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SPEECH: President Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon announces decision to create a new marine protected area network at the 2014 IUCN World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia (November 12, 2014).

Remarks by His Excellency
President of Gabon

November 12th, 2014

Excellences, My Fellow Heads of State; Distinguished Ministers; Ladies and Gentlemen;

I would like to start by thanking our hosts, Australia, for the warm welcome we have received here in Sydney and to IUCN, for inviting me to be the co-patron of the 2014 World Parks Congress.

The last congress took place shortly after my father, the late Omar Bongo Ondimba, announced the creation of 13 national parks, covering 11% of Gabon's terrestrial ecosystems.

We finalized the creation of the parks in 2007, when our national parks law was approved by parliament. Subsequently, we have added six new RAMSAR sites, a wildlife reserve and an arboretum, bringing our total terrestrial protected area coverage today to 21%.

This protected area network plays an important role in protecting Gabon's rich forest biodiversity. However, in line with the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, under the Convention on Biological Diversity, we have integrated biodiversity priorities outside protected areas into our national land use plan. In so doing, we aim to manage representative portions of all distinct land units in Gabon, thereby protecting all wildlife of conservation concern.

Recently we have extended these efforts to our territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zone. Already our parks and reserves protect about a third of our 800km coastline, including the world's largest population of nesting leatherback turtles, as well as 50% of the protected mangroves on the West coast of Africa. But less than 1% of our territorial waters and none of our EEZ are currently protected - nowhere near the 20 to 30% that marine biologists tell us is needed to maintain biodiversity and restore depleted areas outside parks.

Following on from a marine expedition conducted in 2012 by National Geographic, The Waitt Foundation, The Wildlife Conservation Society and Gabon's National Parks Agency, we launched a program we call "Gabon Bleu - Blue Gabon", which aims to restore, preserve and sustainably manage Gabon's ocean territory, just as we have done in our forests over the past decade.

Today I can announce our decision to create a network of marine parks covering about 23% of Gabon's territorial waters and EEZ, within which no commercial fishing will be allowed. This will include a 27,000 square kilometer extension of Mayumba National Park, extending out to the limit of our EEZ.

The remainder of the EEZ will be divided into community and commercial fishing zones and oil exclusion zones, where industrial fishing is not allowed close to strategic infrastructure.

We have already taken measures to eliminate illegal fishing in our territorial waters and plan now to expand these actions out to the limits of our EEZ.

Excellences, Ladies, and Gentlemen

Over the last five years we have made significant investments to transform our national parks authority into a professional, well equipped parks management agency, increasing staffing and funding by an order of magnitude.

I would like to take this opportunity to recognise the courage and dedication of our national parks staff, particularly the rangers who work tirelessly, in difficult conditions, to protect the parks and their wildlife. Over the last few years we have experienced increasing levels of violence in several parks, where foreign nationals penetrate across remote borders to kill elephants for their ivory and, more recently, pangolins for their scales.

Armed with heavy caliber rifles or automatic weapons, bands of organized poachers, linked to organized criminal networks, now regularly fire at our rangers as they attempt to avoid arrest. In fact, in 2011 we were obliged to deploy over 100 troops to support parks rangers in NE Gabon and just last week I took the decision to significantly increase this force.

The truth is that this is no longer simply an environmental issue. The ivory is just another commodity to these criminal groups who also traffic drugs, arms, gold and diamonds and even human beings. They corrupt our officials, and threaten and even kill those they cannot corrupt. The fight against wildlife crime is a fight for peace, stability and economic development.

Recently, I have been working closely with the Heads of State of Botswana, Chad, Ethiopia and Tanzania, through the Elephant Protection Initiative, to federate African nations and national parks agencies in the fight to save our natural heritage.

I am also taking action to ensure that Gabon responds to the biggest threat to biodiversity - Climate Change. We have integrated the principal of low carbon emissions into our national development strategy and are taking measures to preserve our forest cover, which today stands at 88%. I will be hosting a South-South dialogue on climate change in Libreville in mid-2015, to contribute to a strong agreement to fight climate change, at the Conference of the Parties in Paris in December.

Given the growing pressures we see on parks and ecosystems around the world, both on land and in the oceans, as well as the alarming impacts of climate change, it is critical that politicians make a pledge here in Sydney to support the men and women who dedicate their lives to protecting our parks, and to work together to preserve the integrity of our planet.

Thank you.

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