Gabon's timber industry reeling after corruption scandal


Libreville (AFP)

Tropical timber is piling up at Gabon's main port as the country's logging industry reels from a corruption scandal that brought down the vice president and ushered in a veteran environmentalist to oversee its forestry.

Wood is big money in the central African nation, which is almost 80 percent covered by forests. The timber industry accounts for 17,000 jobs and 60 percent of non-oil related GDP.

But at the port of Owendo on the Libreville peninsula, exports have stagnated for months and warehouses are overflowing.

The trouble began in late February, when customs officials discovered huge quantities of kevazingo, a precious and banned hardwood, in two Chinese-owned depots at Owendo.

Nearly 5,000 cubic metres (176,000 cubic feet) were seized, worth around $8 million, some of it disguised in containers bearing the stamp of the forestry ministry.

Several suspects were arrested, but the plot thickened in April, when 353 of the confiscated containers mysteriously disappeared from the port.

The ensuing scandal, dubbed kevazingogate, led to the government sacking the vice president, the forestry minister and several senior civil servants.

The minister was replaced last month by British-born Lee White -- an environmental campaigner who has lived for years in Gabon, battling to conserve its forests and wildlife.

- Scandal hits exports -

The scandal has "heavily affected people working in Gabon's timber industry, without differentiating between those who cheat and those who play by the rules," said Philippe Fievez, head of French timber company Rougier in Gabon, which has been present in the country since colonial times.

He said the company had been able to export wood for just three of the first six months of the year and at the height of the crisis had had to temporarily lay off 400 of its 1,400 employees.

"It's going to take us between six and nine months to return to normal."

After the stash of kevazingo, also called bubinga, was found in late February, the team responsible for checking cargo loaded onto ships at ports was suspended, accused of complicity in a smuggling plot.

The following month, timber exports ground to a halt.

"A month later, the team was replaced, allowing exports to resume," said Fievez.

But then the containers vanished in April, and several top executives were suspended and the fallout reached the highest reaches of power.

Francoise Van de Ven, secretary-general of the forestry industry association UFIGA, said, "our companies have been unable to export since early May -- we are talking about a considerable loss of profits".

White, the new forestry minister, "immediately took on the case" after his appointment in mid-June and exports "have just resumed," she said.

But the scandal has inflicted "significant" reputational damage, she admitted.

- 'Tarnished image' -

Exports were also hit by a damning report issued by British NGO the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) in March that pointed the finger at a Chinese group, Dejia, which has widespread logging interests in the Congo Basin.

The report laid out the apparent ease with which officials took bribes to cover up the fraudulent activities of some loggers, and within weeks of its release the government suspended Dejia's licence at two logging sites.

Benjamin Feng of the Chinese company KHLL Forestry said that now "buyers have the impression there is a risk of purchasing illegal timber when buying wood from Gabon".

"We have about 1,500 cubic metres (53,000 cu. feet) of azobe wood ready to go to Europe, but my Dutch buyer is hesitating, asking me: 'What proves that your wood is legal?'."

"I can prove it, I have all the papers, but the image has been tarnished," he said.

Rougier's Fievez tried to look on the bright side.

"At least the scandal had the merit of pointing out the bad practices of some loggers -- now everyone plays by the same rules."