Safeguarding the Wildness of the Ogooué River Basin

“What impressed me about the Ogooué basin is how few people there are, how little impact there is from roads and development, and how wild and intact the forest is.”
—David Banks
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 Interview by Eric H. Campbell, May 2013

The nation of Gabon in Central Africa is home to some of the most untouched forest on the planet. Running through this green vastness is the Ogooué River, the site of a new conservation initiative by The Nature Conservancy and Great Rivers Partnership.

Africa director David Banks spoke with about his recent visit to the Ogooué basin. What are your main impressions? Did anything surprise you?

David Banks: I’ve traveled all around Africa, and I get so used to seeing lots of people and lots of impact to the landscape. What impressed me about the Ogooué basin is how few people there are, how little impact there is from roads and development, and how wild and intact the forest is. It’s a very healthy forest and freshwater system. What makes Gabon and the Ogooué River high priorities for TNC?

David Banks: Gabon's forests and rivers are exceptional. Our science team identified Gabon as a priority due to the diversity of its lands and waters and the favorable conditions there for conservation. The Gabonese government has clearly communicated its desire to ensure sustainable development, so this is an important time for TNC to be there and I'm excited about the opportunities. What are the biggest problems that the river faces?

David Banks: We went to these waterfalls, the Kongou Falls on the Ivindo River, one of the tributaries of the Ogooué, and right near our camp there was a huge clearing and road. They were put in there by Chinese engineers who were scoping a dam that would go in and flood the Kongou Falls, one of the great waterfalls of the world.

The more we talked to people in Gabon, the more we heard plans for other dams on the river to provide power for huge mines up in the Belinga area. There’s iron ore development, and plans for lots of timber operations and a number of roads. It’s mostly about access to resources, so resource development is the threat. What kind of scientific expertise does TNC/GRP bring to the Ogooué that complements the work of other organizations there?

David Banks: Other organizations, including WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) and WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature), have worked in Gabon for a long time. These groups have great expertise in the management of protected areas and in wildlife conservation, especially in terrestrial ecosystems.

TNC brings a lot of expertise with freshwater fisheries, the importance of protecting them, and the methods for doing so. We also offer a lot of experience around the siting, management and development of dams. That’s a niche that no one else has filled, and it’s important for TNC to be talking about the freshwater science. What makes you confident that significant conservation can be achieved on the river?

David Banks: There are needs for clean power in the country, and we have to recognize that there will be dams on the Ogooué and its tributaries. But those dams can be sited in a way, and designed in a way, and operated in a way that won’t have a huge impact on the rivers. We want to encourage things like run-of-the-river dams, dams that don’t impact the movement of fish, and not cutting off segments of the rivers from the larger system.

Also, I think there are some interesting opportunities in the forestry sector. Timber harvesting in Gabon is done in mostly a formal way, and there are some very good timber companies operating there. Many of them take only one tree per three hectares, which is a very small impact on the area. TNC can work with some of those good operators in Gabon to set an example for how timber harvesting could take place in tropical forests in Africa.

We bring a lot of skills from our history of working with different companies around the world. We’ll be looking to do this in Gabon as well.