A forest community in Gabon affirms its will for self-determination and responsible management of its ancestral land.
WORDS Benjamin Evine-Binet | IMAGES Nsombou Abalghe-Dzal Association
Ours is a real story, one both lived and shaped by the Kota community of Massaha — a group of villages located in the Ogooué-Ivindo province of northeastern Gabon, in central Africa. In this highly forested Congo basin country, the Kota people represent one of the largest ethnic groups, and their cultural roots remain deeply entwined with the forest they have always called home.
Residing today throughout the Ogooué-Ivindo province, the Kota first inhabited the forested upper banks of the Ivindo River, near where it flows from its tributary, the Aïna, which marks Gabon’s northeastern border with Cameroon. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, the Kota were displaced from the Aïna area under pressure from the Bakwélé people, who themselves had been chased from their lands by another group, the Pahouin. They then migrated south by way of two other tributaries of the Ivindo, the Zadié and Liboumba, and settled again in the forest at the edge of these rivers..
The decades that followed brought new pressures to these forest-dwelling communities, as the French colonial administration began forcing villagers to relocate along the national highway. This movement ultimately led to the founding of the Massaha village group in 1951. The first school in Massaha was built out of clay in 1957 and then renovated by the American Peace Corps in 1966.
The community has remained steadfast over generations in its efforts to safeguard its biocultural heritage.
Despite their displacement — coupled with the prohibition of ancestral cultural practices further imposed by the settlers — the community has remained steadfast over generations in its efforts to safeguard its biocultural heritage. To this day, the Massaha Kota continue to fight to conserve their forest, which is at once the epicenter of their ancestral traditions and their primary means of subsistence and survival.
At the center of Kota culture, the Massaha forest serves as the site for numerous traditional ceremonies rooted in animist practices, as well as initiation rites for young men and women, the invocation of ancestral spirits, and harvesting of medicinal plants — practices passed down through Kota cultural heritage over many generations.
Furthermore, ongoing ecological research has underscored the forest’s rich biodiversity. Studies have identified forty-two different species of animals, fifteen of which are on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, such as forest elephants and gorillas (critically endangered) and chimpanzees and giant pangolins (endangered), as well as an abundance of protected tree species including kévazingo (Guibourtia tessmannii), moabi (Baillonella toxisperma), and andok (Irvingia gabonensis). The Liboumba River also supplies important fisheries resources to hundreds of people living in Massaha.
As we speak, however, this diversity is under imminent threat by the logging industry. And in the forest south of the Liboumba, the fate of fifteen ancient Kota villages and eight sacred Kota sites hangs in the balance.
As is the case for most forests in Ogooué-Ivindo, outside of national parks, logging rights to the Massaha forest have been granted to a Chinese timber company, in this case Transport Bois Négoce International (TBNI). Due to its inaccessibility, the forest had previously been spared, but the beginning of 2021 marked a first foray by TBNI into the forest north of the Limoumba.
A grim historical reminder: in the early 2000s, logging company SUNRI Gabon settled along the banks of the Zadié, north of Massaha. Along with the forest in its logging concession, it proceeded to raze the entire biocultural heritage of a local community, which was consequently forced to relocate to Massaha and the neighboring village, Ngazi.
Logging rights to the Massaha forest have been granted to a Chinese timber company.
In 2020, the impending destruction of their forest galvanized the Massaha village group to take unprecedented action. Gabonese law allows for a community, or other local representative, to request the declassification of a portion of forest inside a logging concession, for conservation purposes. Equipped with this information, the community addressed more than a dozen letters to both local and national administrations to request that its portion of forest be removed from the TBNI logging concession and reclassified under its own stewardship, as a community-conserved area.
To plan this initiative, the community has organized a suite of general assemblies, including a key gathering in November 2021 to draft the proposed management plan for the requested zone. Its plan prohibits all forms of logging and commercial hunting and carefully regulates fishing and extraction of any non-timber forest resources. The resulting document embodies the community’s will for self-determination and responsible management of its ancestral land.
