Oil prospecting in Gabon13/10/2006 00:00:00
October 2006. By Chris Haslam. Conservationists have reacted with horror after oil company prospectors commenced drilling in one of Africa's most important wildlife reserves.
Teams from Chinese state-owned oil company SinoPec moved into Gabon's Petit Loango national park last month, exploiting a loophole in the law to begin operations that threaten the habitats of dozens of rare and endangered species, including West Africa's highest concentration of lowland gorillas.
Professor Christophe Boesch, a primatologist performing field work in the park, says the Chinese have ignored requests from Gabon's environment and parks adminisrations to cease operations until a legally required environmental impact study has been completed.
‘They were asked to leave on October the 6th, but since then over 100 explosions a day have been heard in the park,’ he said. The use of explosives in the Loango lagoon - one of the world's most important manatee breeding sites - is feared to have caused the deaths of several of the mammals and seriously disrupted eco-tourism ventures in the area. Lodge owner Rambout Swanbourn says boats have been swamped and almost overturned by the blasting; placing the lagoon off-limits to the tourists the Gabonese government so dearly wants to attract.
It was in 2003 that President Omar Bongo set aside 11% of Gabon as national park. The decree was made without the usual consultation process and led to thousands of indigenous people being evicted from their homelands and prevented from maintaining their traditional way of life. While welcoming a move that made Gabon the so-called Costa Rica of Africa, conservationists have expressed concerns that social and economic problems could render the project unsustainable, but the President made sure that one clause provided a get-out.
Gabonese law states that ‘if oil or mineral riches are discovered in the protected areas they can be exploited for the economic and social benefit of the country...nevertheless the operator concerned is obliged to rehabilitate the site,’ and the Chinese operation, despite being opposed by the Ministry of Forestry and the National parks administration, is fully backed by the Ministry of Mines
But Professor Boesch says that the antiquated and environmentally-destructive prospecting and extraction methods used by the Chinese preclude any return of the park to its pristine state when the relatively small deposit - estimated at around 20m barrels - has been exhausted. ‘They're using dynamite, which is killing and scaring the wildlife, sending the gorillas deeper into the forest and outside the protection of the park where they risk becoming bushmeat. They're bulldozing roads through the park, polluting the waters with chemicals and slurry and hunting the wildlife to eat,’ he said. ‘I don't want to forbid the Gabonese from profiting from petrol but modern techniques exist, like horizontal drilling that would allow the oil to be extracted without setting foot in the park.’
But such methods aren't cheap, and it isn’t impossible to imagine that SinoPec's budget has gone into a Ministerial backpocket in Libreville.