Hendy Nguema makes notes about an okoumé tree his team has just cut down on the Rougier forest concession at Haut-Abanga, Gabon. Gabonese forestry laws require companies to log selectively, and with careful documentation of where trees are cut. GEOFFREY YORK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

To keep its rain forests from disappearing, this Central African country sets strict limits on what can be cut and where it can be sold. The Globe went to Gabon to see how it works.

Armed with machetes and measuring tape, the loggers slash and hack their way through the underbrush of Gabon’s rain forest to reach a majestic 40-metre-high okoumé tree, fated to become plywood for office walls in Europe or Asia.

After the first team verifies that the tree is a permissible size, a team of abatteurs – tree cutters – arrives on the scene. Hendy Nguema briefly bows his head and crosses himself, praying for safety, and then revs up his chainsaw. Within 10 minutes, the giant tree crashes through the forest canopy, sending a green cloud of leaves and branches into the air as it topples.

If the government of Gabon has its way, this could become the future of rain-forest logging: highly selective, relatively slow, carefully documented, independently certified and fully traceable. The strategy aims to preserve the forests of the Congo Basin in equatorial Africa, boosting their absorption of carbon emissions from the world’s industries.

Forest protection is one of the key goals of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow this week, with growing concern about rising deforestation in the Amazon and the Congo Basin, the two biggest “lungs” of the global environment.

World leaders at the summit on Tuesday pledged to end deforestation by 2030 but the vague promise will need to be accompanied by specific action, making Gabon’s policies of growing interest as a possible model.

Gabon, with forests covering almost 90 per cent of its territory, is one of a small handful of countries that absorb more carbon than they emit. (The others include Guyana, Bhutan, Papua New Guinea and Suriname.) At the Glasgow conference, their leaders are seeking mechanisms to protect and expand this small club of carbon-negative countries.

Gabon considers itself a “green superpower” – ranking second in the world in the proportion of its territory covered by forests. The country’s forests absorb at least 100 million tonnes more carbon dioxide than its total emissions. Combined with its neighbours in the Congo Basin, its forests generate more than half of Africa’s rainfall. The region is surpassed only by the Amazon as a natural carbon storage zone.

“Six years of global carbon emissions are stored in the Congo Basin forests,” Gabon’s Environment Minister Lee White said in an interview. “And because their density is higher than in the Amazon, they’re resisting climate change better and they’re disproportionately more and more important. So if we lose the Congo Basin forests, we lose the fight against climate change.”

But the region is threatened by the growing pace of deforestation – especially in the heavily populated Democratic Republic of the Congo, where logging operations are often illegal or uncontrolled, with raw logs ripped from the earth and shipped to Asian markets. By some estimates, the DRC is losing a million hectares of forests annually as a result of illegal logging and expanding agriculture.

Gabon is taking a different path. It banned the export of raw logs in 2010, forcing logging companies in the country to sell to domestic buyers who make plywood or furniture. It hopes to preserve its forests by requiring the companies to introduce forest management plans, similar to the one followed by Mr. Nguema and other loggers at Haut-Abanga, a wood concession managed by the French timber company Rougier.

Mr. Nguema and his loggers cut down an okoumé tree. The water-resistant wood is much sought after for plywood and the trees make up a majority of Rougier’s annual harvest. GEOFFREY YORK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Rougier controls nearly a million hectares of wood concessions in Gabon, but it annually harvests only one or two trees per hectare – usually a maximum of 15 cubic metres, compared with the 350 cubic metres that could potentially be extracted from the trees in each hectare. About 70 per cent of its annual harvest are okoumé trees, but these trees are felled only when their trunks reach a minimum diameter of 80 centimetres.

Rougier, a 98-year-old company that began in the 1920s by making wooden boxes for French butter and goat cheeses, was profitable for decades in Gabon when it was exporting raw logs before the ban. But it believes it can still make a profit under the new rules.

“We can be proud of this form of forest management, because it has an impact on the fight against climate change,” said Eric Chezeaux, who runs the certification programs at Rougier’s operations in Gabon. “It’s an opportunity for us to change people’s attitudes toward good practices, protecting rivers and the environment and wildlife. But it really takes time.”

When he graduated from university in France in 1991 and began working in forestry in Ivory Coast, nobody in the private sector was discussing forestry management plans – only environmental groups were talking about it, he said.

In 2000, Rougier began seeking an independent certification of its logging practices, and in 2008 it was approved by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an international system. Today it is one of just three logging companies in Gabon with FSC certification.

The government aims to have all the logging companies in the country have FSC certification by the end of next year, but the goal is unlikely to be met. For many companies, FSC approval is not a priority. Some secretly intrude on Rougier’s concession to harvest trees illegally, while others do worse. “Many companies don’t respect their management plans,” Mr. Chezeaux said. “They cut down small trees, or they lie about where their wood is from.”

Corruption is perhaps the biggest flaw in Gabon’s plans. Despite the country’s oil wealth, which gives it one of the highest per-capita incomes in Africa, much of the oil revenue disappears before it can fund any government programs. On the roads, for example, the giant logging trucks from Rougier and other concessions are tearing up the tarmac and eroding the gravel, creating massive potholes and dangerous conditions, with few signs of repairs or maintenance.

Not coincidentally, a single family has been in charge of Gabon for the past 54 years. Current President Ali Bongo, the son of former president Omar Bongo, won a disputed election in 2016 that was widely seen as rigged, sparking street protests in the cities. Dozens of protesters were killed and more than 1,000 arrested during the police crackdown that followed.

