Bongo’s decision is already being praised by many in the international environmental community as a major victory for the conservation movement. And those who know anything about Gabon’s environment can easily understand why. Gabon, the least densely populated country in central Africa, has the largest section of rainforest on the continent. More than 70 percent of the country is covered in forest. But Gabon stands out as an environmental treasure mainly because of what is inside those forests. Up to 20 percent of Gabon’s plant species are found nowhere else in the world. There are more than 60,000 forest elephants, the largest elephant population in Africa. Gabon is home to more than 700 species of birds, 70 species of reptiles, 100 species of amphibians, and an estimated 190 mammal species—including approximately 35,000 lowland gorillas and 64,000 chimpanzees.
Only time will tell, however, whether Bongo’s decision will be as much an economic victory as it was a victory for conservationists. If Gabon succeeds (and that is a big if), the government’s decision could constitute a major development in the field of ecotourism. Gabon has created 13 national parks that will preserve nearly 11 percent of the country’s land area. Only Costa Rica, which supports a thriving ecotourism industry, has a larger percentage of protected land. But as a whole, Gabon, which is five times larger than Costa Rica, has much more protected territory. Several effects of globalization, both good and bad, could determine Gabon’s ecotourism future.
One factor on which the fate of ecotourism in Gabon hinges is how much the West is willing to invest in the country’s initiative. On that front, there is good news for the Gabonese government. At the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg on September 4, 2002—the same day that Bongo announced Gabon’s ecotourism initiative—Secretary of State Colin Powell announced the creation of the Congo Basin Forest Partnership. The partnership is a U.S.-led, $53 million collaborative effort to support the natural resources of six countries in central Africa over the next four years. The Gabonese government’s efforts to establish Gabon as an ecotourism destination will likely receive a fair amount of support from the partnership. Gabon is also receiving help from international environmental NGOs that are working to develop the necessary infrastructure to support tourism and from private Western businesses that are starting to become excited about the prospects of a new tourism destination in Africa.
Success is far from a given, however. One problem that could prevent Gabon from becoming Africa’s Costa Rica is the country’s extremely high cost of living, which is an unfortunate side effect of globalization. While Gabon is one of Africa’s top oil-producing nations, it has always essentially remained a renter-state, meaning it controls little of the means of production. French, British, and American international corporations hold concessions for oil exploration in Gabon. Consequently, of the roughly 120,000 foreigners who visit Gabon every year, the majority are employees of energy companies (only about one percent are tourists2). And wherever oil company representatives with large expense accounts travel, price gouging is sure to follow. Because of price gouging, the Economist Intelligence Unit consistently ranks Libreville, Gabon’s capital and largest city, has one of the world’s most expensive cities, ahead of New York, Paris, and London. The idea of paying $15 for a hamburger is enough to scare off even some of the hardiest eco-travelers.
Some in the ecotourism industry have refused to take Gabon seriously as a tourist destination until the government begins to take a tougher stand against the country’s thriving bush-meat trade. The killing of rare wildlife for food and cultural artifacts, known as bush meat, was once believed to be an activity exclusively of the native pigmies. Today most observers recognize that the bush-meat trade, said to be worth $50 million US annually, has become a part of mainstream society in Gabon. For a country with an almost nonexistent agricultural industry, meat from forest elephants, chimpanzees, gorillas, and other native animals is a popular—and often preferable—substitute to beef, poultry, or pork. A traditional Gabonese Christmas often includes chimpanzee or gorilla instead of turkey. Of course killing and selling rare animals is illegal, but laws mainly go un-enforced because of a combination of corruption, a lack of resources by law enforcement, and social apathy to the problem. In addition to the increasing number of logging concessions the government hands out, the rise of international trade has also had an adverse effect on Gabon’s wildlife population. In a January 2001 meeting in Cameroon, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species found that the increasing commercialization of trade has led to some 68 species in Gabon being threatened by poaching.
Solving the problems of price gouging and poaching will undeniably help improve Gabon’s image as an ecotourism destination in the global North. Until then, however, some in the environmental and ecotourism communities will only see Bongo’s decision as a well-meant attempt to protect a rapidly diminishing African rainforest.
1"David Quammen, "Saving Africa’s Eden," National Geographic (September 2003) 64.
2"Gabon: Country Profile," Janet Matthews Information Services. Quest Economics Database. Africa Review World of Information (September 23, 2003).
Contributed by Daniel Chand, on staff at WildLaw, a nonprofit, environmental law firm based in Montgomery, Alabama. Chand works to promote Gabon as an ecotourism destination within the United States. He can be contacted at Daniel@wildlaw.org.
To read another Global Envision article about the environmental benefits of globalzaion, see The Environmental Benefits of Globalization.