Gabon’s forest guards say they are threatened to strike because their salaries are frequently paid months late.
A union leader warned that poor working conditions are threatening endangered African forest elephants as well as carbon-rich rainforests by putting them at risk.
The west African nation of Gabon is 88% tree-covered and accounts for nearly a fifth of the Congo Basin forest, the world’s second largest rainforest and a major carbon sink. It has retained a large portion of its primary forest, and boasts lower deforestation than its neighbors.
According to the park guard union Syneg, these efforts are under threat because hundreds of rangers from ANPN, the national park agency, are threatening strike action. They claim that the government has failed to pay them a fair wage and provide the necessary medical support.
A walkout would leave the forest largely unprotected against poachers and illegal loggers and gold miners, Sosthène Ndong Engong, secretary general of the rangers’ union Syneg, told Climate Home News. “We love the work we do but we cannot go on like this,” he said.
The government refutes the notion that a strike poses a threat for the parks. Gabon’s environment and forest minister Lee White told Climate Home park guards have a legal obligation to maintain a minimum service when on strike.
“Were there to be an issue the military would support the rangers in a park where staffing was considered dangerously low. But that has never been necessary,” he said.
Part of Gabon’s conservation success has been attributed to the creation of 13 national parks in 2002, which have become a haven for plants and wildlife.
These parks provide sanctuary for the critically endangered African forest Elephants. While the species’ population fell 75% in the Congo Basin in the last 20 years, it increased in Gabon, which claims to be home to 65-70% of the global population.
Gabon’s eco-guards are tasked with keeping poachers and those illegally harvesting the forest’s resources out of protected areas.
Syneg was formed in September 2020 by rangers who became increasingly frustrated with their pay and conditions. The union claims that park staff are often paid late, sometimes by several month, and that they face intimidation or threats if speaking out.
Union leader Engong said he has had to move home with his family every few months in the past year because his salary wasn’t paid on time to settle the rent. “We don’t understand that the agents of the national parks that make Gabon proud on the international stage are treated so badly,” he said.
The rangers insist that wages be paid on-time and raised to reflect the risks of the job. This is in addition to complementary medical insurance and an institution audit of ANPN. After two years of dialogue with the organisation’s leadership, the guards say they have got nowhere.
Syneg members voted last week to give ANPN a deadline of two months to meet their demands. “We have to give them the benefit of the doubt that they will do something,” said Engong. If they don’t see progress, they may consider striking.
Minister White recognised that there had been delays to rangers’ salaries, citing an economic crisis and the strain on the treasury caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. “I am trying to get their December salaries paid. Hopefully by next week,” he told Climate Home.
White said that all guards are covered through the national healthcare system and the government doesn’t own the funds to provide private medical insurance.
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While Rangers in Gabon have been on strike before Engong stated that it would have negative consequences for wildlife and trees.
“If the strike goes ahead, these are enormous losses for the forest that ANPN will be responsible for. It would be catastrophic and scandalous,” Engong said.
Marc Ona, executive secretary of Gabon-based NGO Brainforest, told Climate Home the rangers’ demands should be taken seriously by the government.
“Eco guards are taking huge risks to protect the forest and their security needs to be guaranteed if we are to have assurances that national parks are being protected,” he said.
While international donors cover about two thirds of Gabon’s annual park budget, they don’t tend to fund recurring costs. Paying rangers’ salaries overwhelmingly falls on the shoulders of the government.
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However, international donors are concerned about the situation in Gabon when it comes to funding for forest protection.
The Central African Forest Initiative (Cafi), which offers $150m to Gabon, is offering result-based payments of $150m for reducing land degradation and deforestation over a ten year period. Norway, Germany, and the UK are the largest funders.
Cafi has a small budget to hire, train and equip rangers to patrol the new transboundary park. This has not been disbursed. Some support to rangers’ salaries is expected to start later this year but the initiative is not directly responsible for staffing of existing protected areas.
A spokesperson for the Cafi secretariat told Climate Home it took the matter “seriously” and that it had reached out to the Gabonese government and its implementing partners in the country.
Source: Climate Change News