Operationalising the Forestry Code enhance community land management in Gabon
In Gabon, the Community Forest is a natural resource enjoyed by all the members of the respective community. From it, the communities can till the land, enjoy fruits from the forest, practice sustainable farming while also enjoying other natural benefits from the trees. Fresh air, regulated temperatures and regular rainfall attracted by the trees are all such benefits. However, communities alongside such forests in Gabon are increasingly vulnerable since the private developers now control their land to extract palm oil. Roland Yangari, at NGO Muyissi Environment, shares how the communities are slowly being pushed out of their land and are unclear what their future holds.
The possibility for local communities in Gabon to manage the forests from which they derive their livelihood was established by the Law under Section No. 016/2001 from the Forestry Code in the Gabonese Republic on “the community forests”. This law and its guidelines have been implemented and adopted throughout the country. However, the Gabonese legal framework does not recognize community traditional land ownership. Community forestry is the main mechanism for recognizing the rights of communities living within or around the forest to manage them.
From the legal framework, the community forest is defined as a forestry space within an area where a community has been practicing its traditional livelihood and enjoying its customary rights to use the forest. Such an area is allocated to the community in the rural area within their local space (a village, a grouping of villages, etc.).
As per the law No. 016/2001, the community must be gathered within an association to request a community forest within their traditional rural area. The association will lead or implement a dynamic process for the sustainable management of the natural resources from the community forest. As soon as allocated to the community, the community forest is subject to a management plan.
There are two kinds of management plan for the management of the community forest. These are supply contracts with local processing companies (tenancy contract) and an agreement signed with the Water and Forests Government Administration (final management agreement) guiding the management of the forest resources as long as the community is respecting its commitments. This plan does not constitute a land title. Rather, it is a transfer of land management competence from the State to the communities.
Land allocation to many groups expose communities to exploitation
The overlapping of land uses, with the allocation of many permits to forestry companies, mining industries and agro-industries on land traditionally used by local communities, is proving problematic for the communities applying for community forests permits to use the community land for their livelihoods. Instead, timber companies or agro-industries compounds have been issued with the permits to extract and exploit the forest resources while prohibiting the communities from accessing such areas.
Ms Brigitte BANGOYI from Ferra Village that has tried to instigate a community forest observes, “Our land size has been reduced since the OLAM Palm Oil in Gabon (OPOG) came into our land. The area where we farm to feed our families is controlled by the OPOG since they have the permit from the government.”
As the size of the rural forestry domain is not clearly limited, it is ambiguous to access the community forestry management for the communities to seek legal redress.
The process of getting to the community forestry management is slow, expensive and technically complex despite the support communities receive from the Water and Forest Administration and some local NGOs. This challenge is heightened by the government’s administration which is inefficient due to such technicalities as insufficient technical tools, human and financial resources.
Furthermore, any process of seeking the permit must start from the headquarters of the office handling it which is in the capital Libreville. The distance from the forests to Libreville is too great to do a return trip on the same day, which makes it expensive for the communities.
Faced with these issues, some communities give in to the pressure from the private timber companies to help them complete the expensive procedure that often costs communities between CFA 7million and CFA 12 million (USD$10,830 to USD$18,570) covering socio-economic surveys, participatory mapping, multi-resource inventory, Simple Management Plan and Local Development Plan. To reciprocate, the majority of these private companies exploit timber from community forests mechanically. In the process of establishing the community forests, it is also difficult for communities to understand this new concept which will prevent them from safeguarding their community land to vulnerability. Such a situation opened the way for the development of practices that are contrary to the wellbeing of the community forestry defined by the Forestry Code.
Multinational companies encroaching on the forest cause conflict between humans and wildlife
Most legal management entities are moving towards mechanized timber cutting. This leads to putting up many multinational industries in these forests, overexploitation of the natural resources, exposing the indigenous communities living in these regions to more conflicts between them and the wild animals, incitements of the members of these communities by the multinational corporations into fights among other challenges.
“We fight each day with animals such as elephants as their space in the forest is also being invaded by the Timber Companies with the Forest Permits from the government,” explains Decries Kassa Jeannot from Nanga Village.
Rodrigue Mihindo from Pépéyo Village says, “My village has been swallowed by Palm Oil plantations of Olam in Gabon. My community is now begging for space in our own Land. Before the arrival of Olam Palm Oil in Gabon (OPOG), we had been living peacefully on our land without any conflict between neighbouring villages. Unfortunately, OPOG is creating conflict between us and the neighbouring villages through wrong participative mapping. They have mixed, for example, the area belonging to Pépéyo community has been allocated to Mutamb Sane Fumu community.
Kassa also laments, “Many rivers, like Iroungu River, are polluted by chemicals used by OPOG.”
The development of the related documents which should be carried out free of charge by the Water and Forests Administration, according to Article 159 of the Gabonese Forestry Code is not free. The government must complete the legal gaps to operationalize the governance of community forests, establish and transfer of community land management to communities. This facilitates the process of setting up a local budget managed by the local government administration of the Forest and Water in support of the communities. Such a decentralized governance would allow these communities to carry out the activities according to the Forestry Code. They would thus support the Community Forest allocated in associative management and facilitate the integration of gender (women) and youth in the executive bodies of management. Once the Forest Code is operationalised, communities can develop and diversify alternatives to timber cutting. Sustainable ways to use the forest include Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs) such as fruits and nuts, vegetables, fish and game, medicinal plants, etc, for a sustainable forest management, better conservation and preservation of ecosystem services.
NGO Muyissi Environment is a partner of the African Biodiversity Network in Gabon. Through this partnership, the network will accompany such communities in their quest to protect their land, improve their livelihoods sustainably while protecting the ecosystem services and conserving biodiversity.