Gabonese hope for windfall as Chinese develop iron ore deposit

Gabonese hope for windfall as Chinese develop iron ore deposit

BELINGA, Gabon: The pygmies of Gabon’s lush northeast equatorial forests may soon be learning Chinese.

Buried deep in thick jungle in the least populated corner of the oil-producing central African state is one of the world’s biggest untapped reserves of iron ore, waiting to be developed.

But the country selected by Gabon to help exploit the huge Belinga iron ore deposit is not former colonial ruler France, or any other resource-gobbling Western industrial power.

The chosen partner is China, the newest and hungriest raider of raw materials on the African continent.

The Belinga deal in Gabon is only the latest of a string of multibillion-dollar energy and commodities contracts secured by the Asian economic giant to feed its ravenous economy. China is the world’s top steel producer and biggest importer of iron ore.

After years of stagnation and neglect, people in and around the isolated Gabonese village of Belinga, surrounded by virgin forest, were agog with expectation about the arrival of the Chinese and how this could improve their lives.

Although the consortium chosen to develop the mine, led by the state- owned China National Machinery & Equipment Import & Export, was only just starting its work on the ground, locals were expecting a windfall in jobs and other economic benefits.

“All of the people’s hopes are riding on the exploitation of the Belinga iron ore deposit,” said Andre Nkoghe Ella, mayor of Makokou, the regional capital, around 110 kilometers, or 68 miles, from Belinga. “The people are waiting for the work to get going.”

The Chinese group plans to begin work this year and complete the project in three years. The Belinga deposit is reported to have proven iron ore reserves of more than 500 million tons.

The $3 billion total investment ”” about the level of Gabon’s annual budget ”” foresees construction of a 560-kilometer railroad to carry the ore to Cape Santa Clara on the Atlantic coast, a bulk commodities and container port there and two hydroelectric power stations.

Many African governments like the no-strings-attached approach of the Chinese, who offer aid or loans not linked to demands for good governance, transparency or improvements in human rights, the Western recipe for development packages.

“When the Chinese come they can provide financing, without a lot of strings or moralizing,” said a Gabonese government adviser when he accompanied President Omar Bongo on a visit to Beijing in November.

Underpinning the Belinga project are more than three decades of cordial ties between Bongo, Africa’s longest serving ruler, and China.

The two countries established diplomatic relations in 1974 and Bongo has visited China at least 10 times. Chinese companies have constructed roads and public buildings in Gabon and are also mining manganese and exploring for oil and gas.

Once in operation, the mine would sell all its iron ore to Chinese steel mills.

China’s hunger for iron ore has grown as its industry churns out steel for the ships that carry its exports, for the cars that crowd its roads, and the skyscrapers that crown its cities.

But in the hamlets and villages around Belinga, the expectations are more modest.

“I hope that the Chinese can build a nice school, a library with lots of books,” said Nicolas Essone, 8, one of several barefoot children studying at Belinga’s mud-hut school.


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