Saturday, November 3, 2007

Chinese 3.5 Billion “Hydroelectric – Iron Mine” complex slated for Africa’s Gabon National Park

Gabon: Central Africa's 'Most Beautiful Waterfall' Under Threat

Government reportedly views the environmental groups as puppets for Western multinationals opposed to China's exclusive involvement in the project.

Described as the most beautiful waterfall in Central Africa, Gabon's Kongou Falls are also at the heart of an environmental controversy that some believe has far-reaching implications for conservation in the country.

Kongou has apparently been earmarked as the site for a hydro-electric dam to power the Bélinga project, a 3.5 billion dollar initiative to mine iron ore in north-eastern Gabon that is being carried out with financing from Chinese firms in a consortium headed by CMEC.

Work on Bélinga is scheduled to get underway before the end of the year, with the first cargo of ore making its way to China by 2011. China will be the sole client of the project, which also involves the construction of 560 kilometres of railroad and a deepwater port. In addition, some 30,000 jobs are said to be in the offing.

Such figures understandably galvanize politicians in a country looking to diversify its economy in the face of dwindling oil revenues, long the economic mainstay of Gabon.

But, conservation groups fear the construction of a dam at Kongou, located in the Ivindo National Park, could have a negative effect on this forest environment. While an official decision on the hydro-electric site is still pending, Brainforest -- a non-governmental organisation (NGO) based in the Gabonese capital, Libreville -- claims in the Sep. 1 issue of 'Brainforest Info' that the director-general of energy and hydraulic resources has confirmed the choice of Kongou.

List of Concerns

The concerns of the conservation groups were laid out in a document presented to President Omar Bongo towards the end of September under the auspices of a coalition called Environnement Gabon (Environment Gabon).

The groups question why a decision on dam location appears to have been made before an environmental impact assessment of construction was undertaken, as required by law.

The statement further calls on the Ministry of Mines to make public the feasibility study which indicates that about 30,000 jobs stand to be created. Of these jobs, it asks, "how many are reserved for the Gabonese, when we know the natural tendency for Chinese bring in, extensively, workers from their country...?"

Furthermore, "if we consider the state of impoverishment of most Gabonese, in spite of significant oil, mining and logging revenues, we may think that it will be the same for revenues from the iron exploitation of Bélinga!"

Gabon's oil sector has been surrounded by allegations of corruption, and claims that oil revenues have not fully benefited the country's citizens.

"It is difficult to trace how oil monies have been spent -- even for the International Financial Institutions," notes a 2003 report from the global aid agency Catholic Relief Services, titled 'Bottom of the Barrel: Africa's Oil Boom and the Poor'. According to the document, "Gabon was the epicenter of a string of scandals associated with (French oil company) Elf Aquitaine throughout the 1990s, including allegations of hidden oil deals and the use of its banks for massive money laundering linked to French politicians and party financing...".

Conservation groups suggest that the dam rather be built at the Tsengué-Lélédi falls, a site recommended in a study dating back to the 1960s that was carried out by Electricité de France (Electricity of France), a public enterprise. They claim that construction of the dam at this site would be cheaper, and more beneficial for local communities.

The Tsengué-Lélédi falls are located outside the Ivindo park. But, they are also further away from Bélinga -- an added distance that will increase project costs, says Mines Minister Richard Auguste Onouviet. He claims that about 1.2 billion dollars are needed to build a dam at Tsengué-Lélédi and 435 million dollars to conduct electricity from this location to the Bélinga mine, compared to 754 million dollars for construction at Kongou.

Other points raised in the September statement include concerns about how the contract for the Bélinga project has yet to be made available for public consideration.

Here is the full article.