* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
For Central African Republic to develop, the immense wealth of its tropical forests must be shared among its people
On February 6, 2018 André Zibè’s wife gave birth to a baby girl on the floor of his hut in Bogani village. All six of the couple’s children were born this way. The nearest health clinic, which is a difficult walk through six kilometres of thick natural forest, has no doctors, only first-aiders. “We are suffering,” says Zibè.
Child mortality rates are desperately high here. In fact, life is precarious for all in Bogani, an indigenous pygmy village of around 100 huts - made mostly from bamboo and palm tree branches - which lies 146 kilometres south of the Central African Republic’s (CAR’s) capital Bangui in the district of Lobaye.
Bogani suffers from the same lack of essential infrastructure – no electricity, no phone lines, no tarred roads, no school and hospitals – as the rest of the Central African Republic, which has endured years of institutional decay and a devastating civil war.
Yet while the people are desperately poor, they’re surrounded by vast natural wealth in the shape of dense tropical forest. And every day they see that wealth ferried away along pot-holed roads on the back of lorries throwing up clouds of dust.
Michel Agnandjian, the wiry headman of the nearby Bobèlè village, speaks with bitter irony: “Foreigners export our timber to their countries. Locals don’t get any profit. Look at my house. It’s appalling.” The house, outside of where we are conducting the interview, is made of uncooked bricks which are starting to crack, while the sanitary conditions are wretched.
The absurdity of being so close to natural wealth, but so far from its benefits is lost on no-one. While timber is everywhere, many of the schools in the region don’t have wooden tables or benches and the buildings are constructed out of palm leaves. Locals are frequently arrested for breaking the law if they cut wood to use for such purposes.
Even those who work for the timber companies, like André Zibè, see little benefit: “I am tired of working for little money for logging companies,” he said.
The work - frequently backbreaking - involves removing tree stumps and chopping large trees. Often, he says, he has to ask several times before he is paid: an example of the enduring discrimination that pygmies face. For this reason, Zibè, like others in the village, is drawn back to the life of hunting and gathering that his people led for millennia.
Maurice Mondjimba, deputy headman of Bogani, also says his people are “marginalised”, adding that: “Most of the time, we are not consulted before our forests are exploited.”
This daily struggle for survival is echoed across the country.
Despite its vast natural resources, in 2016 CAR was ranked last in the U.N.'s Human Development Index of 188 nations. Meanwhile 2.5 million out of a population of 4.6 million are estimated to be in need of humanitarian assistance, and average life expectancy languishes at 51.5 years.
If the country is to be lifted from its plight, the forest sector must play a central role. The industry is the country’s second largest employer (after the state), while timber is CAR’s number one official export – its position assuming greater importance in the economy since the Kimberley Process cracked down on ‘conflict’ diamonds.
But for change to occur, then the corruption that has plagued the forest sector for generations must end, along with the flow of illegal timber that still saturates the market.
To grasp the scale of the challenge, it’s necessary to understand its context.
In 2012 the government took a major step in tackling the logging industry’s ills when it signed a Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) timber trade deal with the European Union. This deal used the incentive of a favourable trading arrangement with the EU to encourage CAR to include civil society and forest communities in shaping new, and more just, forest laws and an inclusive new constitution.
But the process stalled abruptly in March 2013 as the country descended into civil war.
CIVIL SOCIETY PUSH
One of the war’s causes was the deeply unequal distribution of wealth that attract armed groups to combine under the Séléka banner. After they overthrew the government, violence reigned, with whole villages and towns pillaged and mass atrocities committed. Thousands lost their lives; many more lost their homes.
Logging companies were plundered, vehicles stolen, machines and other timber production equipment ransacked. The timber production chain was massively disrupted: just to reach the Cameroonian border, a timber cargo had to pass through a string of illegal barriers directly managed by warlords demanding payment. Meanwhile, the armed men who surrounded timber company offices, ostensibly to secure the premises, were usually there to loot them.
But remarkably, throughout the three years that the VPA process was frozen, the incipient civil society structures that it helped to create stayed operational - albeit in a severely restricted fashion – and clustered within the Sustainable Management of Natural Resources and Environment platform (GDRNE).
In the dangerous and chaotic environment they heroically continued to educate forest communities about their rights, carried out independent investigations into whether timber companies were respecting CAR’s laws, and highlighted how warlords and armed groups were funding themselves through illegal logging. As a result, many members of the platform and their families were threatened.
The VPA process was revived in 2016. Since it was initially promoted by CAR’s president Faustin Archange Touadera, there are hopes that it will be implemented properly. If it is, the GDRNE platform will deserve much credit: already it has managed to get two representatives from forest communities to directly participate in monitoring how forest laws and policies are implemented.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and this alone marks a significant one in getting the concerns of those like the people in Bogani village heard.
A prerequisite, however, is ending the violence and insecurity that prevails across so much of the country, and helping the huge numbers of internally displaced people unable to return to their homes.
For the sake of André Zibè’s new-born daughter Andrea – and all CAR’s children – the mistakes of the past cannot be repeated. And failing to share the immense natural wealth of the country’s forests is among the gravest.
This is an article from Voices from the Forest, a new report published by the forests and rights NGO Fern, featuring reportage from tropical forested countries by local journalists.