* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Conflict in the CAR is allowing illegal deforestation to rise, but turning that around could help bring lasting peace
Earlier this month, hundreds of people from all walks of life gathered in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, where “the largest forgotten humanitarian crisis of our time” is taking place, according to the UN.
Members of the country’s different militia factions, civil society, religious and political groups came together at the national forum on reconciliation, trying to find solutions to the apparently intractable problems plaguing the strife-torn nation.
These problems have long existed, but spiralled sharply out of control in March 2013, when the Séléka rebel alliance staged a coup to oust CAR’s president, Francois Bozizé. The ensuing violence saw thousands lose their lives and many more lose their homes. Two years on, more than two million people remain in need of humanitarian aid.
The roots of the CAR crisis lie in poverty, inequality and corruption – as well as the struggle to control the country’s abundant natural wealth.
With part of the world’s second largest rainforest within its borders, timber is one of CAR’s most important exports, and should provide essential revenue to the state and help thousands of households make ends meet: it is the CAR’s tragedy that this is not happening.
At the Bangui forum some civil society groups blamed members of the political elite of colluding with warlords and foreign troops to loot natural resources, particularly timber. But politicians are not the only ones benefiting from the chaos by using it to plunder the country’s natural wealth.
Logging companies are doing little to meet their tax obligations towards the state or comply with the country’s environmental laws. Anarchic artisanal logging is widespread and the illegal conversion of forests for palm oil development is forcing some communities off their land.
The situation is aggravated because the state only really exists in Bangui, which enjoys relative security, while the hinterland remains a fertile ground for the proliferation of armed groups of all kinds; meaning that the government has little or no control, while local authorities have no incentive to support forest communities’ rights and wellbeing.
Yet there are some rays of hope, as those attending the forum made clear.
First, CAR’s reconciliation process could offer the chance to address the multiple, deep-seated governance problems that underlie so much of the mayhem. And halting illegal forest destruction by ensuring the country’s forests are managed sustainably and for the benefit of the people is high among them.
Second, CAR’s civil society platform Gestion Durable des Forêts et des Ressources Naturelles (GDRNE), is pushing the national government and the European Union to revive the Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) CAR signed with the EU in November 2011. The aim of the VPA is that forests are managed in line with social and environmental laws, and that the people whose lives depend on them have a say in how they’re run. Before the violence erupted, this was slowly beginning to happen.
A third glimmer of hope is that for the first time in CAR’s history, forest communities have been consulted on what they would like to see in the country’s new constitution, whose draft provisions on natural resource governance and communities’ rights look promising.
It is right that the international community should be urgently focussing on the humanitarian crisis besetting CAR, but for any chance of long-term stability painful lessons from the past must be learned, and the country’s natural resources - including its forests - must be managed sustainably, transparently and for the benefit of the people.
Marie-Ange Kalenga is a forest governance campaigner working on the Congo Basin area for the social and environmental justice NGO Fern.