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Gabon president talks sustainability at W&M

  • Presidential address
    Presidential address  Africa's Gabon President Ali Bongo Ondimba spoke to a group of faculty, staff and students at William & Mary Saturday afternoon.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Campus tour
    Campus tour  Dean of Arts & Sciences Carl Strikwerda (right) gives President Ali Bongo Ondimba a tour of the historic campus.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Two presidents
    Two presidents  Gabon President Ali Bongo presented W&M President Taylor Reveley with a National Geographic picture book "The Last Place on Earth." The book focuses on Gabon's forests and the creatures who live there.  Photo by Brian Whitson
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History will be the judge on how the world and its leaders respond to evidence that human activity continues to pollute and change the world, Africa’s Gabon President Ali Bongo Ondimba told a group of faculty, staff and students Saturday afternoon.

“We need a common vision for our people and our planet,” said Bongo, who spoke about “Sustainable Africa” before a packed room in the Great Hall of William & Mary’s Wren Building. “We are in this together.”

Bongo spent much of the day on the Williamsburg campus learning about William & Mary’s own sustainability efforts. He met with President Taylor Reveley and other campus leaders, toured William & Mary’s Historic Campus and Sunken Garden, and also visited the College’s Keck Environmental Field Laboratory on the shores of Lake Matoaka.

Saturday’s visit to campus was timely for a number of reasons, Dean of Arts & Sciences Carl Strikwerda said in introducing the president to the campus community. Last year, William & Mary launched a new Africana Studies, an integrated interdisciplinary major that combines both Black Studies and African Studies. The Environmental Science and Policy program is one of the College's strongest and most active, he said. And in 2008, William & Mary launched a Committee on Sustainability that has helped make the College a model for how schools with very few resources can still make a meaningful difference in the area of environmental sustainability.

“Gabon has been an international leader in preserving the world's precious rainforest environment, and President Bongo has represented Africa at major gatherings such as the one in Copenhagen on climate change,” Strikwerda said. “Having him visit William & Mary provided our faculty and students with a unique opportunity to meet and discuss a global topic with someone deeply involved in world affairs.”

Located in west central Africa, Gabon covers a land of nearly 270,000 kilometers and includes a population of approximately 1.5 million people. Natural rainforests make up 80 percent of the country. In an effort to avoid deforestation, last year Gabon banned the harvest of four valuable hardwoods. And earlier this year, the country completely banned log exports as part of Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation REDD) program, an initiative that pays tropical forest nations for conserving forests as carbon sinks.

Forest management efforts, the president said, can both protect the environment and improve the economic situation in Gabon. The challenge of fighting climate change is very real, Bongo said.

“These are real efforts that will enable us to develop a new identity for Gabon,” said Bongo, who was elected president of Gabon in September 2009. His father, El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba, served as president from 1967 until his death in June 2009. President Bongo said wants Gabon to become a model for other African nations – and the world.

“The reality is the world is a family,” he said. “We can in a small way begin to shape a new world order. This is the challenge my generation is passing on to you.”