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Eco-warrior battling to keep Gabon rain forest safe

river April 8, 1997
Web posted at: 5:30 a.m. EST

From Correspondent Gary Strieker

IVINDO RIVER, Gabon (CNN) -- If you find yourself up the river in a canoe with Giuseppe Vassallo, you have no choice but to listen to his message.

"The forest, you see, it sings! It's a joyful place," he exclaims.

"A big river, with no people which has damaged it, and it's still as God made it," he says. "There are, of course, gorillas, chimpanzees and elephants. (But) they want to change it, and they are going to destroy it."

Vassallo

Vassallo has made it his mission to save the Mingouli Forest -- 5,000-square kilometers of primary rain forest along the Ivindo River in northeastern Gabon.

The Mingouli lies between two spectacular waterfalls that serve as natural barriers to human penetration. The nearest roads have never been closer than 50 kilometers away, leaving the Mingouli uniquely undisturbed.

Until now, that is.

A French logging company has a contract to cut trees in the Mingouli. Its new logging roads now reach the heart of the forest.

road

"You can hear the rage of saws upon my friends, the big trees. They are cutting this paradise," Vassallo says.

All Vassallo wants is to protect the core area of the Mingouli, allowing the logging company to cut trees in the rest of its concession.

He says the loggers at one time agreed to develop that kind of plan, but new access roads show an exploitation that will destroy the pristine Mingouli.

"Why does he have to log in this wonderful place," he asks?

Little support

Vassallo has had little success getting support from Gabon's government or from international conservation groups.

The area is important to him because of its uniqueness.

"The fact that it was buried to human penetration means it's also buried to scientists; they don't know the place," he explains.

waterfall

Vassallo tried to get support from those who do know the place, the villagers who live closest to the Mingouli.

A local fisherman says his people will oppose any logging near the river, but it's doubtful the villagers can actually stop a big logging company with a contract from the government.

In effect, there now seems little chance the Mingouli Forest will be protected from logging. Like most of Gabon's rain forest, it will soon be crisscrossed with logging roads, the big trees will be cut down and hunters with guns will have easy access to the deep forest.

But that doesn't mean Vassallo will give up his fight.

He'll keep pressing his arguments, trying to win converts to his cause. He says he has little choice, for this retired carpet dealer is also Gabon's honorary consul in Milan. And it would be hard to replace the Mingouli forest as the focus of his life.


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