June 11, 2019 / 2:09 PM / 8 days ago

As Gabon's new forests minister, UK conservationist aims to lead by example

DAKAR (Reuters) - Gabon hopes to lead by example in stamping out illegal logging of the world’s tropical hardwoods, a prominent British conservationist said on Tuesday after being named the central African country’s new forests minister.

FILE PHOTO: Gabon's President Ali Bongo Ondimba addresses a meeting on climate change at the 30th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the Heads of State and the Government of the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia January 29, 2018. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri/File Photo

Lee White, who ran the U.S.-based Wildlife Conservation Society’s Gabon program for nearly two decades, was appointed late on Monday after his predecessor was fired over a scandal in which tonnes of illegally felled rare kevazingo wood went missing.

“In forestry we’ve been going through a bit of a turbulent time,” White - who has dual British-Gabonese citizenship - told Reuters in an interview. “One of the first priorities is to get that straight.”

Gabon’s President Ali Bongo has cast himself as an environmental crusader, delighting conservation groups by banning raw wood exports, enlarging protected areas and demarcating 13 new national parks since he took power after the death of his father, Omar Bongo, in 2009.

Despite those efforts the country remains a target for the illicit wildlife trade and illegal loggers. Tackling the destruction of forests is seen by environmentalists as crucial in preventing runaway climate change.

White, most recently head of Gabon’s National Parks Agency, said illegal activity in Gabon’s forests emitted 15 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year.

“We are trying to lead by example. If we don’t mitigate the impacts of climate change, it’s going to result in untold strife, and we don’t have that much time,” he said.

The president has promised to punish anyone implicated in the disappearance of a cache of 392 containers of kevazingo, which were seized at the port of Owendo in February and March. “It’s been a wake-up call,” White said.

Two Chinese nationals are being held, as is the head of customs, Dieudonne Lewamouo, and authorities have recovered 200 containers.

Although illegal logging is ravaging the forests of West and equatorial Africa, most of it driven by Chinese demand, the region’s governments have rarely taken action.

There is high demand in Asia for wood from the kevazingo tree, which can take 500 years to grow to its full height of 40 meters (130 feet). While forestry is a major industry for Gabon, the kevazingo is protected by law.

White said Gabon will require all logging companies to be certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) - the only universally recognized certification scheme - by 2022.

Bongo, whose family has been in power for five decades, suffered a stroke in October while abroad, returning home in March.

Secrecy surrounding his health during his five-month absence has fueled instability in a country where declining oil revenues and widespread poverty have dented his popularity.

Reporting by Tim Cocks; Editing by Frances Kerry and John Stonestreet

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