- Gabon enjoys 88% forest cover, with selective logging helping protect this ecological and economic resource.
- Timber processed in the country’s Nkok Special Investment Zone (SIZ) is required to be harvested in line with European Union certifications for sustainability.
- However, TraCer, the monitoring system meant to ensure the traceability of wood entering the Nkok SIZ, was recently suspended by Gabon’s Ministry of Water and Forests.
- While TraCer was quickly reinstated, its suspension points to issues surrounding forest management and the Gabonese timber industry, including trafficking scandals involving the Ministry of Water and Forests.
“The challenge in the Nkok SIZ is timber traceability. The SIZ must be kept free of illegally obtained timber,” says Marc Ona, executive secretary of the NGO Brainforest. The NGO is part of a team implementing the TraCer monitoring system, which is meant to ensure the legality and traceability of the supply of logs to the Nkok special investment zone, or SIZ, in Gabon.
The forestry sector is a pillar of the Gabonese economy. In 2010, Gabon banned exports of raw logs to encourage local wood processing, which would add value to exports and therefore increase revenue. This decision led to the establishment of the SIZ in Nkok, located 27 kilometers (17 miles) from the capital, Libreville. As a growing number of countries, including China, the U.S. and those in the EU, have enacted laws against illegally harvested timber imports, traceability has become crucial in the industry.
“Eighty-eight percent of Gabon is covered by forests,” Mohit Agrawal, director-general of the Nkok SIZ, tells Mongabay. “That means there are 41 million hectares [101 million acres] of forest to be managed. To ensure the preservation of our forests, we have been allocated logging concessions, which have quotas imposed on them. This allows the forest to regenerate and grow.
Agrawal added that “Every tree is marked and geolocated. It has a barcode assigned to it, and from there, it heads to Nkok. When it arrives in the SIZ, it is checked and then processed. Consequently, when you buy a piece of furniture made in Gabon, you can find out where the wood came from, when the tree was cut, where it happened, who loaded it, how much tax was paid, and what companies processed it.”
Twelve years since its establishment, the Nkok SIZ brings together 144 companies, 84 of which are dedicated to wood processing, and represents 16 countries across 70 industries. It has created 6,000 direct jobs.
But according to Ona from Brainforest, corruption remains an obstacle.
“We check that wood is not illegal when it arrives. Unfortunately, we are under pressure from the Ministry of Water and Forests, the same administration claiming to the world that it is fighting corruption and illegal exploitation. Nevertheless, in reality, we have serious doubts about this,” Ona tells Mongabay.
Since October 2021, the EU has recognized TraCer as compliant with the EU Timber Regulation (EUTR), pending its official certification. This allows TraCer to issue certificates to European importers guaranteeing that the timber leaving the Nkok SIZ complies with EU criteria.
But on March 7, TraCer was suspended by the Ministry of Water and Forests, which cited administrative irregularities. Ministry officials and the SIZ’s administration replaced TraCer for two weeks, before the suspension was lifted on April 21. The Ministry of Water and Forests, contacted several times by Mongabay for its version of the events, did not respond.
While the Gabon Special Economic Zone (GSEZ) management says this was simply an administrative setback, Ona calls it as a victory against corruption.
“The GSEZ hierarchy put pressure on the Ministry of Water and Forests so that we could resume our work. We were suspended because some people want to continue illicit operations in the Nkok SIZ, that’s all. We are concerned that the Ministry of Water and Forests may want to take control of timber traceability in Nkok. We are suspicious of some officials’ motives.”
In 2019, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a London-based NGO probing environmental crimes, published a report titled “Toxic Trade: Forest Crime in Gabon and the Republic of Congo and Contamination of the U.S. Market.” The report describes how Dejia, one of China’s most influential groups of affiliated timber companies in Africa, regularly bribed Gabonese and Congolese ministers to access timber concessions and manage them without controls.
The EIA also found that illegally sourced Dejia timber had reached the EU and the United States despite laws in those jurisdictions prohibiting illegal timber imports. According to the report, these practices cost millions of dollars in losses for Gabon.
Nor does it seem to be an isolated incident.
A few months after the EIA report was released, the “Kevazingogate” scandal broke out. It centered on the extensive trafficking of kevazingo, a sacred and precious wood whose export was banned, involving both the customs office and the Ministry of Water and Forests. The Gabonese vice president and the chief of staff at the Ministry of Water and Forests were quickly dismissed from their positions. At the time, the scandal didn’t involve the Nkok SIZ, but it resulted in an increase in control and traceability measures. In May 2022, the director-general of forests at the Ministry of Water and Forests was imprisoned for corruption, forgery and use of forgery, theft, and illegal logging.
“We are lucky that we have a population of 2 million,” Ona says. “More than 80% live in urban areas. As a result, the forest faces no pressure from the population. That is how it has been preserved, but in order for that to continue, operations need to be controlled.”