An environmental activist in Gabon is facing jail time and a $10,000 fine over his campaign against a Singaporean agroindustrial giant’s plan to develop tens of thousands of hectares in oil palm, timber, and rubber plantations in the Central African nation.
Marc Ona Essangui, the 2009 winner of the prestigious Goldman Prize, was convicted of defamation by a Gabonese court earlier this month. According to the Goldman Prize, Ona was charged after he “spoke out against possible government corruption involving Soleman Liban, a senior advisor to Gabonese President Ali Bongo, and Olam Gabon.”
Ona, who is the Executive Secretary of Brainforest NGO, Coordinator of Publish What You Pay Coalition in Gabon, and Coordinator of Environment Gabon, made the remarks during a television interview. He said that Olam Gabon belonged to Soleman, who denied the accusation and then filed the defamation case against Ona.
Despite the ruling, the activist stood by his campaign against Olam Gabon’s project:
“It’s important to know that my commitment is to stop the destruction of our forest and all biodiversity by Olam, a Singaporean company, to plant palm trees and rubber. The members of the executive [government] are [giving] land to Olam without taking care of the right[s] of populations. The deforestation caused by this activity [has] accelerated since 2009 when Ali Bongo, the new Gabonese President, [gave] all power to Olam to cut trees [and] to plant palm trees and rubber. The denunciation I made is about collusion between the new President, his cabinet and Olam. They make intimidation on the populations to accept all projects by Olam. It’s not normal. The corruption of the executive members [of government] is about influence they make to [pressure they put on] the rest of the people to accept Olam project. I am fighting again the situation and we need all the network of Goldman Prize to join us by denouncing Olam activities in Gabon and the collusion with the members of the executive power in Gabon.”
Ona was previously jailed in 2008 for his campaign to improve transparency around development projects in Gabon. He was awarded the Goldman Prize in 2009 for his campaign against a Chinese mining project.
Recent forest clearance for oil palm by Olam, Kango, Gabon. Photos by Alexander De Marcq
In a show of support for Ona, dozens of former Goldman Prize winners have sent a letter to Gabonese president Ali Bongo calling upon him to review the case.
“We understand that the case centered on allegations of corruption in relation to oil palm and rubber production in Gabon. There has been tremendous increase in the clearance of forests lands around the world for palm oil production in recent years, which is of major concern to the environment and rights of local forest communities,” states the letter. “We are worried that the prosecution of Mr Ona Essangui sends the message that public discussion and debate about this issue are not welcome in Gabon. Beyond the impacts on Mr Ona Essangui himself, we are deeply concerned that respect for the environment and for human rights in Gabon is undermined by this case.”
For its part, Olam says it has nothing to do with the defamation case against Ona.
“We wish to reiterate that at no time have we tried to prevent Marc Ona from voicing his opinions,” Olam said via email.
The company added that its plantations in Gabon will meet international certification standards.
“We have taken a strong stance on developing our palm plantations in Gabon based on RSPO guidelines and were the 1st company in Africa to complete New Planting Procedures through RSPO. We are on track to gaining certification once our plantations mature.”
Editor’s note: This article originally misstated that “Olam was previously jailed in 2008”. “Olam” was a typo — it has been corrected. At the time of this correction, we also added the emailed comment from Olam International.