It’s a Friday evening and I am watching captivating television. No, it isn’t Netflix. Not even KBC, but a programme on the successful preservation of wildlife, forests and environment in a country whose location many may have to google: Gabon, on the West African coast, just over a hundred thousand square miles large. I do a quick sum: twelve Gabons would fit into India.
You might well ask if I have nothing better to do on a Friday evening. Am I so out of it that I don’t have a dinner to go to, or a club that will have me, or even a walk in the park behind the market? But you wouldn’t ask if you took a look at the AQI, at which people now glance more often than they used to at the scoreboard in the final over of an India-Pakistan cricket match. The AQI is 419 at Dr Karni Singh Shooting Range, the nearest to my hideout in front of the TV, and known to be artificially green and hence not truly representative.
Gabon has 13 national parks and they cover 11 percent of its total land. It has 20 protected marine zones, and hold your breath, it has 88 per cent forest cover. Precious. And what’s more, they clearly intend to keep it that way. While these forests form only 12 per cent of the Congo Basin forests, 60 per cent of Africa’s forest elephants, wisdom dripping from their sober eyes, live here. Africa’s forests and peatlands store up to 70 billion tons of carbon; if they remain healthy, we have hope. As a reward for past performance, which promises success in the future, Norway has put a price on this effort and given Gabon 150 million dollars to carry on the good work. Meanwhile, on my screen, talking heads wearing kurtas with colour-coordinated pocket squares, unwisely stand in the smog on Vijay Chowk trading insults and blaming each other for Delhi’s pollution, glancing frequently at their phones for tips from their backroom boys (by the way, talking of KBC, how many lifelines do these ones get?).
And let’s not reach for the high horse, or intone patronisingly that we have huge problems on a scale that Gabon cannot imagine. Gabon is rich in oil, to say nothing of gold and uranium, with the attendant pressures of exploitation. It is also not entirely populated by angels: A corruption scandal over illegal logging fueled by Chinese demand brought down a former forests minister. Nearly 400 containers of kevazingo logs, a tree that takes 500 years to grow to its 40 feet, went missing. While the oil wealth has boosted GDP, one third of the country’s population lives below the poverty line. It faces the challenges of water scarcity, deforestation and poaching. It has greed too: The valuable mangrove trees that prevent coastal erosion with their extensive root systems are being ripped up to allow the rich to build bigger houses in the capital, Libreville.
But, Gabon is still doing something right: It is showing true grit in fighting the odds. It is fast becoming a unique eco-tourism destination, attracting people to come and see the gorillas, elephants, chimpanzees, hump-backed whales and leatherback turtles in their protected, clean natural habitat. While we, every year around Diwali, take out our face masks, like we used to take out pullovers in our childhood, and crib about some farmers burning stubble and glance at our number plates to see if they are odd or even and what day of the week it is, and choke on our own breath and wait for somebody else to do something. Or hunker down in karmic resignation till February. And, meanwhile, our roads become wider, the trees rarer, the buildings higher, reaching for the skies.
The next time I see a man from Gabon, I am going to shake his hand. That is if the air is clear enough for us to see each other, or he is brave enough to come to Delhi.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 5, 2019 under the title ‘Lead On, Gabon’. The writer is an author and former Ambassador of India to the US.