Can Libreville’s Electricity Users Save Gabon’s Watershed?

Oct 1, 2009
Emilie Filou
Katoomba XV Publications

The above articles were consolidated, along with other material from Ecosystem Marketplace, in two brochures that were distributed at Katoomba XV.

Leading up to the meeting, Ecosystem Marketplace commissioned this series of articles to shed light on issues relevant to these meetings and that part of the world.

Carbon and Land-Use: The Economies of Cocoa, Timber and Agriculture examines the role that carbon payments for Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) can play in promoting sustainable land-use practices West Africa.

Integrated Solutions: Water, Biodiversity, and the Clean Development Mechanism examines the role that PES schemes other than REDD can play in promoting sustainable land- and water-use practices in West Africa.

The following documents offer more detailed and technical treatment of the issues highlighted above:

Sweetening the Deal for Shade-Grown Cocoa: A Preliminary Review of Constraints and Feasibility of ‘Cocoa Carbon’ in Ghana

REDD Opportunities Scoping Exercise (ROSE) for Ghana Identifying Priorities for REDD Activities on the Ground: Preliminary Review of Legal and Institutional Constraints (Report of a Key Informant Workshop, July 2009)

Realizing REDD: Implications of Ghana’s Current Legal Framework for Trees


The Katoomba Group gratefully acknowledges the sponsorship and support of the following organizations for the Katoomba XV Meeting:

USAID; the Global Environment Facility (GEF); Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation; NORAD; Rockefeller Foundation; Rainforest Alliance; and Price Waterhouse Coopers.

As mining and logging spread across Gabon’s watershed, they threaten the river that nourishes the capital city, Libreville, and also drives the city’s turbines. USAID and the Global Environment Facility are helping the government of Gabon and the Wildlife Conservation Society entice electricity users into paying to maintain the watershed – for their good and the good of others.

1 October 2009 |
When Gabon’s late president Omar Bongo created 13 national parks covering 10% of the country’s territory in 2002, he turned Gabon into a conservation champion overnight. Gabon has since surprised critics who dismissed the move as a publicity stunt by following through with a comprehensive legal framework and an ongoing search for long-term, sustainable environmental protection.

The country is already using carbon finance to preserve its forests by earning credits for reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD) under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), and has recently become a pioneer in the use of other Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES).

The idea of taking into account the non-market value of ecosystem and to charge for the services they provide (anything from carbon sequestration to flood control to crop pollination) could provide new incentives for conservation – and the most recent frontier is water. The Ministry of Environment recently teamed up with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) on a Payment for Watershed Services (PWS) scheme designed to preserve and revive the Mbé watershed in the Northeast of the country.


Now Is the Time

“The awareness and capacity for PES in Gabon is low,” says WCS Gabon technical advisor Christina Connolly, “but there is a keen interest in the project because it fits into the sustainable development concept.”

The timing is right. Gabon has enjoyed substantial – and sustained – oil revenues since the 1960s, but with production forecast to decrease in the medium term, the pressure is on to diversify the economy. Mining and logging have huge economic potential, but their impact on the environment could be disastrous.

Forests cover 85% of the country and are home to some of the highest levels of biodiversity in the world. The watershed is one of many gems in Gabon. A 2004 study by the Central African Regional Program for the Environment (a USAID initiative) concluded that “in terms of numbers of species per hectare, it is the richest site in Africa assessed to date.” Endemicity is high, and the local ape population hasn’t been affected by the Ebola virus.

The also plays a vital economic role: The watershed is the main source of electricity for Gabon’s capital, Libreville, which makes up 60% of the country’s population. Electricity is generated from a hydroelectric dam owned by the Soci d’Energie et d’Eau du Gabon (SEEG), a subsidiary of the French multinational Veolia. Forests in the watershed reduce siltation in the reservoirs and help regulate water flow.


Threats to the

Despite its environmental and economic importance, the is facing serious threats. In addition to illegal mining, logging, and hunting, there is no capacity to regulate activities of the numerous legitimate actors: logging and mining concessions, the Monts de Cristal National Park (which occupies a third of the watershed), and local communities.

The approach has been piecemeal, and existing laws are often not enforced. The Forestry Code, for instance, requires concessionaires to adopt sound environmental practices, but none of the logging companies in the watershed abide by it. They’re not FSC-certified and don’t use reduced impact-logging techniques either.

