Videos of an altercation on a building site in Gabon have been circulating on social media for the past two weeks. The parties involved are foreign entrepreneurs and young workers from the village of Bemboudié, in the south of the country. According to eyewitnesses, it began when the company decided to hire workers from a neighbouring village rather than Bemboudié, stoking the flames of rivalry between the two communities. Our Observer says this type of scene is frequent within the logging industry.
Gabon is over 85 percent forested and exports over 60 different types of wood to Asia, Europe and the Middle East. China is the country’s largest buyer, and Asian investors are increasingly looking to set up shop in the country, as the website Geopolis Afrique reported in June 2018 (article in French).
The logging industry is the second biggest source of income from Gabon’s natural resources, according to a 2014 by the NGO Brainforest. But local communities struggle to benefit from the presence of foreign companies working in this sector.A series of videos posted on social networks from August 31 has reignited the debate about the presence of foreign companies in the country. One short video seems to show foreign businessmen using pieces of wood to hit young people in a logging camp.
The captions for the posts – mostly shared on Facebook – said that the scene took place in Bemboudié, in the province of Ngounié, after young people who had come to work there were told by their Chinese employers to go back home. The posts also explained that the company was hiring young people from the neighbouring village of Boungounga instead.
"They asked us to leave"
Jean (not his real name), 22, lives in Bemboudié. He was there when the scene took place and says that he was injured during the fight. He says that the businessmen fired them and replaced them without even a word of explanation.
For two months now, we’ve been watching this company set up their logging camp between our village, Bemboudié, and Boungounga. Over the last two weeks an interpreter has been coming to Bemboudié to start recruiting workers, because Bemboudié is closer to the worksite. So we started working for them as day labourers. But on Friday August 31 they asked us to leave, saying that it was now the turn of people from Boungounga. We didn’t think that was fair; we said that it shouldn’t happen like that and that we were going to stay and keep working. So to try to make us leave, they started hitting us with sticks.
The FRANCE 24 Observers spoke to the son of the chief of Bemboudié, who confirmed Jean’s version of events. But a Chinese man who goes by the name Jimmy and who has been living in Gabon for many years and who works as a translator on the worksite gave us a different account of what happened.
The Chinese company Rong Feng Wood has only just set up operations here. They’re just trying to start their timber-processing company. It all happened because of a misunderstanding: the workers from Bemboudié had started making problems a few days before when they tried to negotiate their daily salary. So the company went to the other village to recruit there. When they told the workers from Bemboudié to go home, the workers started to take out their anger on the machines, the bulldozers, etc. And it turned into a brawl.
The FRANCE 24 Observers team tried to contact Ngounié province’s Department of Water and Forests several times, without success, to try to learn more about the company.
Gabon’s official public register confirms that a company called Rong Feng Wood was created in June 2018. It describes the company’s operations as the “exploitation, treatment, industrial processing, transport and selling of wood in all its forms”. However, the record does not state where exactly the company operates.
"We are fighting to raise awareness among the Gabonese people of their rights"
The problem for our Observer Ladislas Désiré Ndebet is that these misunderstandings and tensions happen all too often in the logging industry. Ndebet is the president of Muyissi Environnement, a forest conservation organisation, and says that the locals are often exploited and national labour laws are often ignored by their employers.
The incident [that we can see in the video] happened only a short time after my team and I travelled to the administrative capital of the province. When we were there, we spoke with members of the community and were told about this timber-processing plant being built near Bemboudié village. We learnt about the incident a few days later.
While what happened is certainly shocking, it’s unfortunately very common in the logging industry. Based on what we’ve seen on the ground, I can tell you that foreign businesses, in particular Asian companies, are the kings of lumbering in this country, and many operations operate illegally. Often they don’t respect the local communities, which is why we are fighting to raise awareness among the Gabonese people of their rights. The local communities should be able to benefit from the businesses that come to set up in their villages. These companies are legally obliged to prioritise giving jobs to the locals.
However, in practice that’s often not the case because these businesses arrive with their own workforce and only employ the locals for occasional jobs – and sometimes illegal jobs – and only give them day salaries. But even day labourers should receive a written contract. And often that doesn’t happen. Businesses are also required to clearly lay out the specifications of the work to the villages around where they’re operating, so that this kind of misunderstanding is avoided. Unfortunately, these foreign businesses are often protected by certain authorities so they don’t bother… Which makes our work even more difficult.