Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

'Green Nobel' winner fights to save Africa's rainforests

From Diane McCarthy, CNN
March 14, 2012 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Kongou Falls, located in the heart of Gabon's Ivindo National Park, are some of the most impressive cataracts in the African continent. Kongou Falls, located in the heart of Gabon's Ivindo National Park, are some of the most impressive cataracts in the African continent.
HIDE CAPTION
Kongou Falls
Activist Marc Ona Essangui
Kongou Falls
Activist Marc Ona Essangui
Activist Marc Ona Essangui
Gabon's vast rainforests
Gabon's vast rainforests
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Marc Ona Essangui is a Gabonese activist and internationally-recognized environmentalist
  • In 2009 he was awarded the Goldman Prize, a 'Green Nobel' given to environmental heroes
  • Ona has fought to save Gabon's Ivindo National Park from a mining project
  • The Congo Basin rainforest in Central Africa is under the threat of over-exploitation

(CNN) -- The majestic Kongou Falls has some of the most spectacular cataracts in Africa, which are located in the heart of Gabon's Ivindo National Park.

The 3,000-square-kilometer park is one of the most significant African sites for biodiversity conservation, sheltering a rich variety of wildlife and vegetation species.

It is this scenic beauty and environmental importance of Gabon's vast rainforests that first prompted Gabonese activist and renowned environmentalist Marc Ona Essangui to campaign for the protection and preservation of the Congo Basin rainforest.

"It's fantastic the forest, fantastic," says Ona, a winner of the coveted environmental award Goldman Prize for his efforts to save Ivindo from a mining project. "There is peace, tranquility, one breathes in the freshness -- no pollution and it's magnificent," he adds.

The 'Son of the rainforest'
Monitoring Gabon's timber industry
Social justice for Gabon's disabled

"If we destroy this forest, we will have aggression from everywhere that will reach the wider population."

See more: 'Green Gabon' for eco-tourism

The world's second largest rainforest after the Amazon, the Congo Basin rainforest in Central Africa is under constant threat of destruction and exploitation.

A large swath of this dense rainforest is located in Gabon -- about 80 per cent of the equatorial country is covered by pristine forests, home to numerous gorillas, elephants, antelopes and tropical birds.

In 1998, Ona, a survivor of childhood polio, co-founded Brainforest, a non-governmental organization working to preserve Gabon's natural resources.

The wheelchair-bound activist says he is fighting for the rights of his people, the indigenous tribes who call the forest home but have no legal rights over their lands.

"In the beginning, one of the objectives of the Brainforest was about conserving and protecting the Ivindo forest," he says. "But today we have seen that it is also necessary to talk about the laws that govern forestry rights, looking at illegal activities in the forest, such as corruption and all that is related to forestry. We are looking at the rights of those living in the forest and defending and protecting their rights."

Located in the western part of Central Africa, oil-rich Gabon is one of Africa's wealthiest countries -- the land beneath Gabon is richly seamed with minerals and is being mined successfully.

In the early 2000s, the Gabonese government entered into an agreement with a Chinese mining and engineering company, offering them a huge mining concession within the Ivindo National Park.

According to Brainforest, negotiations were conducted in secret and the government did not consult with affected communities nor assess the project's environmental impact.

The future generations will not benefit from this beautiful nature scene if we don't preserve it.
Marc Ona Essangui, Brainforest

Ona obtained a leaked copy of the agreement and made it public, applying enormous pressure and forcing the state to renegotiate the terms of the contract.

The campaigner's efforts were key in the fight to save the park but Ona has paid a high price for his activism.

In 2008, he was arrested and detained for 13 days. He has also been evicted from his home and has been refused an exit visa more than once.

More from African Voices: How Ladysmith Black Mambazo inspired Mandela

However, his efforts have given him international acclaim and renown; in 2009 he was awarded the Goldman Prize, a "Green Nobel" prize that honors grassroots environmental heroes across the globe.

"It's an honor because it is the equivalent of a Noble Peace prize-- it is recognition of the work we do from the public," says Ona.

"When I obtained it and was congratulated for receiving this award, I saw it as appreciation and acknowledgment of the work we have always done and will continue doing to protect the interests of this population and the entire forestry environment," he adds.

A champion of social justice, Ona has also been fighting tirelessly for the rights of the disabled -- suffering from polio since the age of six, he refuses to let his condition prevent him from living a full life.