WCS, with support from the GEF and USAID Translinks, is trying to establish a PWS scheme in the for services rendered to the city of Libreville. The basic principle is that electricity users downstream would pay land users upstream to adopt land-use practices conducive to the protection of the ecosystem and the good functioning of the hydroelectric dam. It’s trailblazing work, but Connolly hopes it will serve a greater purpose.


Early Days and Institutional Challenges

“What we have done is accumulate knowledge that will help us design the next three years. We have to build the institutional and legal framework of the PES, and I am hoping that the principles and institutions we set up can accommodate other PES schemes and REDD activities,” she says.

Gabon’s complex institutional makeup is likely to be one of the biggest challenges in getting the scheme running.

To begin with, there are a dozen stakeholders involved – from several ministries to the Monts de Cristal National Park (which covers a third of the watershed area) to local authorities, mining and logging concessionaires, and local communities – and as many conflicting priorities to reconcile.

The scheme also lacks a strong business case for the time being. Because of a chronic lack of data, it is difficult to show the link between deforestation and sedimentation; since it is the premise the scheme is based on, Connolly says studies to establish a connection will be put in place. “At the moment, it is hard for SEEG to know the extent of the change they would have a stake in addressing.”


Defining the Services

The exact nature of the services rendered is equally difficult to define. Local populations currently have a relatively low impact on land degradation, making it difficult to determine what harmful activities they could be paid to stop doing.

Equally tricky is the notion that logging companies would somehow be paid to adopt environmentally friendly practices when that is already required by laws they have simply failed to comply with.

Connolly acknowledges these are difficult questions, but she believes the scheme is an opportunity to rethink the current situation. Since the stick didn’t work, perhaps the carrot will? The PWS could provide an incentive for logging companies to go above and beyond the current legal framework such as not cutting trees near rivers or on steep slopes which create acute sedimentation problems. As for local communities, there is a move towards more community involvement, so there is scope.

Then there is the issue of payment. SEEG would be the main buyer, but it is likely it could pass on some or all of the cost to its customers.

“People are very supportive of the project in principle,” says Connolly, “but when we start talking about passing the cost on to consumers, it may change.”

Ensuring that the funds are then collected and distributed appropriately is another consideration: Who would be in charge?

Etienne Massard Makaga, General Director for the Environment and Nature Protection at the Ministry of Environment, is more dogmatic.

“The PES is a new way of seeing things: we have to shift from thinking about the environment in an economic context to thinking about the economy in an environmental context. We’re changing the paradigm. And this pilot project is about bringing the entire Gabonese society to change paradigm,” he says.

He thinks that once people understand the mutual benefits of the system, they’ll adhere to it.

“If SEEG realizes that the new approach is generating savings in operational costs, it will definitely take part. And if consumers get a better, more reliable electricity supply, a 2-3% increase on the bill will be money well spent.”


The Road Ahead

It is too early to have all the nitty-gritty details ironed out, but the scoping study has raised some interesting issues. WCS is submitting its plan for the next four years to the GEF (the main funder) this autumn; if all goes well, feasibility studies will start in January 2010. The objective is to have a signed contract between buyer(s) and seller(s) by the end of the program.

The feasibility study will focus on cost-benefit analysis and valuation studies to establish a robust PWS. Connolly and her team will also have much awareness-raising and capacity-building to do amongst stakeholders.

If the PWS materializes, WCS has planned interesting follow-up measures to evaluate the impact of the scheme: two sample areas will be compared, one taking part (treatment group) and one not involved (control group).

“It’s not a new idea,” says Connolly, “but it hasn’t been implemented systematically in the past. With the benefit of hindsight from other projects, we thought it would be good to include at the design stage.”

Funding or not, Connolly says WCS will pursue its work on PES in Gabon. The government also has high hopes for PWS schemes. The country plans to continue developing hydroelectric energy; large-scale PWS schemes could be part of the development, such as in the Grand Poubara dam in northeast Gabon, part of a €3 billion deal to exploit the Belinga iron mine.

Emilie Filou is a free-lance writer specializing in African development issues and a regular contributor to Ecosystem Marketplace. She is based in London, and can be reached at

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