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Gabon appoints popular environmentalist, ‘Mr. Green’ as new forestry minister

Lee White, who has lived in Gabon for three decades and is a citizen, takes over one of the most sensitive jobs in the country.

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Gabon appoints popular environmentalist, 'Mr. Green' as new forestry minister
Newly appointed Gabon Minister of Water and Forests, British Lee White was, before his appointment, the head of Gabon's National Parcs (Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux, ANPN). -(AFP)

Here’s your new job: You have to protect the country’s precious tropical forests. You have to stop illegal logging and fight the entrenched corruption backed by powerful forces which goes with it. By the way, you are a committed environmentalist — and you are foreign-born.

This is the challenge facing Lee White, a green activist born in Britain, who this week was named minister of water and forests in Gabon.

Related: Gabon vows no mercy over $250 million hardwood theft

White, who has lived in Gabon for three decades and is a citizen, takes over one of the most sensitive jobs in the country.

Long-running tensions between logging and conservation have been sharpened by corruption and falling revenues from oil, Gabon’s main money-earner.

“My appointment was a surprise for many people here,” White admitted in an interview with reporters after President Ali Bongo Odimba appointed him on Monday.

He said Bongo had asked him to “put an end to bad practices… (as well as) the corruption in the ministry”.

Related: Mystery in Gabon: Illegal haul of sacred wood disappears

White acknowledged the scale of the tasks ahead.

“We have to sustainably manage the Gabonese forest to improve the living environment of the Gabonese people, to stabilise its natural treasures and to preserve our ecosystems,” he said.

Almost 80 per cent of Gabon is covered by forests.

The forestry sector is a historic pillar of the economy, accounting for 17,000 jobs and 60 per cent of output excluding oil.

About a quarter of Gabon’s population live in rural areas, and many people depend on the forests for food and livelihood.

At the same time, the forests themselves are a treasure trove of biodiversity, much of it rare or endangered. 

Gabon appoints popular environmentalist, 'Mr. Green' as new forestry minister
Tropical forest exploitation, Gabon. Biosphoto / Jean-Francois Noblet

Related: Gabon threatens crackdown over theft of sacred wood

They are a haven for great apes, forest elephants and the black panther, as well as rare species of trees, some of them giants towering up to 60 metres (200 feet) high.

Manchester-born –

White, 53, was born in the northwestern English city of Manchester but grew up in Uganda — in a biography he recalls fighting at school with the son of former dictator Idi Amin.

In 1989, he arrived in Gabon, where he studied for a doctorate in zoology.

He took up Gabonese nationality in 2008 and the following year took over as head of the National Parks Agency (ANPN), a massive conservation project of 13 wildlife zones set up by the late president Omar Bongo, the incumbent’s father.

He was decorated by Queen Elizabeth II in 2010 for his dedication to nature conservation in Central Africa.

Lee’s high-profile defence of the rainforest and wildlife — often with the verdant Raponda Walker Arboretum near Libreville as a backdrop — made him a familiar face in the national media, which dubbed him “Monsieur Vert” (“Mister Green”).

Bongo turned to him for the job after firing the last forestry minister over a timber-smuggling scandal.

Related: Gabon’s president sacks vice president and forestry minister

Analysts say the job will require remarkable skills, juggling tact and principles, as well as rock-solid support from the top.

“This appointment can only be good news for protectors of the environment in Gabon,” said Gaspard Abitsi, director of a US-based NGO, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), in Gabon.

“He is perfectly familiar with the challenges of conservation on a national and international level.”

Graft –

Others are more cautious about the prospects of reform.

“There are enormous management problems at the ANPN, and this agency only accounts for 10 per cent of the land,” said Marc Ona, president of an NGO called the Brainforest Association and a member of the opposition.

“From now on, Lee White will have to manage all of the forests in Gabon… If he hasn’t succeeded at the ANPN, why would he succeed with the whole expanse of the territory?” 

“The problem,” said Ona, “is not which individual heads the ministry but the whole forestry system, which is corrupt.”

In a report issued in March, a British NGO, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) pointed the finger at a Chinese group, Dejia, which has wide-spreading logging interest in the Congo Basin.

Gabon appoints popular environmentalist, 'Mr. Green' as new forestry minister

It accused the firm of exceeding its logging quotas and spinning a web of patronage extending to ministers as well as the opposition.

The then forestry minister, Guy Bertrand Mapangou, initially lashed the report as biased and “inquisitorial” and seeking to “discredit” the country.

But within weeks, the government suspended Dejia’s licence at two logging sites.

Related: Gabon recovers 200 containers of rare hardwood, 153 still missing

On May 21, it fired Mapangou and Vice President, Pierre Claver Maganga Moussavou over the so-called “kevazingogate” scandal.

In February and March, authorities had seized nearly 5,000 cubic meters (176,000 cubic feet) of banned kevazingo wood — the equivalent of about 150 large container-loads, valued at around $8 million (seven million euros).

