* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
For the country to benefit from its rich natural resources, the trade in illegal timber must be stopped
Earlier this month, the United Nations envoy for the Central African Republic (CAR) reminded the world of the neglected tragedy unfolding in my country.
“The intensity of the attacks, their premeditated nature and the targeting of ethnic minorities are a reminder of the darkest moments of the Central African political and security crisis,” said the U.N. Secretary-General’s Special Representative, Parfait Onanga-Anyanga.
He was speaking to the Security Council to mark the release of the U.N.’s 369-page report documenting human rights violations in CAR between 2003 and 2015.
He added that the political process needed to be re-energised to achieve sustainable peace.
Another way of helping bring stability back to CAR is by ending the trade in illegal timber.
The forest sector drives the national economy. It’s the second-largest employer (after the state), and timber is the country’s number one official export – with its importance to the economy growing since the Kimberley Process cracked down on the trade in ‘conflict’ diamonds.
But just as our vast natural mineral wealth is plagued by high-level corruption - and those at the bottom of society rarely benefit from it - the same is true in the forest sector.
The market is flooded with illegal timber; even public figures buy it and build their houses with it.
Those who fight it can face grave retribution. For instance, when a forest inspector catches an illegal operator, they often receive a call from a minister, a general or some other high-ranking official, telling them to let them the illegal operator go.
As a result, the forest inspector feels that his job and family are threatened and that his children may pay the price of becoming orphans for his work - so he drops the illegal timber seizure operation he started in the area.
Even the municipal authorities are not spared from intimidation. Illegal timber shipments of all kinds enter Bangui, the capital, through the Pk9 barrier in Bimbo commune. Odon Omokoboumon, acting mayor of this locality, says he does not have sufficient means to stop illegal loggers who often have firearms.
Yet there is hope that things will change.
One cause for optimism is the trade deal, known as a Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA), that our government signed with the European Union in 2012. It was suspended because of the crisis in the country, but last year started up again.
The Agreement uses the incentive of favourable trading arrangements with the EU to encourage timber-producing countries to include civil society and forest communities in the shaping of new, and more just, forest laws. This VPA is important for the country, as we cannot accept that warlords set up parallel companies to exploit forests.
It was championed by our new president, Faustin Archange Touadera, so we are hopeful that the government which was elected in March 2016 will implement it properly.
Already it is having an impact.
Today, indigenous communities who were previously marginalised in decision-making by the forest administration and company officials are involved in forest management. Being deprived of resources from a forest where you were born and grew up is not normal. For forest communities, the forest is their life: they live on barks, seeds, leaves, caterpillars, and everything in the forest.
So organisations working in this field - and environmental journalists such as myself - are continually pushing to ensure that representatives of local communities can be part of the official structures helping to implement the VPA. I am proud today to be one of the many people who have contributed to this fight through reports, publications and magazines.
We want a peaceful country, a country where corruption is at least reduced, because we know it will not disappear. A country where people get what they need and deserve. And of course, a country where everyone is given the opportunity to express themselves freely on any subject, including good forest management.
It is often said that CAR is a rich country with vast natural resources, but in reality, the population, one of the poorest in the world, does not benefit from this wealth.
It is deplorable that local communities will continue to see forests, and their livelihoods disappear, if business as usual continues.
From June 21-23, a conference on tackling deforestation and illegal logging takes place in Brussels at which the key recommendations in the EU’s FLEGT Action Plan will be presented. For further details see: http://illegallogging-deforestation-conference.eu/
Bienvenu Gbelo is an environmental journalist with Radio Ndeke Luka in Bangui, Central African Republic