Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Saving Gabon's rainforest

I did a piece for the Guardian a few weeks ago on an amazing guy in Gabon who is putting his life at risk trying to save the rainforest there against a massive government-led mining project. The project is right in the middle of the Ivindo National Park, deep in some of the most impenetrable rainforests on earth. It is a mythical and magical place for the Bantu groups and pygmy who live there and the site of the Kangou Falls, the most beautiful waterfalls in Africa. The Bantus and pygmy believe their villages originated in the waterfalls’ frothy pools and that sorcerers gather there to discuss problems of the villages. The mining project, which includes a dam on the Kangou Falls, would flood villages, pollute the water and have a catastrophic impact on the forest and its inhabitants. It will also have implications for Gabon's wider conservation efforts. The Gabonese forests are part of the Congo Basin Rainforest, the second largest rainforest in the world after the Amazon - both vital assets in the fight against global climate change.

Ona, 45, has been an activist since he developed polio as a child, campaigning for disabled rights and the environment. He is clever, funny and fearless, and with a coalition of environmental NGOs in Gabon managed to expose the government’s shady deals behind the mining project and halt it. Since then “a sword of Damocles hangs above our heads,” he said. His office has been broken in, he has been refused permission to leave the country many times, he and his family have been evicted and he has been jailed.

This father of three who uses a wheelchair is not intimidated. “If they want to get me, they’ll get me. It’s too late to be afraid. We are in this fight. The stakes are too high. We have to protect our forests. It is our duty.” For the full story, read my article in the Guardian.

He won the Goldman Environmental Prize, a sort of Nobel Prize for environmental activism, in April. I hope the international exposure will keep him safe.

I’d love to visit the Ivindo park and write an in-depth feature on his work. Any takers?

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