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GABON

Gabonese citizens raise the alarm over oil spills by French company Perenco

The photos were taken in October and November 2020 in the Étimboué department of western Gabon.
The photos were taken in October and November 2020 in the Étimboué department of western Gabon. © Facebook / ROLBG
Text by: Liselotte Mas
8 min

Residents of Étimboué in western Gabon have faced multiple oil spills over the past two years. Exhausted and angry, they are speaking out against Perenco, an independent Anglo-French oil company with headquarters in Paris and London, which is currently extracting petrol from about fifty different oil fields in the area. Locals report that Perenco’s equipment is poorly maintained and out of date, likely causing the spills. This contamination has had wide-ranging effects on the local population, including health problems, water pollution, poisoned crops and fish, say our Observers.

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In Gabon, the petrol sector is the largest contributor to GDP, representing upwards of 20% of revenue, according to the World Bank. Most of the country’s petrol reserves – estimated at about two billion barrels – are concentrated in the area south of Port Gentil. A string of different oil companies have operated in the region since 1956.

This area is also home to more than 5,700 people, most of whom make their living fishing in the nearby Lake Nkomi.

A group of locals first spoke out in October 2020 about the growing problem with pollution in the region. They pointed the finger at Perenco, which extracts 95,000 barrels per day in this area alone, according to its own numbers. 

"The old pipelines, which were installed about 40 years ago, are constantly developing holes"

Lydie Rebela is a 55-year-old farmer who has lived in the neighbouring village of Batanga for the past 30 years. 

There have been oil spills all over the area over the past few years. The oil spreads during the rainy season, when the polluted areas flood and the water carries all manner of toxic materials all over. My crops are less productive every year. For example, I need about 50% more water to make them grow than I did two years ago.  

The spills mostly happen because of the old pipelines, which were installed about 40 years ago and are constantly developing holes.

 

 

Some of the pipelines are under water, others are underground. Some are even above ground. There are also very old oil wells, which are in poor condition, and they leak and cause spills as well. 

 

Residents of Étimboué say that this pipeline, which is old and in poor condition, leaked oil.
Residents of Étimboué say that this pipeline, which is old and in poor condition, leaked oil. © Facebook
This so-called “Christmas tree”, used to regulate the flow of pipes in an oil well, is right next to an area that has become very polluted. This video was filmed in 2020 by Bernard Christian Rekoula.
This so-called “Christmas tree”, used to regulate the flow of pipes in an oil well, is right next to an area that has become very polluted. This video was filmed in 2020 by Bernard Christian Rekoula. © Video by Bernard Christian Rekoula

"Younger children here have respiratory problems, especially asthma”

I’ve lived here for the past 30 years and there has always been pollution, but it has gotten a lot worse over the past few years. We use lake water for washing and cooking but it is polluted both upstream and downstream from the village, which means we can’t drink it. 

We’ve also noticed more and more respiratory problems among our younger children [Editor’s note: To date, no scientific study has examined this issue], especially asthma, but we don’t have the means to get these children the treatment they need. I’ve noticed a difference when I go to Port-Gentil; I breathe better there. 

The worsening pollution over the past few months has been the final straw for us.

"Fishermen like me are finding fewer and fewer fish”

Thirty-two-year-old Yves Onanga used to work for Perenco. Now, he’s a fisherman. He said that the company’s conduct has pushed people over the edge. 

It’s true that these recent serious incidents have made us all worried, but what has really got us up in arms is Perenco’s reaction. They haven’t carried out the clean-up operations properly and aren’t planning on paying out any damages to residents affected by the spills.

In this video, several local people visit a site that was supposed to have been “cleaned up” by Perenco. When they pull back the branches, they see that the trees and their roots are covered with a black substance that they say is crude oil. 

The water is polluted and fisherman like us are finding that there are fewer and fewer fish. In 2012, the lake became extremely polluted and we found a lot of dead fish floating on the surface. Ever since, it’s like the fish have fled the area. Before, we could easily fish for eight kilos in a single day, but now we struggle to bring in two or three kilos. 

 

Dead fish washed up on the riverbank, published on Facebook in March 2019. Our Observer says this is a common sight in the area. (Photo: Gabon Vision 2.0 Official)

 

 

Industrial pollution

It isn’t just leaks. There are also all of the industrial plants that emit gas. There is one plant near the bridge [Editor’s note: north of Lake Nkomi] where they have flare stacks, which are used to burn off flammable gas. That pollutes the air, which then negatively affects our health and the environment. 

This is the flare stack site called CB1. It sits to the north of Nkoni Lake in the department of Étimboué.
This is the flare stack site called CB1. It sits to the north of Nkoni Lake in the department of Étimboué. © Bernard Christian Rekoula

These photos show the site near the bridge where gas is burned and then released back into the air. The process, called gas flaring, creates a lot of pollution. It is a means of getting rid of the gas that is extracted alongside the petrol.

If you look at satellite images of the area, you can see one particular area that is visibly polluted to this facility. There are tree trunks lying on the ground and areas coloured purple and black.

Activist George Mpaga is the coordinator of an organisation called ROLBG, a French acronym meaning Free Network of Organisations for the Good Governance of Gabon. Mpaga says that he is also worried about the effects of the pollution on the animals who live in the area, including antilopes, crocodiles and turtles. He is also worried for the fishermen, whose hauls are diminishing. 

"Officials tend to close their eyes to the problem”

Journalist and activist Bernard Christian Rekoula traveled to the area in October to film the damage caused by the oil spills in an attempt to raise awareness about the situation. He published his film on Facebook on November 7. 

Total was the first company to drill and extract petrol in the area, before selling to Perenco in 2018. The structures on these sites are old and haven’t been properly maintained. 

The ocean, the land, the forests and the lakes in the area have all become increasingly polluted over the past three or four years. Sometimes you find petrol, its derivatives or acid in the lakes, sometimes you find it in the middle of the forest. 

These blackened leaves are just one example of the damage caused by oil spills. This photo was taken in November 2020.
These blackened leaves are just one example of the damage caused by oil spills. This photo was taken in November 2020. © Étimboué locals collective

Officials tend to just close their eyes to the problem. So do many of the national media outlets. There are only a few independent websites that have published the testimonies and complaints of locals living in this area. That’s why I wanted to capture the extent of the damage on camera. 

This is ancestral land. People have been living here since well before independence [Editor’s note: in 1960]. Some people have left because of the pollution but most people want to stay. They think that Perenco is letting the situation get worse in order to push them to leave. 

Perenco, which has an important presence across the African continent, is the primary producer of crude oil in Gabon and the second largest French oil company after Total.

The company, which specialises in optimising mature oil feeds, is often described in the media as an opaque organisation with close ties to the Gabonese government. Perenco doesn’t disclose its annual revenues or its internal governance structure. It has also been mentioned in several investigations by independent media outlets into matters of corruption.

Our team reached out to Perenco by email but they did not respond to our request for an interview. We will update this page with their response if they do reply.

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