Civil society organisations in Libreville, Gabon, presented their concerns on 24 January during a press conference about a new Sustainable Development law, which was promulgated on 1 August 2014. The law, developed with support of EU law firms, would be the first where not just ‘carbon’ or ‘biodiversity’ are being offset but also ‘community capital’.
The purpose of this law is to govern sustainable development in Gabon. It proposes to do this by requiring companies to offset damage to forests or community land by buying ‘sustainable development credits’ as part of a national credit trading scheme. Though the law is not entirely clear, it is believed that these credits will be generated on so called ‘sustainable development concessions’ - areas that would be protected from destructive activities.
Sustainable development credits are divided into four different types: carbon credits, biodiversity credits, ecosystem credits and community capital, with community capital being defined as the “sum of the natural and cultural assets belonging to a community.” The law does not provide further explanation about what this community capital includes or how it is calculated. It might well include things like community land, crops, water resources, culture, or education. What is clear is that it is likely that the law risks depriving communities of their rights to property and to freely dispose of their wealth and natural resources, as guaranteed under numerous international conventions to which Gabon is party.
The trading mechanism system seems to allow full exchangeability across all credit types, meaning it could be possible to trade community rights with other components of ‘sustainable development’. In practice, this could mean taking away community land in one province and planting trees in another, or destroying rainforest in one area and building a school for a community in another.
Though offsetting environmental damage is not a new phenomenon; themajority of offset schemes have been pursued in developed countries, and unlike the Gabonese law, have focused exclusively on offsetting damage to the environment – known as biodiversity or carbon offsetting. The European Commission is currently investigating biodiversity offsetting in the EU (see “biodiversity offsetting at all costs", above). The Gabonese law goes one, dangerous, step further by including community capital into the offsetting trade. There is a further risk that this approach may be seen as a model by other governments in the region. A team of international consultants hired by the Gabonese government and funded by the EU is currently working out the implementing decrees which should operationalise the law. All stakeholders in Gabon, including donors such as the EU should fully understand the dangers of this new piece of legislation before developing any further legal texts.