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Anger Seethes in Gabon after Wood Company Sacks Protesting Workers

MBOMAO, Gabon, Mar 13 2015 (IPS) - There is rising anger among trade unionists, environmentalists and civil society groups in Gabon after a wood company, Rain Forest Management (RFM), sacked 38 fixed-term workers last month in Mbomao, Ogooué-Ivindo province.

RFM, a Gabonese wood processing company with Malaysian investment, is one of several exploiting the rich natural forests in Gabon. The forestry sector is the country’s second source of foreign exchange after oil.

RFM and the woodworkers had been locked in a lengthy dispute over working conditions, lack of contacts and legal working hours, among other complaints.

According to the Entente Syndicale des Travailleurs du Gabon (ENSYTG) union, RFM refused to negotiate with them and workers who were planning to take part in trade union meetings were threatened and intimidated.

“Although Gabon’s forests are often described as being relatively undamaged and offering great potential for long-term sustainable timber production, it is clear that industrial forestry within the current policy framework threatens their future integrity and the country’s biodiversity” – Forests Monitor

After numerous threats and charges of intimidation, on Feb. 17, as the employees were returning to work, RFM called on police to evict them from their company-supplied dormitories, claiming that the workers had violated company rules.

The dismissals were linked to worker protests over poor working conditions, unsanitary housing infested with rats, cockroaches and snakes, demands for legal working hours and payment of wages on time.

Léon Mébiame Evoung, president of ENSYTG, told IPS that the workers were simply calling on the company to respect basic rights and provide a pharmacy and an infirmary that should be managed by competent Gabonese health professionals.

RFM failed to meet any of these demands, said the union official. Instead, it decided to execute its earlier threat by firing all protesting workers.

The action has provoked the ire of civil society groups and syndicates, including Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWINT), which is circulating an online petition to help the strikers’ return to their jobs.

Marc Ona Essangui, founder of the environmental NGO Brainforest and president of Environment Gabon, a network of NGOs, told IPS in an online interview that he could not accept such “gross suppression” of workers’ rights. “I have signed up to the call to protect the workers,” he said.

“I strongly protest against the dismissal of these workers, which is clearly linked to their strike action,” he insisted. Such anti-union activities, he added, violate International Labour Office (ILO) conventions 87 and 98 (on freedom of association and the right to organise and bargain collectively, respectively).

Along with other environmentalists in the region, Essangui – who once received a suspended sentence for accusing a presidential ally of exploiting timber, palm oil and rubber in Gabon’s “favourable agri-climate” – is troubled by risks to the region’s natural forests due to development activities.

The Gabonese government and international donors, however, regard the exploitation of timber as central to the country’s macroeconomic development.

According to Forests Monitor, an NGO that supports forest-dependent people, “although Gabon’s forests are often described as being relatively undamaged and offering great potential for long-term sustainable timber production, it is clear that industrial forestry within the current policy framework threatens their future integrity and the country’s biodiversity.”

The NGO notes that “production levels are already considerably above the official sustainable production estimates and are set to continue rising”, meaning that “the contribution which forestry sector revenues make to the country’s population as a whole and to people living in the locality of forestry operations is questionable.”

On its website, the World Resources Institute (WRI) notes that “nowhere is the pressure (on resources) more intense than in Gabon, a nation with 80 percent of its territory covered by dense tropical forest. With resource use demands spiralling in recent years, Gabon urgently needs better forest management planning if the government is to achieve its goal of becoming an emerging economy while preserving the country’s natural resources.”

RFM’s woodworking factory lies at the centre of three national parks – Lope, Crystal Mountain, and Ivindo – and to the east of Libreville. The park area is a small fraction of the land marked for development on a WRI map. The wood used by RFM is locally sourced.

Established in 2008, RFM produces windows and doors for the Gabonese domestic market. It exports semi-finished products to Asia, Europe and the Middle East. The company employs more than 700 workers, with a Gabonese majority.

Since November 2009, when log exports were banned, the formal economy production of processed wood has increased significantly.

According to a WRI report titled ‘A First Look at Logging in Gabon’, compiled by seven Gabonese environmental organisations, “Gabon has vast forest resources, but rapid growth of logging activity may threaten those resources. If managed properly, Gabon’s forests could offer long-term revenues without compromising the ecosystems’ natural functions.”

However, the authors continued, “(we) found information about forest development unreliable, inconsistent, and very difficult to obtain. We believe that more public information will promote accountability and transparency and favour the implementation of commitments made to manage and protect the world’s forests, which would significantly slow forest degradation around the world.”

Edited by Lisa Vives/Phil Harris    

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