The contraband timber was found at storage sites belonging to Chinese companies at Libreville’s Owendo port — some of it disguised in containers bearing the stamp of the forestry ministry.

Related: 30 containers of kevazingo seized in Gabon

Kevazingo, also known as bubinga, takes many years to mature. Logging the wood is illegal in Gabon, but the temptation to flout the ban is huge. In Asia, kevazingo can fetch up to $2,000 per cubic metre.

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Central Africa News

Measles is a bigger threat in DR Congo than Ebola – NGO

Last year, cases more than doubled to almost 350,000 from 2017, according to the World Health Organization

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Measles has killed 2,758 people in DR Congo since January, more than the Ebola epidemic in a year, medical NGO Doctors Without Borders said, and called Saturday for a “massive mobilisation of funds.”

The disease, preventable with a vaccine, has infected over 145,000 people in the Democratic Republic of Congo between January and early August, it said in a statement.

“Since July, the epidemic has worsened, with a rise in new cases reported in several provinces,” said the NGO that goes by its French acronym MSF.

“Only $2.5 million has been raised out of the $8.9 million required for the Health Cluster response plan  — in stark contrast with the Ebola epidemic in the east of the country, which attracts multiple organisations and hundreds of millions of dollars in funding,” it added.

MSF tweeted that without a “massive mobilisation of funds and response organisations, the current measles outbreak in #DRCongo could get even worse.”

The NGO said it has vaccinated 474,860 children between the ages of six months and five years since the beginning of the year and provided care to more than 27,000 measles patients.

In the country’s east, Ebola has claimed more than 1,900 lives since erupting last August.

Measles is a highly-contagious diseased caused by a virus that attacks mainly children. The most serious complications include blindness, brain swelling, diarrhoea, and severe respiratory infections.

Last year, cases more than doubled to almost 350,000 from 2017, according to the World Health Organization, amid a rise in “anti-vaxxer” sentiment in some countries that can afford the vaccine, and lagging resources for the preventative measure in poor nations.

DR Congo declared a measles epidemic in June.

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76 people survive shipwreck in DR Congo

The motorised boat was carrying around 100 passengers when it capsized on the lake, near the eastern city of Bukavu.

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DR Congo boat accident claims 11 lives, dozens missing

76 people have survived a shipwreck on Lake Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a regional official said Saturday. However, more than a dozen people are feared to have drowned in the same incident.

The motorised boat was carrying around 100 passengers when it capsized on the lake, near the eastern city of Bukavu. 

“We have already registered 76 survivors,” said Swedi Basila, the regional transport minister for South Kivu province, adding that up to 20 people were still missing.

“No body has been found until now,” he told AFP.

The vessel had been on its way to the island of Idjwi when it hit a large rock and capsized, Basila said.

River transport is one of the most used in DR Congo with its numerous waterways. Boat mishaps are common, typically caused by overloading of passengers and cargo.

Tolls are often high because there are no life jackets and many Congolese do not know how to swim.

In April, at least 167 people were killed in two accidents, prompting President Felix Tshisekedi to make it mandatory for boat passengers to have life jackets. 

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DR Congo authorities ban rallies in Kinshasa as tensions rise

Tensions rose in the capital after youths announced they would hold a protest against the candidacy of a former justice minister

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UDPS opposition party leader Felix Tshisekedi gestures to supporters as Authorities bans rallies

DR Congo authorities have banned political rallies this week in the capital Kinshasa because of tensions between supporters of President Felix Tshisekedi and those of former leader Joseph Kabila, police said Sunday.

Tshisekedi was elected in December to replace Kabila who presided over sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest country for nearly two decades.

Tensions rose in the capital after the youth wing of Tshisekedi’s Democracy and Social Progress party (UDPS) announced it would hold a protest against the candidacy of a former justice minister for the senate presidency.

In response, the pro-Kabila Red Berets movement said it would hold a counter-march to support the candidacy of Alexis Thambwe, who is considered by many a hardliner from the Kabila regime.

Read also: Zuma to testify at South Africa’s graft probe

Kinshasa police chief General Sylvano Kasongo told state television that given the tensions in the capital, Kinshasa’s governor had banned all political rallies for this week. “He instructed the police to take all appropriate measures. Anyone who attempts to march or disturb the public order this week will find the police in their way,” he said.

UDPS youth wing spokesman Fils Mukoko told reporters they wanted to protest against seeing “the same faces in charge of the country’s institutions or in the government.”

Kabila’s Common Front for Congo (FCC) coalition won comfortable majorities in both houses of parliament as well as provincial assemblies, and his supporters also dominated elections for the governorships across the country.

Read also: GNA announces a new political plan, promises elections in Libya

None of the candidates the FCC presented for seven key Senate posts is from Tshisekedi’s CACH alliance in the legislature despite an agreement to work together between the two political blocs.

Six months after Tshisekedi’s inauguration and more than a month after the appointment of Prime Minister Ilunga Ilunkamba, who was proposed by Kabila, CACH and FCC negotiators are still struggling to agree on the composition of the government.

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