Sitting at his desk with the national flag of Cameroon carefully in view, Noel Ebang Urbain, Secretary General, Ministry of Mines in Cameroon talks passionately about an iron ore extraction project. “Nature has given us the resources to be exploited in the interests of the state, in the interest of citizens, in the interest of all”.
A documentary film “Heart of Iron: Mining in the Congo Basin Rainforest” premiered May 28, 2013 after the World Bank and the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) signed an Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to formalize their collaboration to increase their effectiveness and impact with an emphasis on sustainability in the Tridom area of the Congo Basin area.
Tridom (Tri-national Dja-Odzala-Minkébé) is a vast forest landscape between Cameroon, Gabon, and the Republic of Congo.The forest is the largest in the world after the Amazon. Because of its unique geographic location, is serves as a biological corridor for wildlife. It covers a vast area six times the size of Belgium, is rich in wildlife, holds more elephants than Kenya and is a haven for gorillas and chimpanzees.
The forests were already under pressure from logging, gold mining and the bush meat trade, a product of the roads that have opened forests to loggers and poachers, reducing wildlife for communities who depend on the forest for food. Now a new threat arises: in its heartland lies one of the largest untapped iron ore reserves on earth.
The Baka people – Victims of Mining?
Ngoyla-Mintom is the Cameroonian part of Tridom is home to the Baka tribe. The Baka, an ethnic group of about 35,000 people are the longest continuous inhabitants of present day Cameroon and first settled during the Neolithic period. It is now that this tribe has reason to be worried as global demand is driving the search for iron ore in their home area.
The people in the Assoumdele Baka Village are frightened about the strangers who appear on their land – what do they want and how will they be treated? One tribal woman called Lisette Mendom is filmed walking through the forest with her child and other women to fish and take home their catch – one of their main activities. “We count on one and unique God called Jengi who provides guidance and protection and gives us strength”.
The villagers are not informed about iron ore projects until it is upon them, leaving them frightened for their livelihoods, their families and their futures. Local farmers and other residents seem resigned to their fate that they will be killed or forced to leave their land while others hope that the new project will bring them employment so that their lives may be improved. So far, the mine has done nothing for them, no one has gotten work. The film crew tells them about the promises of bringing water and electricity. They do not know when construction will begin and are waiting for the day that they receive help.
China – The Driving Force for Iron Ore
Sundance Resources, an Australian Mining Company (which was bought by Hanlong Mining Investment of China in 2011 for $1.52 billion) is operating the Mbalam Mining Camp 10 kilometers from Assoumdele Baka village. It is one of three iron ore sites in the Congo Basin operated by Sundance. The company is digging a mine pit and building a 500 km dedicated rail line, 100km through forests, to a custom-built iron-ore transport terminal at the port of Lolabe in Cameroon with the potential for long-term iron-ore production of up to 100-million tons a year.
China is the driving force for new capacity iron ore and having already mined rich deposits near the sea, they are now soucring Tridom but this is not the first time they have mined in the area.
In 2006, another Chinese company called the China Machinery Engineering Corporation (CMEC) signed an agreement with the Gabonese government to mine iron in Tridom. CMEC planned to dam Gabon’s protected Koungou Falls to power their mine. To access the falls, they cut a road through the country’s celebrated Ivindo National Park. Park Officials took notice right away and were told that the companies orders had come from the ‘top”.
Gabon signed a contract with the Chinese that did not follow Gabonese law that required environmental impact and feasibility studies; neither were conducted, breaking the country’s environmental code. The environmental issues in this new project means that Sundance will also need a large dam that was not included in their environmental impact assessment. The proposed dam site is a sanctuary for gorillas and elephants.
The agreement between the World Bank and WWF aims to provide ‘Safeguard Standards’ for this project – that it will follow sustainability guidelines and acknowledge the needs for the populations of unemployed communities to have healthcare, education and overall better lives. WWF are aware of the need for conservation efforts and that the forests need to be preserved.
According to Andréana Paola Mekui Biyogo – Ministry of Water and Forests of Gabon, the Congo basin is the ‘second lung’ of the earth for the prevention of climate change and preservation of the areas biodiversity. So far, nine protected areas have been created within the Tridom landscape so that scientists can find ways to protect its forests from exploitation. Eco-tourism has attracted few visitors so far but has great potential. Through international climate negotiations, REDD+ can play a role in saving the forests.
The ‘Safeguard Standards’ for international finance institutions emerged as a consequence of destructive forestry, agricultural colonization and extractive megaprojects financed by the World Bank in the Amazon, Indonesia and India in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Since then, many other multilateral development banks and development agencies have adopted their own safeguard policies and related complaints mechanisms.
So far, statements from the WWF show hope but no promises that they can guarantee that the project will proceed and effectively protect the Baka tribe as well as the delicate, globally and locally important forest ecosystems. Even the Cameroon Minister of Mines, Mr. Urbain states in euphemism about the project, “It is difficult to make omelets without breaking eggs … but it is not a matter of creating an environmental disaster”.
By Doris Downes