F