Can a Nation Replace Its Oil Wealth With Trees?

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Overall, the timber industry now provides some 30,000 jobs, more than 7 percent of the country’s work force. That job creation is “creating a constituency,” Mr. White said. “Why would the Gabonese people, particularly the urban people, want to keep the rainforest if there are no jobs?”

Building support for conservation is important as elections approach next year. In the last campaign, Mr. Bongo’s opponents repeated the refrain: “Let the elephants vote for him.” Many people view the president, who often travels by Rolls-Royce, as out of touch amid widespread unemployment.

Not everyone embraces Gabon’s strategy. Activists have accused officials of land grabs, which government officials denied.

Mr. White has rankled some players in the carbon market with a plan for Gabon to finance its conservation by selling carbon credits, units meant to represent the carbon dioxide pulled from the air by reducing deforestation. However, Gabon is using a new method for calculating their value, resulting in tens of millions of credits it plans to offer for sale. While Mr. White is marketing them as superior to credits issued elsewhere, some skeptics have doubts. Other critics fear Gabon’s credits will flood the market, diluting prices.

Ask Mr. White about climate change and his answer begins millions of years ago, with a history of earth’s climate fluctuations, and ends in a dystopian future with a parched Congo Basin pushing hundreds of millions of desperate migrants into Europe.

That’s what’s at stake if the places like Gabon are unable to protect their forest, is his thinking. But a country’s people can’t be neglected in the meantime.

This is where oil still has a role, he says.

Since peaking in 1997, Gabon’s oil production has decreased by more than a third. Oil now accounts for 38.5 percent of the economy, according to the International Monetary Fund. By 2025, the country aims to reduce that to 20 percent.