Three years later, a major corruption scandal erupted when customs officials discovered nearly 5,000 cubic metres of kevazingo, a valuable and protected hardwood, in Chinese-owned depots at a port near Libreville. The wood was confiscated, but much of it later disappeared. Several top officials and politicians were sacked from their jobs, and European buyers became more skeptical of Gabon’s products.

The scandal showed the urgent need to improve the certification of Gabon’s wood products. At the Rougier timber concession at Haut-Abanga, a small team of workers – known as pisteurs, the identification team – moves around the forest with maps and inventory lists, measuring trees, labelling them and determining their quality. In the 27-hectare zone where Mr. Nguema was working last week, a list of 45 trees had been drawn up for possible harvest. About 15 of them would eventually be cut down, the loggers said.

Rougier harvests trees from just 4 per cent of its total concession territory each year. This allows a constant rotation, so that each zone is harvested once every 25 years.

After the trees are cut down, they are again marked with inventory numbers and placed on massive logging trucks for the 10-hour journey to the capital, Libreville.

Many of Rougier’s trees are trucked to the Gabon Special Economic Zone (GSEZ), a carbon-neutral industrial park on the outskirts of Libreville, where about 60 companies process the logs into plywood, furniture or other products. This provides 10 times as many jobs and 10 times as much economic value as the earlier practice of exporting the raw logs, according to Gabon’s Environment Minister.

“It’s a good model,” Mr. White said. “By bringing multiple industries together in one zone, you greatly increase your efficiency and the possibilities of doing more innovative processing of timber. If we don’t create value for the forests, we can’t save the forests.”

Igor Simard, country manager for Arise, co-owner of the GSEZ, argues that the furniture and plywood factories are helping to preserve Gabon’s forests. “The footprint has been reduced, but the value has increased,” he said. “It puts less pressure on the forests.”

The beautiful okoumé trees, a favourite for Rougier’s customers, are valuable for plywood because they are water-resistant. They are even used for building boats and guitars, although office walls are the most common use.

In a protected forest near Libreville, a tourist guide describes how the leaves and bark of okoumé trees can be used in traditional medicine. Its sap is aromatic and can be used in perfumes – or attached to a stick and set on fire, creating a home-made torch.

The okoumé, found only in the Congo Basin, is sometimes called “the star of Gabon.” If harvested sustainably, it will not become endangered, officials say. But this depends on the effectiveness of Gabon’s forestry management and its emerging system for certification and traceability.

When the logging trucks arrive at the GSEZ, their documents are checked and double-checked to ensure that their logs are from a legitimate source. This is a separate project, called Tracer, that seeks to ensure some form of certification for all logs coming into the factories.

Trucks are often turned away if their drivers fail to provide proper documents. About 100 companies sought approval to sell logs to the GSEZ when the plan began in 2018, but only about half are still active as suppliers today – a sign that the stringent rules are deterring many of the worst operators.

An independent Gabonese environmental group, Brainforest, is one of the partners in the Tracer project. Its executive secretary, Marc Ona, says the system has been beneficial, but many companies still try to evade it. If their trucks are stopped by Tracer, some companies contact a senior government official, who puts pressure on Brainforest to allow them to bend the rules, Mr. Ona said. “It means that they are willing to export wood illegally,” he told The Globe.

While the industrial zone is trying to get FSC certification for all of its companies, many buyers of Gabon’s wood products – including Chinese companies – are indifferent. “They don’t ask, they don’t care,” said Valery Mbouroukounda, a manager at Green Ply, an Indian-owned company at the industrial zone that has achieved FSC certification.

For Gabon’s government, however, keeping track of the trees is crucial. The data have helped Gabon become the first African country to be paid for preserving its forests. In June, it received US$17-million from Norway under the Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI), a partnership between donor countries and African countries. It was the first payment under a 10-year agreement that could provide US$150-million to Gabon for reducing its CO2 emissions from forest loss and land degradation.

Some environmentalists, including Mr. Ona, have challenged these numbers, complaining that the baseline years were “cherry-picked” to show a decline in deforestation. One group, Rainforest Foundation UK, has cited data showing that forest losses increased in the period when the government’s numbers showed the opposite. “The government manipulates the statistics,” Mr. Ona said.

In order to keep receiving the CAFI payments from Norway and others, Gabon needs reliable data on its forests and their carbon sequestration. And so, for the past decade, it has been working on a national forest carbon inventory – including a stunningly detailed survey of the country’s trees, done entirely by hand.

For the inventory, 500 plots of land were randomly selected across the country. Each one-hectare plot, usually containing hundreds of trees, is then studied by a team of seven workers, who count every tree with a diameter of 10 centimetres or more – a task that can take five days for each plot.

The plots are so remote that the workers sometimes need three days to travel to them, hiking through the forest or paddling in canoes. After a decade of work, they have measured about 200 of the 500 plots. They have also begun to do a second measurement in some of the plots, with encouraging results. “The trees are getting bigger,” said Vincent Medjibe, co-ordinator of the 34-person team that conducts the inventory.

The next step, according to Mr. White, is to create a global system of trading carbon credits, which was proposed in the Paris climate accord in 2015 but has not yet been agreed upon in detail. In September, Gabon approved legislation to allow a national system of carbon-credit trading, a preparatory step for a global carbon market.

“It probably makes sense to reward a country like Gabon, which can very efficiently store carbon in rain forests,” Mr. White said. “But it has to be beneficial to the Gabonese nation. The Gabonese people have to benefit if they’re going to do all the hard work of maintaining the rain forests.”

Watch: Adam Radwanski, The Globe’s climate change columnist, says the size and attention around the COP26 summit in Glasgow makes it harder to leave without meaningful agreements on climate action. THE GLOBE AND MAIL

The Globe and Mail, November 3, 2021