Manganese Mining in Gabon

By Dr Apoli Bertrand Kameni

Manganese is an essential mineral used to produce steel and is vital for a huge array of industrial and manufacturing processes. Gabon holds around 25 per cent of the world’s known manganese reserves, and before the introduction of new actors a decade ago, this extractive activity had been monopolized since 1962 by the Compagnie Minière de l’Ogooué (Comilog), a Franco-American joint venture. With 4.8 million tons of manganese produced in 2019, Comilog is a major player in the Gabonese economy, second only to the oil sector.

However, as manganese is deeply entrenched in the military-industrial complex, it was predominantly processed in France and the United States throughout the Cold War period, meaning this infrastructure never developed in Gabon itself. New dynamics began shaping Gabon’s manganese sector in the early 2000s as the Gabonese government introduced new policies seeking to add greater value to its natural resources.  This culminating with the opening of the Comilog Mining and Metallurgical School in Moanda (Ecole des Mines et de Métallurgie de Moanda – Gabon– E3MG), inaugurated in 2016.

With this mining academy, the State of Gabon sought to provide Gabonese and African miners with highly qualified technicians and engineers . The new economic vision also drove increased investment in the energy sector, notably with the 160MW Grand Poubara dam to satisfy ongoing mining expansion. As the nation’s oil production declines, Gabon’s goal is to boost the mining sector from representing 4-6% of its GDP to a double digit position by 2025. To meet this objective, another significant step appears to be a consorted effort to limit Comilog’s monopolistic position by opening the manganese sector to other actors, especially those from Asia.

The manganese sector’s growing impact on communities can be seen through the experiences of those living in the mining town of Moanda. Once a small village of 500 people, the population is estimated has grown more than one hundred times since Comilog started operating in the area. Even more significant is the economic and social transformation of the town with billions of franc CFA spent by Comilog as part of its corporate social responsibility efforts to improve the everyday lifes of its inhabitants (11 billion CFA francs in 2019, according to its parent company Eramet).

However, partly because of the rapid pace of the local population growth, the mine tends to function as an enclave in a city with ‘two tiers’ of residents. According to some local reports, there are those who work for Comilog, and those who do not. The former have almost everything, including good salaries and healthcare, while the latter live largely in precarious conditions.

According to a report evaluating forty years of mining in the Haut-Ogooué province, these social impacts are further exacerbated by the environmental dimensions of the mining activities. In this regard, the report published in 2010 by Brain Forest Gabon, a Gabonese NGO, shows that part of the soils and of rivers had been polluted following decades of manganese and uranium extraction in Moanda and in Mounana. These negative environmental impacts have even led to court action against Comilog for endangering the environment and people’s health.

Since then, Comilog has implemented a biodiversity programme as part of efforts to meet new environment requirements. This includes a commitment to protecting water resources and accelerating the restoration of sites by fostering biodiversity as seen in restauration of the Moulili river cited by Brain Forest Gabon’s report. Another major illustration of Comilog’s new environmental and biodiversity approach is the Lékédi Park. This 14,000-hectare wildlife reserve covers the former site of one of the longest cable car in the world that used to carry manganese until the Transgabonais Railway took over.