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Gabon Environmental Leader Fights Government Approval to Develop Parkland


Marc Ona Essengui is credited with keeping a hydroelectric dam and an extensive mining operation from Gabon's largest national park. Ever since he developed polio as a young child, the Gabon activist has dedicated his life to campaigning for disabled rights and for the environment in his country. A father, a journalist, and passionate environmentalist, Ona is recognized as a tireless voice for the Congo River basin and he is the subject of this week's Making a Difference.

Concerned about the environment

Marc Ona, who developed polio as a young child, has dedicated much of his life to his native country's outdoors.

Through his nonprofit organization called Brainforest, Ona has held in check a government-approved plan to mine and log Gabon's parklands.

President Omar Bongo, Africa's longest ruling leader, once declared 10 percent of Gabon protected territory. Rich in biodiversity, Ivindo National Park includes Kongou and Mingouli Falls.

Secret negotiations

But Ona says he learned of secret government negotiations with a development company. "Industrialization of Africa without ecological conscious will bring ruin to the African continent," Ona said. "Africa still has vegetation to protect us from disasters like the tsunami and Katrina hurricane. If we destroy the African forest, the second largest forest in the world, we are heading to catastrophe."

In 2007, a Chinese company began building a road through the national park. Ona exposed the company's secret agreement with the government to build a hydroelectric dam and expand iron mining operations within the park. There had been no environmental impact assessment.

"Without our intervention the Chinese would already be exploiting the mine and ignoring Gabonese law," he said.

Jailed on anti-government charges

Although the government renegotiated the contract, Ona has been arrested repeatedly but anti-government charges are still pending against him and five others.

"No matter how I was treated in prison my resolve is not weakened. I think even if I had to spend 10 years in prison it is worthwhile to save what has to be saved," he stated.

During a trip to Washington, Ona said even jail can be an opportunity for activism.

"By jailing us, they thought they would punish us," he said. "But it allowed us to see the awful living conditions and we've written a report."

Marc Ona Essengui helps stop mining

Ona's environmental work lead the government to renegotiate the deal and he says thousands of square kilometers will be saved from development.

"The forest we are defending in Gabon isn't only for Gabon. It's in the interest of the entire planet," he asserts.

Marc Ona recently received the 2009 Goldman Environmental Prize. He says the $150,000 prize money will go toward his efforts to save the Gabon forest.




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