There’s a surprise candidate vying to become a global leader in conservation: the low-profile West African nation of Gabon.
When you take a glance at a satellite map of the country, visibly swathed in deep green from 600 kilometers above, it’s not hard to see why. Gabon has a lot to lose – and, as financiers increasingly reorient towards tackling climate and biodiversity challenges, an increasing amount to gain.
Wedged between the Congo Basin and the Atlantic Ocean, Gabon is sparsely populated, with most of its people living in urban areas. The discovery of oil in the 1970s, coupled with visionary early leadership, led to rapid development with minimal local environmental impact – though that fossil fuel extraction, of course, has made much less salubrious contributions to the climate crisis.
Nonetheless, about 88 percent of Gabon’s land remains covered in intact native forest that thuds and shrieks with life. These vibrant ecosystems are home to critically endangered species such as western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) and African forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis.)
The country’s 75,000 kilometers of braided river networks and wetlands, well-fed by around 2 meters of annual rainfall, support vast populations of birds, manatees, and reptiles. There’s even an odd bunch of African dwarf crocodiles (Osteolaemus tetraspis that have adapted to survive in caves and live off bats.
Out on the mangrove-dotted Atlantic coast, you’ll find the highest worldwide density of leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) nesting sites, and you might even spot the world’s only known ‘surfing hippos.’ Offshore, there are rare Atlantic humpback dolphins (Sousa teuszii) and critical humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) calving grounds.
Green ambitions, economic stagnation
But as Gabon’s oil reserves run out, leaders are also looking for new, more sustainable ways to provide jobs and bring in cash. The country’s current unemployment rate is 21.5 percent, and the population skews young, with about 800,000 young Gabonese set to enter the workforce over the next decade.
A major concern is that in the absence of employment, would-be workers could turn to exploitative and illegal activities. This could threaten the country’s pristine forest landscapes with conversion to industrial agriculture, given that Gabon currently has very little farmland and is heavily reliant on imported food.
In this critical context, Gabon continues to scale up its conservation ambitions. In 2010, the country made international headlines by banning the export of whole-log timber, which ensures that added value is created in the country and helps impede illegal logging. Sustainable logging regulations also require timber companies to harvest in 25-year cycles to allow for regeneration in between.
Now, the country is a key member of the High Ambition Coalition of countries pushing for global commitment through the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) to protect 30 percent of our planet’s land and ocean by 2030. It’s also a member of a group campaigning for a 30 percent goal for freshwater.
“Gabon has made an extraordinary choice,” said Lee White, Gabon’s Minister of Water, Forests, the Sea, and Environment, in a video by The Nature Conservancy (TNC). “We see [it] as a way to maintain the equilibrium between exploitation and preservation.”
To achieve these goals, the country is employing a range of political and financing mechanisms under a project finance for permanence approach, supported by a range of philanthropic and non-profit organizations through the Enduring Earth partnership.
This includes a ‘debt-for-nature swap’ with TNC to fund a large-scale marine conservation project. The NGO will buy eurobond debt titles and sell them to Gabon at a lower interest rate and with a longer maturity than its existing national debt repayments.
This refinancing scheme will save Gabon around USD 5 million a year for about 15 years, which will be used to pay for the conservation project.
Towards a post-oil future
Gabon’s forests absorb about three times the amount of carbon than the country emits. It’s now leveraging its high levels of forest cover to access climate mitigation funding: In 2021, it became the first African country to receive results-based payment for reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD+).
Savina Ammassari, the UN resident coordinator for Gabon, said in an interview that this achievement was predicated on “political will at the highest level for several decades” and serious investment in data gathering capacity, notably through the creation of an agency for observation and space studies.
That political will continues to this day, with the country’s status cemented as a worldwide leader in biodiversity conservation, and the global ecological significance of the Congo Basin becoming increasingly apparent.
“The Gabonese and Congolese forests help to create the rainfall in the Sahel, so if we lose the Congo Basin, we lose rainfall across Africa,” said White in an interview with Mongabay.
“If we lose the carbon stocks in the Congo Basin, which represent about 10 years of global emissions of carbon dioxide, we lose the fight against climate change.”
What’s not yet clear is whether Gabon’s efforts will ensure a smooth transition to a post-oil economy that meets its citizens’ needs as well as those of its non-human inhabitants.
“An effective balance will need to be found between the development of agriculture and the preservation of the forest and rich biodiversity,” said Ammassari.
As the global transition away from fossil fuels becomes ever more urgent, the country’s early journey in this direction is certainly one to watch.