As explained by R. Dittgen (2011), Gabon is a sparsely populated state with a total of 1.5 million people and a low density of population. Historically, one of the major pillars of the “Françafrique”, its economy is largely dependent on petroleum-based rent.
It has moved into a new geopolitical area which perhaps could be called "Chinafrique", although France's influence (and also WB and IMF influence) remains strong. The country’s interest for iron ore is a recent shift, the economy has successively been based on timber, petroleum, uranium and manganese. Former president Omar Bongo qualified Belinga as the “project of the century”.
An EJOLT’s blog entry asked on 9th June 2012, "¿When does a man – bound to a wheelchair – become an Enemy of the State?" When Marc Ona Essangui arrived at the New York Forum Africa, a Libreville event attracting politicians and businessmen, his name was enough to have him arrested by police, and not for the first time. Along with some 31 others, Ona was cited by Gabon’s Interior Ministry as behaving violently. Instead, Ona should be regarded as a brave voice on the frontline of a tide of environmental and social consciousness.
Three years earlier, in 2009, Marc Ona Essangui had been awarded a Goldman Prize for defending the Ivindo Forest against iron mining and against the Belinga dam. Since 2006 MarcOna campaigned against the Belinga mine project - a deal between the Bongo government in Gabon and the Chinese company, CMEC, to extract iron ore. The project includes the construction of hydroelectric dams to provide power for the mine. One dam is being built on the Ivindo River, near the Kongou Falls, Gabon's highest waterfall. Marc Ona described the falls as "the most beautiful in central Africa". The Gabon's government had failed to consult the local population before it gave permission for construction to begin.
Marc Ona dedicated his early career to improving education and communications in Gabon, including working with the UNDP. He later founded the environmental NGO Brainforest, which aims to protect the rainforest for the benefit local of communities. Marc Ona unearthed and leaked a copy of the Belinga mine project agreement between the government and CMEC, revealing that CMEC had been offered a 25-year tax break as part of the deal. "When we really started to look into the deal, we noticed that it was China, not Gabon, that was the major beneficiary ... The government alleged that we were working [on behalf of] Western powers, and we received a lot of pressure to stop the campaign." This culminated in Marc Ona being charged with "incitement to rebellion"on 31 December 2008; but following an international campaign, he was freed on 12 January 2009.
As described by International Rivers, this dam would generate power for the Belinga iron ore project, which is located 500 kms east of Libreville, Gabon's coastal capital. The mine project is expected to produce some 30 million tons of iron ore annually. It is the country's largest investment and includes the Belinga iron ore facility, two hydropower projects to power the facility, 560 kilometers of railroad track from Belinga to a deep-water port that will allow the ore to be shipped to China. As planned, China National Machinery and Equipment Import and Export Corporation (CMEC) is building the mine, China Exim Bank is funding the entire project, and China's growing construction industry would be the sole recipient of the ore. A statement by a coalition of environmental groups, Environnement Gabon, called on the Ministry of Mines to make public the feasibility study, which claim that 30,000 jobs would be created for the entire mine project. Of these jobs, the groups ask, "How many are reserved for the Gabonese, when we know the natural tendency for Chinese firms...[is] to bring in, extensively, workers from their country...?”
Some years later, it is expected to have a tender in 2016 for the Belinga iron ore mine, which holds perhaps with one billion tons reserve. Exporting the ore will not be easy because the deposit is separated from Gabon's Atlantic coast by hundreds of kilometres of dense rainforest. There was a dispute with the Chinese firm Comibel, and moreover iron ore prices have dropped after 2012. "The final announcement (on the study) will be made in 2016, and this is when we start the process to auction the asset out", Societe Equatoriale des Mines (SEM) CEO Fabrice Nze-Bekale said in an interview with Reuters. SEM, created in 2011 by presidential decree, would automatically have a minimum 10 percent stake in the Belinga project, as stipulated under a new mining code. Mines Minister Regis Immongault Tatagani said that the government aimed for exploitation to begin in 2024 or 2025, exporting the iron ore via a railway line to Gabon's new deep-sea port at Port-Gentil, sharing it with companies operating in neighbouring Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea, which are also rich in minerals. Some would have prefer to have the Vale company (from Brazil) as partner, instead of the Chinese company. Gabon already mines manganese, used in the production of stainless steel. Officials claim that mining could account for as much as 30 percent of Gabon's GDP by 2030 versus 4 to 6 percent currently. Oil accounts for around half of Gabon's GDP while a third of its 1.5 million people live in poverty.
SEM CEO Nze-Bekale said Gabon's COMILOG manganese site, which is majority owned by French miner Eramet, would boost output by 400,000 tonnes to 4 million tonnes in 2014. SEM said that one of its major objectives was to build a $500 million gold fund, using gold from artisanal mining as well as purchases from private operators to leverage external credits for mining or to stabilize the economy if there is a crisis.