In the Gabonese context, Massaha represents a rare case of active community opposition against the national logging industry. In their very first letter to the administration in August 2020, they wrote that “logging in this area will destroy all the foundations of our village. We do not want to be a village without roots or history.”
Massaha represents a rare case of active community opposition against the national logging industry.
The reclassification request they have put forward is the first of its kind in Gabon, as land and forests in the country are solely owned by the state. If successful, this effort would be a historic first for recognizing the land and resource rights of local communities and Indigenous Peoples.
In their fight to protect the forest, the people of Massaha have been working tirelessly to gather technical and ecological data, hold general assemblies, and correspond with the Gabonese administration. Their undertaking is also driven by a solemn and sacred responsibility.
On February 23, 2022, evidence of generational ancestral practices in the Massaha forest was unearthed with the exhumation of a fourteen-meter-long and over sixty-year-old dugout canoe made of bilinga wood (Nauclea diderrichii). (Bilinga wood, found in many ancestral villages, is classified as “Near Threatened” on the IUCN Red List and is highly sought after by loggers.) This type of dugout is called a boualôo. Each boualôo is unique; this first one that was unearthed is governed by a powerful spirit called Ngoubou (“rainbow” in Kota). Historically, several clans possessed their own boualôo, the embodiment of their clan spirits’ power and capable of disappearing mysteriously, should the clan families not observe the sacred prescriptions. Only three boualôo remain today, all of which have been exhumed by the community, which has plans to honor these vestiges of its history.
Boualôo canoes were used in an ancestral fishing practice called etoubili, which was carried out in the deepest pools of the Liboumba, with large nets woven from vines and following a precise ritual, according to strict guidelines. One unique characteristic of this fishing practice was that the fishermen would limit themselves to catching large quantities of a single species of fish, which would have been selected through invocations in a preparation ritual.
In keeping with its great respect for tradition, ancestral edicts, and sacred prescriptions, the community has organized numerous ritual ceremonies since submitting its reclassification request. In the villages, in the sacred forest, at the foot of a sacred kevazingo tree, and at the banks of the Liboumba, the community has invoked the spirits of its ancestors to bid them to “touch the hearts of the White people who want to destroy our forest, the legacy that you have left us.” The spirits of all the tribes have been called to aid in the struggle to save the forest.
Over the past years, I have published numerous articles to amplify the voices of the community and to document illegal practices at the hands of the logging company and their personnel, including obstruction of waterways, pollution, destruction of ancestral villages, and more. I reported these facts in national and international media and received support from international organizations such as the ICCA Consortium.
Following this, the Gabonese Minister for the Environment, Lee White, visited Massaha for two days in March of 2022. After speaking with the community, he went to one of the many ancient villages already destroyed by TBNI and to a sacred site on the south end of the Liboumba. While attending a ritual of invocation of ancestral spirits at the foot of a kevazingo tree, he affirmed, in words that made their way into local and national media, “It is not only the forest that speaks to me, but the ancestors speak to me too. We came to Massaha to understand the request of the community, who is worried that logging will destroy its ancestral sites, so we have come to reassure them.”
By the end of White’s visit, villagers breathed a sigh of relief upon hearing him declare that he had recognized “errors in the logging practices” and ordered a stop to the logging in the concerned area. During a session with community members, local authorities, and TBNI representatives, White proclaimed, “I ask that TBNI withdraw immediately, removing all the log piles from the village, to preserve the site. After that we will consult with the ancestors to see what can be done to appease them.”
The government’s next task was to assign an administrative status to this new kind of community-conserved area, given that the country’s existing forestry code (currently under revision), doesn’t yet include an entity quite like it. Minister Lee White claimed he could fulfill the request: “We already have maps, there is already a zone we call ‘conservation series’ all along the river — we can expand this area, but we need your help completing it . . . Once this is done, we will sit down with you again to define what kind of zone we can create that guarantees that local people can continue to use the forest. We are currently working out how to create this new type of protected area in the forestry code.”
