Posted by: sean | April 4, 2007

Untapped: Africa’s oil

Slate has an interesting beginning to a 4-part piece on Africa’s oil, excerpted from John Ghazvinian’s new book, Untapped: The Scramble for Africa’s Oil. Today’s segment explains why you’re hard pressed to buy a banana in Gabon:

I soon learned that it is extremely difficult to buy a banana in Gabon. During a week and a half in the country, I feasted on the most delicately prepared beef bourguignon and rack of lamb, always served with haricots verts or gratinée potatoes. But never did I manage to find a bunch of bananas for sale.

This is not to say there are no bananas in Gabon. Quite the contrary—there are literally millions. About half the country’s tiny population lives in Libreville, while most of the rest reside in three or four towns that dot the jungle interior. Where the population centers stop, there is nothing but miles and miles of misty virgin rain-forest, inhabited by gorillas and lizards and thick with banana trees. All one has to do is walk to the edge of town, into where the bush begins, and there is no shortage of banana trees to choose from. The country is bursting with sweet, soft bananas.

So what happens to them? The ones that are not picked by chimpanzees and baboons turn yellow, then brown, then black, and then fall to the ground and fertilize the jungle floor. Before oil was discovered in Gabon, the country was self-sufficient in bananas. By 1981 it had become almost totally dependent on bananas imported from neighboring Cameroon. One could not ask for a more vivid image to associate with the Dutch disease than that of a vast jungle nation where there is no one available to pick bananas off the trees.

And it’s not just the bananas. In the early 1980s, when Gabon was at the height of its oil production, and globally it seemed that cheap oil was a thing of the past, the country imported a staggering 96 percent of its food. Even eggs were flown in, as no one in this cash-flooded nation could be bothered to raise chickens. Today Gabon is dependent on imports for 60 percent of its food needs — still an uncomfortably high figure in a country where the oil is beginning to run out.

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