In Gabon, the petrol sector is the largest contributor to GDP, representing upwards of 20% of revenue, according to the World Bank. Most of the country’s petrol reserves – estimated at about two billion barrels – are concentrated in the area south of Port Gentil. A string of different oil companies have operated in the region since 1956. Total was the first company to drill and extract petrol in the area, before selling to Perenco in 2018. Perenco, which has an important presence across the African continent, is the primary producer of crude oil in Gabon and the second largest French oil company after Total.The structures on these sites are old and haven’t been properly maintained. The ocean, the land, the forests and the lakes in the area have all become increasingly polluted over the past three or four years. Sometimes you find petrol, its derivatives or acid in the lakes, sometimes you find it in the middle of the forest.
Residents of Étimboué in western Gabon have faced multiple oil spills over the past two years. This is ancestral land. People have been living here since well before independence in 1960. Some people have left because of the pollution but most people want to stay. They think that Perenco is letting the situation get worse in order to push them to leave. Exhausted and angry, they are speaking out against Perenco, an independent Anglo-French oil company with headquarters in Paris and London, which is currently extracting petrol from about fifty different oil fields in the area. Locals report that Perenco’s equipment is poorly maintained and out of date, likely causing the spills. This contamination has had wide-ranging effects on the local population, including health problems, water pollution, poisoned crops and fish. They haven’t carried out the clean-up operations properly and aren’t planning on paying out any damages to residents affected by the spills.
A group of locals first spoke out in October 2020 about the growing problem with pollution in the region. They pointed the finger at Perenco, which extracts 95,000 barrels per day in this area alone. The old pipelines, which were installed about 40 years ago, are constantly developing holes. Some of the pipelines are under water, others are underground. Some are even above ground. There are also very old oil wells, which are in poor condition, and they leak and cause spills as well.
They use lake water for washing and cooking but it is polluted both upstream and downstream from the village, which means they can’t drink it. There are also all of the industrial plants that emit gas. There is one plant near the bridge, north of Lake Nkomi where they have flare stacks, which are used to burn off flammable gas. The process, called gas flaring, creates a lot of pollution. It is a means of getting rid of the gas that is extracted alongside the petrol. That pollutes the air, which then negatively affects health and the environment. Also noticed more and more respiratory problems among younger children, especially asthma.
George Mpaga, coordinator of an organisation called ROLBG, a French acronym meaning Free Network of Organisations for the Good Governance of Gabon, says that he is also worried about the effects of the pollution on the animals who live in the area, including antelopes, crocodiles and turtles. He is also worried for the fishermen, whose hauls are diminishing.
Officials tend to just close their eyes to the problem. So do many of the national media outlets. There are only a few independent websites that have published the testimonies and complaints of locals living in this area. Perenco is often described in the media as an opaque organisation with close ties to the Gabonese government. Perenco doesn’t disclose its annual revenues or its internal governance structure. It has also been mentioned in several investigations by independent media outlets into matters of corruption.