Conservation is a lived and practiced reality, handed down through generations.
At this point, the government’s responsibility to support the community in its push to conserve the forest is clear. Furthermore, explicit recognition of territories and rights of local and Indigenous Peoples is in line with Gabon’s commitments within the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework. This new international instrument, adopted in December 2022, further reinforces the Gabonese government’s responsibility to protect Massaha’s sacred forest.
Despite Minister Lee White’s support of Massaha’s cause, other senior officials in his cabinet appear to be strategizing to ensure that logging continues. On November 22, 2022, while the Minister was out of the country on business, a member of his cabinet visited Massaha, accompanied by the Provincial Director for the Ministry for Water and Forests, along with TBNI’s site manager and cartographer. The cited purpose of the visit was to “resolve the problem of conserving the sacred sites of the Massaha people inside the TBNI concession.”
Leading the community to believe they were completing the final step in the reclassification process and using obtuse technical jargon, the official called a hasty public meeting, which lacked full community participation and did not include the project’s other local partners. During this meeting, the cabinet member spoke of “conservation zones,” but in the meeting minutes, which the community members were asked to approve and sign, the term “conservation series” appeared instead, in addition to a set of new resolutions that had not been discussed. Spotting the trap, the community wrote in protest to Minister Lee White on December 11, 2022 (nineteen days after the incident) and submitted the letter to the attention of the Provincial Directorate for Water and Forests.
Clearly, economic and political corruption have played a role in this case. The Minister’s instructions do not appear to be followed by members of his own cabinet, and different factions within the administration seem to be pursuing separate agendas. Although the local administration (provincial directorate) is meant to represent the Minister in the province, there is some murkiness in the exercise of its power. In a technical case such as this one, teams from several general directorates propose different, and sometimes contradictory, approaches to the Provincial Director, raising questions about responsibility in decision making. Also unclear is the level of information the Minister himself has on this issue.
For the Massaha Kota, their forest is a manifestation of their cultural identity, connection to their ancestors, and means of subsistence.
In a recent update to this story, following negotiations with Gabonese administration, the proposed protected area was reduced from 11,300 to 3,500 hectares of land. This matter settled, the community attended a joint meeting with the local TBNI operator and members of the administration’s technical team to pinpoint sacred sites, fishing camps, bays, and all other key biocultural sites. Further discussion is currently ongoing, and an agreement is seemingly underway.
Despite being met with resistance and ambiguity throughout, the Massaha community has already made remarkable headway in its pursuit. It has, furthermore, stoutly reaffirmed its commitment to the land it has always dedicated itself to protecting. In so doing, it has demonstrated — in the eyes not only of Gabonese authorities but also of other communities in Gabon and in the world at large — that conservation is a lived and practiced reality, handed down through generations.
For the Massaha Kota, their forest is a manifestation of their cultural identity, connection to their ancestors, and means of subsistence — a true “territory of life” that they will never stop fighting to preserve.
It remains to be seen exactly how Gabon will protect this part of the forest, dubbed by the community Ibola Dja Bana ba Massaha (“The Reserve of All Massaha Children”). The final legal result is of great national and international interest because this forest would constitute the first community-conserved area ever to be established in Gabon.
Gabon’s government has a responsibility to ensure that the land and the rights of local communities and Indigenous Peoples are respected — a responsibility that is further reinforced by its international commitments and environmental leadership status in Africa. There is only one logical and just outcome to this story. The national land use plan will need to adjust accordingly.
All eyes on what happens next.
(Translated from French by Madeleine Barois)
Read more about the ICCA Consortium’s support of the Massaha Kota.
Benjamin Evine-Binet is a Gabonese journalist. Founder of Ivindo FM, the first community radio of his region, Benjamin is engaged in a variety of local community issues. He is a National Geographic 2022 Explorer, Pulitzer Center Grantee, and Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime 2022 Resilience Fellow. Listen to Ivindo FM @ivindofm