Part one in a five-part series.
“Fucking Chinese!” The white SUV came barreling down the dirt road, blowing past us without even hinting at slowing down. “They think they own this place,” said my driver, Paul, as he struggled to get our pickup truck out of a ditch. “Before there were elephants and antelope everywhere here. Now nothing. You can take one or two antelope, you know, but not all of them.”
We continued past orderly rows of air-conditioned barracks and a giant red banner with yellow Chinese script before crossing a river on a provisional steel bridge, courtesy of the Chinese Bridge and Road Corporation (CBRC). Beside me rose giant cement pylons, a foreshadow of what is to come.
I was on my way to one of the most remote places on earth, Loango. Created in 2002 by presidential decree, Loango National Park is without a doubt Gabon’s most famous protected biosphere, an 80 kilometer strip of virtually uninhabited land that runs along the coast and encompasses savanna, wetlands, a 220 square kilometer lagoon, and, of course, forest. With a variety of species including elephants, gorillas, and leopards, it’s one of Africa’s most unspoiled ecosystems.
But getting here is not easy. After taking a short but expensive flight from Libreville to Port Gentil, I was making the five-hour journey by car along dirt roads that entailed traversing (with special permission) Gabon’s largest ongoing infrastructure project,100 kilometers of paved road with a series of bridges running south to the village of Omboué. Project Po, as it’s known, is being touted as a game changer by facilitating commerce between Port Gentil, the economic heart of Gabon, with its capital and most populous city, Libreville. There is only one problem: Libreville lies to the North.
While the CBRC insists that for engineering and ecological reasons it’s more feasible to build the road hundreds of kilometers out of the way, many people here are skeptical. “There is an agreement,” says Paul as if letting me in on some privy information, “the road is just pretense so the Chinese can send the wood back home.”
Considering that Gabon’s last great infrastructure project, the Trans-Gabon Railway ended in an economic crisis that saddled the country with billions in debt, it’s easy to see how people of this former French colony would assume the worst. However, as we drove along the construction site, which vaguely reminded me of the closing scene from Once Upon a Time in the West, I saw nothing to suggest that this was a logging operation or that trigger-happy Chinese were eagerly blasting away at the wildlife like they were railroad employees out on the Great Plains; there are no pyramids of buffalo bones out here.
What many seem to miss, though, is that Project Po truly is an investment in the future, just not Gabon’s. The deal’s financing is a dead giveaway. The $600 million price tag, at least half of what any competitor would reasonably charge, is almost entirely funded by loans from the Export-Import Bank of China (Chexim). Autocratic countries especially like Chinese loans because they are not tied to the usual good governance and transparency conditions that many Western institutions demand.
But there is a catch. The project’s contractor is the CBRC, a Chinese state-owned construction company, which means the funds released by Chexim are mostly being repatriated back to China. It is corporate welfare with Gabon serving as collateral.
Not that the Chinese ever expect the heavily indebted country to pay off its loans; this was never their intention. What Project Po has bought the Chinese, at practically a bargain price, is leverage, leverage that they can cash in for resources in the future. Did I mention that Gabon has some of the largest oil reserves in sub-Saharan Africa and is one of the world’s leading producers of magnesium? The Chinese are playing the long game.
Part two: my arrival to the “Eden of Africa” where I’m left wondering who really is in charge.