"I am married, my wife is able-bodied, I have children who are not handicapped, I do everything normally," says Ona, who in 1994 founded an NGO called Handicap sans Frontiers. "Even if I am disabled, I don't have that mindset -- I see what I can contribute to my community, my family or my country, that for me is the fundamental thing."

Read more: Recycled hotel soap saves children's lives

A born fighter, Ona says he is determined to keep working to save Gabon's forests and ensure a better future for coming generations.

"The message is simple," he says, "we are not going to be blinded by material things as our leaders. The future generations will not benefit from this beautiful nature scene if we don't preserve it and we will be known as a continent where resources can be exploited but not to be nourished and cared for.

"We Africans have to ensure our own well-being."

Teo Kermeliotis contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
African Voices
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Australia's Tim Cahill appeals to the linesman after a disallowed goal during the Group B match between Chile and Australia at Arena Pantanal on June 13, 2014 in Cuiaba, Brazil.
Kenya's national football team may not have made it to the World Cup Finals in Brazil -- but one man will be there for his African nation.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1044 GMT (1844 HKT)
African contemporary art is thriving, says author Chibundu Onuzo.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1230 GMT (2030 HKT)
Wegkruipertjie, a short film playing at the Durban International Festival
From Ghanaian rom-coms to documentaries celebrating 20 years of South African democracy, festival-goers are spoiled for choice at this year's Durban Film Fest.
June 10, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Kalibala with one of the children she supports.
In 2010, Ugandan journalist Gladys Kalibala embarked on a mission to bring attention to her country's lost and abandoned children.
June 3, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Sunset at Camps Bay with one of Andrew van de Merwe.
A trip to the beach is usually for lounging in the sun. But for Andrew van de Merwe, the sand stretches in front of him as an enormous blank canvas.
June 17, 2014 -- Updated 1240 GMT (2040 HKT)
Esther Mbabazi, Rwanda's first female pilot
Esther Mbabazi wheels her bag towards the airstairs of the Boeing 737 sitting quietly on the tarmac at Kigali International Airport.
May 20, 2014 -- Updated 1122 GMT (1922 HKT)
Jun 1978: Filbert Bayi #42 of Tanzania rounds the bend during the 5000 Metre event at the AAA Championships in Crystal Palace, London.
He's smashed world records and revolutionized running during his career. And yet the name of Filbert Bayi has largely been forgotten.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1249 GMT (2049 HKT)
Nelson Mandela
Adrian Steirn and the 21 ICONS team have captured intimate portraits of some of South Africa's most celebrated. Here he reveals the story behind the photographs.
May 9, 2014 -- Updated 1041 GMT (1841 HKT)
As the old adage goes, "If you want it done right, do it yourself" -- and for social activist Rakesh Rajani, those words have become an ethos to live by.
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1050 GMT (1850 HKT)
As the head of Kenya Red Cross, Abbas Gullet was one of the first emergency responders at the Westgate shopping mall.
May 28, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
David Kinjah njau and Davidson Kamau kihagi of Kenya in action during stage 2 of the 2007 Absa Cape Epic Mountain Bike stage race.
He's one of Kenya's premier cyclists but David Kinjah's better known as the man that trained Tour de France champion Chris Froome.
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1234 GMT (2034 HKT)
A Silverback male mountain Gorilla sits in the dense jungle canopy on the edge of Uganda's Bwindi National Park in this 29, January 2007 photo. Bwindi, or the 'Impenetrable Forest' as it is known to many tourists is home to the majority of Uganda's rare and endangered mountain gorilla population where plans are underway to habituate two more gorilla family groups to counter growing demand from a flourishing gorilla trek tourism business, a major source of income for the Uganda tourism Authority. AFP PHOTO / STUART PRICE. (Photo credit should read STUART PRICE/AFP/Getty Images)
Meet Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, the woman from Uganda trying to save critically endangered mountain gorillas before its too late.
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 0959 GMT (1759 HKT)
Jean Claude Nkusi
In Rwanda, young genocide survivors are forming "artificial families" to help each other financially and emotionally.
May 19, 2014 -- Updated 0942 GMT (1742 HKT)
The President and founder of the organisation 'Femmes Africa Solidarite' (Women Africa Solidarity), Bineta Diop.
Senegalese human rights activist Bineta Diop reveals why she is willing to risk her life to help women in Africa.
April 1, 2014 -- Updated 1014 GMT (1814 HKT)
Grace Amey-Obeng has built a multi-million dollar cosmetics empire that's helping change the perception of beauty for many.
Each week African Voices brings you inspiring and compelling profiles of Africans across the continent and around the world.
ADVERTISEMENT