Gabon village fights to save forest from logging

Arsene Ibaho, right, campaigns to preserve the ancient forests of northeastern Gabon and the kevazingo tree, which locals consider sacred.

Under the green canopy of the ancient Massaha Forest in northeastern Gabon, Arsene Ibaho leads a group of visitors to a tree he says is sacred and speaks to its people.

Red clay is stuck to everyone’s foreheads, enabling them to “connect with the ancestors and warn them of our coming,” says Ibaho.

With this accomplished, the 43-year-old conducts a ritual at the foot of the precious kevazingo tree, reciting words in the local language, Kota.

Ibaho is one of about 200 residents of Massaha, a village in the sprawling Ogooue-Ivindo province more than 600 kilometers (375 miles) from the capital Libreville.

The sacred tree is also embedded in folklore as bringing good luck to fishermen during the mid-year dry season, Ibaho said.

Rituals at the tree enabled fishermen to fill a 15-meter boat with lots of fish, “and the whole village could fit in,” Arsene said.

Beatrice Itsetsame, 69, recounted her trips to the forest where she collected nkumu, a small edible vine, and also bush meat for ceremonies.

“The forest is rich, it supports us,” she said, wrapped in a blue boubou robe with a yellow pattern.

Public discussion

Massaha, lying on the Libumba, a tributary of the Ivindo River, is at the center of a passionate debate about the future of logging and conservation in Gabon.


The central African state is hosting a two-day summit starting Wednesday on how to protect the rainforest – a treasure chest of biodiversity and buffer against carbon emissions.

Loggers were given permission to harvest trees in the Massaha area which covers 11,300 hectares (28,000 acres) — an area almost the size of Paris.

Ibaho said the loggers set up a timber yard in a forest clearing where a village once stood.

Their bulldozers plowed through the area, making it impossible to locate three graves, he said, holding a machete to clear the undergrowth.

“They had no idea where the old villages were – now our history has been cut in half,” said Serge Ekazama-Coto, a spokesman for the community.

Protected status?

Angry and scared, the local community three years ago asked the government to revoke the logging permit on the grounds of violations and threat to the “biocultural heritage”.

In March 2022, their activism garnered a visit from Lee White, the Minister for Water, Forests and Environment.

White, a British-born conservationist, then halted logging, ordered the company to withdraw its machinery and theorized the creation of a new protected area regime.

The idea is being discussed as part of an overhaul of the logging code.

Arsene Ibaho, left, leads a ritual in a sacred forest in Massaha, Gabon, threatened by loggers

Arsene Ibajo, left, leads a ritual in a sacred forest in Masaha, Gabon, which is threatened by loggers.

White, in an interview with AFP, acknowledged there were problems.

“The fact that the bulldozers came into a sacred forest near a village means we have failed at every stage,” he said.

That’s why, he said, “right now we’re asking – do we need a stronger regime?”

Locals say they have been heartened by the recent progress since White’s visit. Last month, a government team went to the area to locate the coordinates of the holy sites – a key step in the protection process.

Authorities, community representatives and NGOs are considering status options.

They include a model inspired by West African countries that aims to protect traditional sites, enable sustainable harvesting of resources and facilitate the participation of local populations.

Communities “want to be at the center of governance in the area”, yet the current protection regime reflects “a model of state management”, said Alex Ebang Mbele, head of an NGO called the Nsombou Abalge-Dzal Association (NADA), which calls for new conservation laws.

“Often, it is the state that mandates the creation of protected areas,” said Lucien Masuku, director-general of wildlife and protected areas at the Ministry of Forests and Environment.

But “when a community has the will to preserve its space, it begins to take ownership of the concept of preservation,” he said.

Ibaho said the locals had already chosen a name for the site in the Kota language—Ibola Dja Bana Ba Massaha, which means “the reserve for all the children of Massaha”.

© 2023 AFP

Reference: Gabonese village fights to save forest from logging (2023, March 1) retrieved March 1, 2023 from

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