For any environmental campaigner, winning a Goldman Prize is much like an Oscar is to an actor: recognition for years of dedication and work.
But unlike the Oscars, where the winners are usually familiar names, the Goldman Prize plucks stars out of relative obscurity, shining a light on work so brave you wonder how you had ever failed to hear of it.
Such is the case with Marc Ona Essengui, a civil rights and environmental campaigner from Gabon who won his ‘green Nobel’ earlier this year in recognition of his fight to protect the Gabonese communities and habitats threatened by a proposed iron ore mine in the Ivindo National Park.
Increased investment in development and resource extraction in Gabon had led to plans to construct the $3.5 billion Belinga iron ore mine, as well as a hydroelectric dam on the Ivindo river near the scenic Kangou Falls, and a deep-water port and railroads.
Until Marc leaked details of the mine, the people of Gabon had been unaware of any deal between its government and Chinese mining and engineering company CMEC. The whole project had been built upon secrecy – but then the terms were hardly anything to shout about in the first place: CMEC was to receive 7,700 square kilometres of land and a 25-year-tax break; Gabon a mere 10 per cent of the mine’s profits.
A raw deal
If nobody else knew, those living in and around Ivindo National Park might have had some inkling something was afoot when, in 2006, CMEC diggers and dump trucks rolled into the 3,000 square kilometre conservation area and began to lay down a road through to the Kangou Falls.
With no communities consulted and no environmental impact assessment (EIA) carried out – in fact, the country’s environmental code was bypassed entirely – the danger was clear: part of the world’s second largest rainforest, the Congo Basin, falls inside Gabon, and the biodiverse Ivindo is home to a wealth of species, including forest elephants and buffalo, chimpanzees and western lowland gorillas. The mine project would uproot whole ecosystems; damming the Ivindo would also inevitably flood low-lying villages, as well as affecting the many people reliant upon fishing and sand extraction for their livelihoods. Water-borne diseases and malaria would spread. Development would lead to Ivindo’s declassification as a national park, paving the way for other industries such as logging. The illegal road to Kangou has already opened up the previously inaccessible area to poachers – ‘now there are elephants’ carcasses all over the park,’ Marc told the Guardian in April.
The disinfectant of sunlight
Involved in environmental and humanitarian campaigning for more than ten years, Marc is founder-president of Brainforest, closely associated with the Rainforest Foundation UK, as well as president of NGO network Environment Gabon. A disability rights campaigner (Marc uses a wheelchair as a result of childhood polio), he is also the local coordinator of the Publish What You Pay Coalition, which allows citizens of resource-rich developing countries to hold their governments accountable for revenue from oil, gas and mining.
Brainforest and Environment Gabon agitated for a full EIA for the mine and suggested an alternative site that would cost less and benefit communities more, pointing out that the excessive size of the proposed site – five times the size of Greater London – and the severe impact the project would have on the local environment. More importantly, they fought the government’s secrecy with openness: informing local communities of the proposals and their effects proved to be the key.
‘You have people who make decisions at the expense of communities because of ignorance, but when those communities are informed, they will protect their own interests,’ Marc says.
As if to underline the extent to which the government wanted the Belinga project kept under wraps – as well as the effectiveness of Marc’s efforts to publicise it – he has been assaulted, bullied, and banned on three separate occasions from travelling out of the country, including to collect his Goldman award. He and his family have suffered evictions at the hands of landlords too nervous to house a political activist. The federal police track his every move. Last December, along with other Belinga protestors, he was arrested and imprisoned for ‘inciting rebellion’. No formal charges were brought, no legal representation provided, no trial date set. He spent five days in a basement cell followed by a week or so of jail proper, and was released only after an international outcry.
‘I have had to work on with serenity,’ he says. ‘The conditions in prison were really hard, really tough, but I haven’t paid attention to the arrest. It was just one way for the authorities to try and distract me from the work I have been doing. I will not be distracted.’
|Marc with his children in Gabon photo credit: John Antonelli|
That didn’t stop the authorities from trying, however. The campaigning activities of Environment Gabon were temporarily suspended to prevent ‘local NGOs interfering in politics’. Sensitive information about Belinga disappeared following a break-in at Brainforest’s offices. Gabon’s late president, Omar Bongo, even called for patriotic pro-mine demonstrations, encouraging the Gabonese to see Marc as a threat to the country’s economic development, an agent of Western powers.
‘We have donors in Western countries, NGOs that support the work we are doing here and in other countries all over the world, but we do not work for Europeans,’ Marc says. ‘Our work is simply to remind authorities to respect international conventions.’
His opposition to the Belinga project is founded purely upon the project’s flouting of Gabon’s constitution, however, and his arguments are based on these fair and reasonable assumptions ratified by law. He respects his country’s constitution, and asks only that the government do the same.
‘We want only for the actions of the authorities to abide by established laws,’ he says. ‘Communities will benefit from that. I am not against the authorities, but their actions must abide by the law. It is only when governments and communities work hand-in-hand that both can benefit.
‘A few months ago, communities protested to tell the government that enough is enough, but before that, they were afraid. Since then we have had discussions with the senior officials alongside the communities and they have been able to tell the government what it has to do – the communities are no longer afraid.’
At the same time as educating communities, organising marches and arguing against Belinga at a government level, Marc has also been challenging the China Export Import Bank, which is funding the project. (The construction of the mine had been anticipated to cost $790 million and the dam $754 million.) Marc argues that the project’s terms of agreement fail to meet the bank’s ethical investment policy guidelines.
Hope for the future
The Gabonese government is now renegotiating its contract with CMEC and re-evaluating the size of the ambitious construction project. As a result the area likely to be affected has been reduced to less than one tenth of its original size, 600 square kilometers, and the road network that had been spreading through the national park has been curtailed – President Bongo, who died in June, even agreed to place two representatives of Environment Gabon on the social and environmental monitoring committee for the project.
‘Dialogue is the best tool in this fight, this action,’ says Marc. ‘Change happens all over the world when people get together.’
But people also need their leaders and heroes, as Simon Counsell of the Rainforest Foundation UK points out. ‘Marc has been like a beacon of hope,’ he says. ‘The wider NGO community has seen that the government will eventually listen if the arguments are put cogently and are seen to be in the best interests of the people of Gabon.’
The future of Gabon’s highest waterfall is still in the balance, however. The dam on the Ivindo is still earmarked for a stretch of the river close to the Kangou Falls, which Marc calls ‘the most beautiful in central Africa’ – this despite a 1960s feasibility study that recommended the nearby Tsengué-Lélédi Falls as a more cost-effective site, and one that would bring greater benefits to the community.
Marc is nevertheless optimistic about the future. He points out that globalisation, which is causing such problems for Gabon and the world, has given birth to a global civil society - which in turn has given birth to the grassroots organisations so essential to holding governments and corporations accountable for their actions.
Doing his bit for the global struggle, Marc has shared his $150,000 Goldman winnings with this year’s other regional winners.
Chris Caroll and Eifion Rees are freelance journalists