A high-tech wooden bridge carries hope for Gabon’s green future
A well-designed bridge is a source of joy. The same bridge made of locally sourced sustainable wood, marking a nation’s transition from fossil fuel dependency to global ambassador for forest-positive economics–that’s a bridge on another level of inspiration.
The story of this bridge in Libreville started about 10 years ago, recalls Hans Fahrni, director of Ecowood, the firm that built it. In an ironic twist, while visiting the Gabonese capital, the head of Formula 1 Motorsports remarked to the nation’s president, a connoisseur of sports cars, that the city appeared to have a safety problem: it lacked pedestrian crossings over major roads.
In response the city erected an iconic bridge—but it goes far beyond just addressing their safety problem. The bridge is strikingly emblematic of the country’s more recent ambition to shed its historical reliance on off-shore oil and become a “green superpower” by conserving and sustainably managing the vast tropical forests that cover more than 85% of its land area.
The timber structure represents the forests and the fish motif represents the sea, explained Fahrni. Even more importantly, he said, “It’s all made in Gabon by Gabonese people with Gabonese wood.”
This story is music to our ears. The idea encapsulates the mission of our Partner Forest Program: to connect cities with local communities who participate in protecting and managing tropical forests in mutually beneficial relationships. We discovered that the wood for the bridge came from the same forest as the wood we recently introduced to Turin for a city placemaking project. That forest concession, managed by Compagnie Equatoriale des Bois, a subsidiary of Precious Woods, supports three communities (over 900 people) who participate in forest management, logging, milling, and studying the forest to ensure operations are sustainable and ever improving.
Exemplary forest management is one aspect of sustainable wood. Just as important is how the wood is processed and used, as the bridge helps to demonstrate. Wood stores carbon while it is kept whole in a long-lasting structure. Adding value to wood through a local value chain generates economic benefits, and makes sustaining Gabon’s forests critical to the wealth of future generations.
Not long ago, Gabon loaded logs onto ships for journeys to faraway sawmills. Only a small portion of the potential value of the wood was kept in the local economy. For Fahrni, this was “a huge mess” that drove over-extraction of trees for profit, missed opportunities to employ young people in skilled trades, and represented a great waste of material and energy.
“We threw away 60% of the material that we transported around the world,” Fahrni said, referring to the wood waste generated by processing logs. “It was a total aberration. And it is important to underline it, I fought against great powers that stubbornly defended this strategy.”
When the first call for tender went out six years ago and Ecowood responded with its innovative wooden bridge proposal, nothing happened, Fahrni said. When a second call came out in fall 2020, he anticipated that the city would go with conventional concrete.
However, time had elevated the resonance of Ecowood’s design. Following the lead of Precious Wood’s conservation-oriented timber production–exemplified by very low harvest rates and 25-year harvest cycles–Gabon adopted sustainable practices as forest law. In 2010, a new law banned the export of unprocessed timber.
And, in 2021, Gabon became the first African country to be paid to protect its tropical forests, which form part of the Congo Basin and help the country sequester more carbon than it emits. Financial investment in sustainable forestry and value-added enterprise will help pay for keeping it that way.
Drawing upon a wealth of local and technical knowledge, the Ecowood design symbolises both the challenge and the opportunity. The bridge elements harness the properties of multiple, specific tropical woods: Padauk for the structure; Tali for the stairs and walkway; Osigo for the arc of the roof; and Andoung for the roof proper.
While looking at the inverted-arch truss design on paper, Fahrni had a moment of serendipity. He had been mulling over the government’s green plan, which President Ali Bongo had articulated as a vision for “Gabon bleu” and “Gabon vert.” He pencilled two small circles onto the team’s drawings and the two “fish” appeared–voilà, Gabon bleu.
“The people who called me crazy 25 years ago, today, the same people come back to me and say, ‘Couldn't you help us too? We are now starting to process more wood locally into higher value components,’” Fahrni said, reflecting on the bridge’s positive reception. “People are starting to say yes, if there is raw material, let's transform it where it comes from, and create wealth from where it comes from.”
Indeed, we’re so happy to see Gabon taking the side of forests, the people’s true inheritance, that, to paraphrase President Bongo, will ensure no Gabonese is left by the side of the road.