STRADDLING the equator on Africa’s west coast, Gabon is unique in Africa – perhaps in the world – for having 88% of its land surface, or 22.8 million hectares, covered in tropical rainforest. The country has 800 kilometres of almost virgin coastline, 13 national parks, and one of Africa’s largest population of forest elephants (50,000 at last count) and gorillas (15,000), according to government data.
This nearly untouched forest cover is made possible by the fact that the country is sparsely populated, just 1.6 million people, four in five of whom live in urban centres – the highest urbanisation rate in Africa.
Until the discovery of oil deposits in the early 1970s, Gabon’s economy was largely dependent on its forests, which contributed 75% of its export earnings. The discovery of oil sparked a rural exodus as people moved to the cities in search of jobs and money. On average, over the past five years, the oil sector has accounted for 80% of exports, 45% of Gross Domestic Product, and 60% of budget revenue.
With the plunge in oil prices – the going rate for crude has fallen 70% in the past 20 months – the country is in a position where it has to return literally to its ‘roots’, to its land and forests, in order to buttress the economy.
Because of its small population and large expanse of primary rainforests, and with the right management, long-term sustainable timber production in Gabon is a viable possibility.
By government estimates, 12.5 million hectares are suitable for the sustainable harvest of timber; commercial timber stocks are estimated at 400 million cubic metres, of which 130 million is of the species okoumé, popular for the production of plywood.
Double digit growth
In 2010, the government banned the exportation of raw logs, which means that all the wood in Gabon is processed locally before export. This has led to brisk double digit growth in the sector over the past five years: the timber industry is already the largest private sector employer, accounting for 28% of the working population.
Gabon is also working to boost the agricultural sector and reduce dependence on food imports – in 2014, some 80% of all the food consumed in Gabon was imported, with a bill of $525 million.
The national land use plan has identified 5.2 million hectares of arable, unexploited land, but the flagship project is a public-private partnership with Singaporean company Olam, which was launched with great fanfare and high expectations in 2010.
The project is intended to boost Gabon’s exports of rubber and palm oil, of which the country’s land and climate gives it a natural competitive advantage.
Olam is majority-owned by Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund Temasek Holdings, and it is pulling out all the stops in investing in Gabon – the company has put down $800 million for 300,000 hectares of palm groves and the construction of three palm oil plants; and $340 million for a 28,000-hectare rubber plantation and the creation of a rubber factory.
The jollof factor
West Africa imports 1.9 million tonnes of palm oil every year – a key ingredient in the region’s most popular dishes, including jollof rice and all its iterations. Nigeria used to be Africa and the world’s biggest producer and exporter of palm oil, until a different type of oil – crude – drained the oxygen out of the country’s agriculture and the sector collapsed. That, along with population growth, means that the country is a net palm oil importer, sourcing its supply from Indonesia and Malaysia.
With a production target of 1 million tonnes a year – which could earn the country up to $625 million, enough to cover its food import bill – Gabon is hoping to position itself as the region’s leading supplier of palm oil.
On the rubber side, the goal is to reach a production capacity of 60,000 tonnes per year by 2020. But there’s a risk in the global markets: according to forecasts from the International Rubber Study Group, there will be a surplus of 1 million tonnes of natural rubber, and 3 million tonnes of synthetic rubber by the year 2020.
The biggest risk, according to the lobby group, will be the expansion of synthetic rubber capacity in the two leading consumer countries—China and India— and synthetic rubber may become the strategic product of choice.
Still, the largest single investment Olam in Gabon is $1.28 billion for the construction of a fertiliser factory at the Mandji Island Free Zone, a planned deep-water port near the country’s commercial capital Port-Gentil.
But breaking through into commercial agriculture will be difficult for Gabon, for ecological reasons, which perhaps informs the need for a fertiliser factory.
Despite the outwardly lush appearance, rainforest soils are actually very poor for agriculture. The soil is very thin, washed away by the heavy, relentless rain. The type of clay particles present in tropical rainforest soil also has a poor ability to trap nutrients and stop them from washing away.
So how are rainforests so green and lush? It has to do with the forest itself. Decaying leaves and organic matter that fall to the ground is what provides the nutrients for the trees to grow, decomposition speeded along by the warm, humid environment. So when forests are cut down, the real source of sustenance is destroyed along with it, and the soil is generally too poor to grow anything for more than a year.