Interview: Ernst A Brugger

How does the development of the forestry sector in Gabon compare to that of other countries?

ERNST A BRUGGER: Gabon is an exceptionally rich country in tropical forests with low demographic pressure and important reserves in natural resources. The country is a leader in sustainability in Africa, as demonstrated by the government’s Gabon Vert (Green Gabon) initiative, and it has a modern, strict forestry law.

The government is committed to local wood processing to create more added value in the country. From a business perspective this makes sense, but the framework needs to be improved. For example, better railway, road and port infrastructure, as well as improved efficiency of public administration is needed. Significant progress must also be made in education. A Swiss government-funded project is currently under way to support education in the sector, which involves organising university excursions led by experts. This complements the government’s prioritisation of addressing deficiencies in technical education in Gabon.

In what way can the National Forest Code be improved to enhance forest protection?

BRUGGER: Professional forest management plans and their effective implementation are at the core of striking an optimal balance of using and protecting tropical forests. Though Gabon is one of the leaders in this sector in Africa, it could and should put greater importance on seriously implementing these plans to establish favourable rules for Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC)-orientated companies and increase investment in the education of forestry professionals. In the meantime, the Forestry Code is currently being updated, and a number of different players in the market are in the process of obtaining FSC certification.

How do you expect demand growth in Asia to affect the Gabonese tropical timber market?

BRUGGER: Asian markets are already important for Gabon and will probably continue to grow in importance over the next decade. There will certainly be more opportunities for marketing lesser-known species and products coming out of second- and third-stage processing. For the time being there are only limited new concessions that would increase capacity in response to the growth of Asian demand, though there is potential for more to be put on the table. As for exports to Europe, Gabon is not considered a least developed country (LDC) and therefore cannot benefit from the advantageous trade terms for LDCs. Veneer exports to Europe are stable, but European clients suffer from Customs duties of 6%. Gabon is negotiating with the EU for tax breaks in an effort to become more competitive.

Can sustainable management and land use be balanced with increased revenues?

BRUGGER: Sustainable land use and management greatly affects the overall quality of managing natural resources. The premiums on the market are too small for the time being, but this will probably change with the introduction of the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade law in Europe and similar laws in the US. These legislative initiatives will lead to quality labels being required to access important markets. We are convinced that prices for quality timber will rise steadily as a result.

What can be done to increase the amount of investment in the timber-processing industry?

BRUGGER: Timber processing needs good infrastructure and logistics, trained local professionals and employees, efficient government and public administration, and a working financial market that will encourage investment. Some of these elements are already in place, but efforts to improve in these areas are required as soon as is possible. The government, FSC-committed firms and relevant non-governmental organisations all share a common interest to build an attractive environment for sustainable investments.