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Establishment of forest villages in Gabon

J. Leroy Deval and Faustin Legault
Directors of Reforestation, Libreville, Gabon

Abstract

Gabon is a country whose dense forests constitute the main natural resource. The forests are stocked mainly with okoume (Aucoumea klainiana) and, because they have been exploited by industry, the government has established a reforestation programme of natural stands. This paper describes the means used to attain this objective and the results of initial endeavours. The conclusions include recommendations for improving the programme.

Gabon-A Country of Forests

Seventy-five per cent of the area of Gabon is covered by dense, humid, evergreen forest of low and medium altitude, while 15 per cent of the country is savanna. Gabon produces a great deal of wood (particularly okoume, Aucoumea klainiana) and its forests have been subjected to intense exploitation for more than half a century. For many years the government has been working on a reforestation programme in over-exploited forests and an improvement programme for dense natural okoume stands.

The vacant, unclaimed forests of Gabon and the reforestation areas belong to the government and constitute part of its private domain. This is the basic legal status governing the forests but rural communities, which account for 86 per cent of the population, exercise their customary right to use the government-owned forest, a right strictly limited to meeting the personal and community needs of users (collecting firewood and building materials, picking medicinal and edible plants, and so on).

In this way, the forest is a reservoir from which rural people can obtain basic essentials. Various food-producing crops are also raised in these forests. This situation dates back to precolonial times and, unfortunately, has not developed since then. This explains why rural communities have failed to evolve. For obvious financial reasons, the forests are systematically exposed to a well-established exploitation operation, with solid financial backing. The forestry activities of big businesses do not meet the fundamental rural development criteria, namely that the basic structure for any development effort must be the village.

Forestry regulations in effect in Gabon have provided for a forestry permit which allows rural people to acquire a certain amount of forest land, if they meet fairly simple requirements. These provisions have actually favoured the development of some geographically superior areas. The permits apply to what are known as family-cutting areas, which are most sought after in zones rich in okoume located close to transportation routes. This made exploitation inexpensive and required only rural manpower. Over the years, however, these activities, along with demographic pressure and intensified exploitation, have led to forest shrinkage. Favourable zones are now in distant locations and are becoming rare. Nowadays, this type of permit has lost its original character. It has been diverted from the traditional practice and has been used to benefit tenant-farming contracts which, as they become more common, make the lot-owner a "shareholder" in the forest. This runs counter to efforts in Gabon to develop a class of native contractors in rural areas.

Reforestation Centres

The most important activity of reforestation centres is the creation of artificial stocks of okoume. Studies and research on forest ecology and on the biology of this species have made it possible to develop a sophisticated silviculture technique. The artificial regeneration of the stocks of this species no longer poses major problems. Twenty-six thousand hectares of okoume have been planted so far.

The establishment of a reforestation centre always begins with plans for a road network and home construction. Under normal circumstances, each of these centres consists of a staff of between 100 and 400 people. Including families, approximately 1,000 people live in a centre. The staff should be broken down as follows: 70 per cent unskilled workers; 25 per cent technicians (experts); and 5 per cent training personnel.

In an effort to alleviate insufficient food crop yields among elderly villagers and the families of staff (who are mainly seeking self-sufficiency), the reforestation authorities decided to introduce intercropping in the reforestation plots. they had both social and economic objectives in establishing an agro-forestry system. The social objective was to encourage the population to participate in the artificial regeneration of the forest, and thereby to solve the conflicts of interest that often divide forestry specialists and farmers when the latter feel they are being deprived of arable land and are not benefiting from reforestation activities. The economic objective was to increase the quality and value of the plantations.

An agro-forestry solution was thus chosen, aimed at increasing the value of plantations by the incorporation of food crops. There was a choice between two types of crops: the traditional food crops such as cassava, cocoyam, and corn; and the profitable cash crops such as coffee, cocoa, oil palm, and bananas.

For the traditional food crops, experiments were conducted on the Nkoulounga reserve located north-east of Libreville; cocoyam and cassava were planted between rows of okoume, either the same Year as the okoume was planted or the following year. The okoumes were planted 3 x 3 m, 5 x 5 m, and 6 x 6 m apart. An attempt was also made to introduce okoume in a one-year-old cassava plantation where the okoumes were planted 12 x 12 m apart. It soon became apparent that the requirements of the okoumes and the food crops were incompatible. To grow well, okoume needs a lateral screen of young forest undergrowth to protect its bole. Food crops, on the other hand, need rich soil, must be well maintained, and should be kept free of competing vegetation. The work required to maintain the food crops in densely planted areas favoured the development of crowns on the okoume, which finally overshadowed the food crops. In lowdensity plantations (where trees were at a distance of 5 x 5 m or 6 x 6 m apart), the boles of planted trees became exposed over the years-a situation that leads to the growth of suckers and poor form due to the lack of natural pruning.

A good silviculture method for okoume, then, does not permit intercropping. Instead, spaces were set aside in the reforestation zones for food crop production, and cash crops were sought for long-term cultivation. In future, however, an agro-forestry method for okoume may be designed, using traditional food crops, so that people living in reforestation centres and neighbouring villages can grow their own food. Land left fallow will be used by the villagers after the growing cycle. This land will be interplanted with okoume, or prepared for natural regeneration if the presence of seed-bearing trees permits this.

Agro-forestry experiments aimed at cash crops have identified four crops whose essential requirements are known: cocoa, coffee, oil palm, and banana.

The search for practices that would reconcile the silvicultural management of okoume (which is characterized by difficulties in terms of pruning and the shape of the bole, sensitivity to changes in light, and requiring forest undergrowth between the rows of plants) with those of selected cash crops (which require as much light as possible and demand the supression of forest undergrowth during the first growth stage and the elimination of all competing growth during the second stage) is stymied by two technical problems: the distance between the okoume plants and the other crops; and the mode of transplantation for the okoume, given the differences in the natures of the species in question. Experiments were therefore conducted using different planting techniques: arrangement of seed spots, open planting, strip planting, and so on.

The most interesting results were obtained with the GrosMichel variety of banana. The production experiments yielded an average harvest of 10 t/ha during the first cycle, 25 to 30 months after planting. This is not high for a cash crop, but it is enough, given the extensive interplanting with okoume, since the object is to involve the population in agro-forestry activities.

Conclusion

In future, consideration must be given to transforming reforestation centres into rural development centres. Combining agro-forestry activities and wood-processing cottage industries, such centres would make more productive and rational use of the forest, as well as involving the local population economically. They would then be ready to be integrated into the life of the centres. It is also imperative that more thorough professional training be provided on the site for specialists (machine operators, assistant diesel mechanics, drivers, nursery personnel, and so on), for junior staff (supervisors, foremen), and for intermediate-level staff from technical schools who would spend periods on the site to augment their theoretical training.

This is the beginning of a process that will lead to the creation of private forests using plantations created by the villagers through agro-forestry methods. Experience to date shows that the forest cannot play an effective role unless the management objectives envisage real profits for the rural inhabitants. For this reason, development plans should be simple and well adapted to the environment. they should be designed in such a way as to allow the rural people to participate in their implementation and to derive maximum benefit from them.

Small processing industries in the villages will afford villagers access to semi-finished construction materials to improve their homes. A source of employment and income, they could become real centres of activity around which a multitude of related activities could arise.