Gabon: Local Voices Spread Conservation Message

Ladislas Désiré Ndembet, president of Muyissi Environment
12 October 2011
guest column

Although Gabon is a poster child for globalization's accelerated reach for resources, its president says he is committed to increasing support for national parks. Taking on the mantle of pressing the government to implement that commitment is a non-governmental organization financed out of the modest salary of an activist who runs a cleaning business on the side. AllAfrica guest columnist Daniel Glick reports:

"A group of nine dwarves lived here, and one day a dwarf dropped his ax in the water," says Ladislas Désiré Ndembet, standing on the shore of Lac Blue, or Blue Lake, in Gabon's southern province of Ngounié. According to the lore of the lake, the waters were so clear that the dwarf thought it was shallow enough to reach in and retrieve the ax. Instead, he tumbled in, as did each dwarf that came to help. The dwarves, and the ax, remain submerged to this day.

The equatorial green shoreline of Lac Bleu is lined with offerings to the dwarves' spirits: plastic cups filled with Fanta orange and Coke; orange slices, some wildflowers. Ndembet has taken me to the outskirts of the provincial capital of Mouila to view a sample of Gabon's ecological wonders - and the threats bearing down on them. In the diffuse light, the lake is indeed a luminescent blue-green. But bulldozers have razed a bald spot on one edge of the lake for an unfinished visitors' center, a stark dirt scar inviting erosion that will eventually steal the colors from these legendary waters.

Ndembet is the founder and president of Muyissi Environment, a tiny, provincial organization that may represent the future of conservation in Gabon. Ndembet, a soft-spoken 42-year-old former journalist, formed Muyissi in 2008 to respond to huge changes in Gabon's environmental landscape. In 2002, then-president Omar Bongo Ondimba created 13 national parks and set aside 11 percent of the country as nature reserves. With great fanfare, the international conservation community embraced the president's announcement. Gabon became a focal point for international efforts to conserve some of the world's largest intact tropical rainforests for carbon capture and endangered species protection.

At the same time, Gabon, which straddles the equator on the West African coast, rapidly became a poster child for globalization's accelerated reach for resources. Although Gabon had been a top African oil producing nation for decades, an influx of Chinese, Dutch, Spanish, Malaysian, Singaporean, American and French companies accelerated exploitation of the oil, timber and minerals in Gabon, which is larger than the United Kingdom but has 61 million fewer inhabitants - with a population of only 1.5 million.

Today, the national parks remain largely ideas on paper, with little protection from poaching, virtually no infrastructure for ecotourism, and conflicts with ethnic groups who use the park lands to hunt, fish, gather medicinal plants and cut wood. Current President Ali Bongo Ondimba has vowed increased support for the parks, and instituted a policy not to export raw timber - even as he supports "free trade zones" that provide incentives for projects like palm oil plantations that require clearing large forest tracts.

Ndembet watched these swirling forces and decided he had to supply a stronger local voice to encourage economic development that didn't leave dead forests, disappearing species and fouled water in its wake. Having local voices carrying the conservation message is crucial in places like Gabon, with enduring wounds from the French colonial era and Gabon's own recent history of corruption.

Ndembet understands that messages coming from Westerners about "saving" Gabon's forests may sound like a new kind of conservation colonialism. Since he grew up setting hunting traps and sidestepping Gaboon vipers in the nearby forest, he understands and respects local beliefs. The group's name, Muyissi, comes from the ethnic Punu word for genie, as in genie in a bottle. The word also incorporates the animist spirits that abound in the natural world - in watercourses like Lac Bleu, as well as in the chimpanzees, gorillas, forest elephants and hippopotamuses that share the land with Gabon's human residents.

We take a taxi back to Muyissi's modest office. The only office decorations are free posters from international wildlife groups, and the few computers are generations shy of current. The group's secretary general, Jean-Christophe Mbinna, tells me the group has no salaries and no steady source of income. "In Gabon, we don't have a culture of non-profits, especially in the environmental sector," Mbinna says. Muyissi operates because its main actor - Ndembet - contributes from the modest salary he earns running a cleaning business.

Although it's located nearly 300 miles from the capital of Libreville, Muyissi has partnered with international environmental groups on key issues: the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) on sustainable forest practices; the Jane Goodall Institute to educate schoolchildren about living with primates such as gorillas and chimps; and the World Resource Institute on an Atlas of forest assets.

"They have an expertise we don't have," says Romain Calaque, Gabon's program director for WCS in Libreville. "Ladislas is passionate and also a very good technician when it comes to field work. Increasingly, we are partnering with them rather than the other way around."

Given Gabon's low population density, subsistence hunting and farming have posed few problems for forest creatures. But new access to rural areas for resource extraction has led to increased pressures, Ndembet says. Chinese road workers who hunt during their free time, or other foreign workers who conduct illegal logging have become a growing problem, as has poaching of forest elephant tusks for the clandestine international ivory trade.

Ndembet's message is that "our grandparents left us something incredibly precious," he says. "It's our job to continue to preserve it, so our grandchildren benefit from that heritage."

This kind of message, he says, resonates with subsistence hunters and villagers who already know how to choose the right season to hunt or gather in a particular patch of forest. But old habits die hard, Ndembet says. It's not easy to tell villagers, "you can't eat your crocodile anymore." But when children object to eating bushmeat because they've learned the species' survival is at stake, parents listen. "The children become our spokespersons," says Ndembet.

In the evening, Ndembet takes me to Mouila's bustling Carrefour des Jeunes, or "The Youngster's Corner." Music blares from street-corner speakers, smoke from burning fields permeates the air, and people sell vegetables, bushmeat and fruit from piles atop burlap sacks. Ndembet ponders my question about the meaning of the drowned dwarves. "It's a lesson about protection and preservation," he says. "Our grandparents protected the lake by telling this myth. For us, the spirits - Muyissi - are always there, and have their ways of speaking to humans. The lost axe is possibly a sign from the spirits, saying, 'Be careful what you do. There are limits to the destruction you may bring to the forest.'"

In the long term, protecting Gabon's natural heritage will require both international support and local effort to transform the dream of the parks into truly protected areas. "The future of the conservation movement in this country rests with people like Ladislas [Ndembet]," says Eric Chehoski, an American and naturalized Gabonese citizen who used to work for WCS and now is employed by the U.S. embassy in Libreville. "We need another hundred like him. If we could have ten, that would be great."

See the French version of this story here.

Daniel Glick is a co-founder of The Story Group, an independent, multimedia journalism company. He is the author of "Monkey Dancing: A Father, Two Kids, and a Journey to the Ends of the Earth."

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