Tuesday, Sep. 22, 2009

Marc Ona

Marc Ona's campaign to halt a gigantic mining project in the heart of Gabon's rain forest has earned him a few weeks in jail, regular harassment by police and, when his landlord grew nervous about provoking government ire, eviction from his home. But Ona's determination has also generated enough local and international attention to shame Gabonese officials into vastly scaling back the project — and possibly to derail the mine altogether. "When you've seen [the forest] and know just how enormous a loss destruction of it would be for locals, for the Gabonese people, for Africa and the entire world, one man's inconveniences and troubles become insignificant," he says.

In Ona's crosshairs is a $3.5 billion iron-ore project that initially covered 3,000 sq. mi. (7,700 sq km) of the Ivindo National Park, part of the world's second largest rain forest. Through Brainforest, an ecological organization he founded in 1998, and a network of Gabonese green groups, Ona, 47, denounced the planned mine, hydroelectric dam, railroads and deepwater port. In 2006 he proved that the project violated Gabonese environmental-protection laws. The next year, he publicized details of a confidential contract between Gabon and China National Machinery and Equipment Import and Export Corp. (CMEC) — under which Gabon was to receive a mere 10% of final profits.

The resulting outcry, both at home and abroad, forced the government to renegotiate the contract's financial balance, and scale back the project to less than one-tenth of its initial scope. Then the global recession hit. "Financing CMEC counted on from banks and governments has dried up, and with Gabonese officials revising the contract and project, the Chinese are rethinking the entire thing," he says.

Ona plans to use the $150,000 he received as a Goldman Environmental Prize winner this year as seed capital for micro-businesses begun by local entrepreneurs. If he can demonstrate the region's economic richness without plundering it, he says, large-scale projects that damage the environment will at least have some competition in the future. Residents of Ivindo who had earlier viewed the mining project as a way to bring jobs and infrastructure to the region are warming to Ona's green alternative. Ona says those changing attitudes are "the biggest reward for my struggle." It's a struggle all the more remarkable because Ona wages it from a wheelchair, the legacy of a childhood battle with polio. "When powerful people see someone who has fought disadvantage his entire life blocking their way in a wheelchair," Ona says with a chuckle of satisfaction, "they tend to think in alarm 'This guy's serious.'"

GREEN TIP: 'Rather than cutting trees down, we make an effort to use fallen branches first — or break up furniture or other things made from wood that people are going to throw away.' — Marc Ona