Europe’s timber imports from the Central African Republic (CAR) have helped fuel and prolong nearly three years of violence and instability, according to a new report from the organization Global Witness.

In July the London-based NGO released Blood Timber: How Europe helped fund war in the Central African Republic, in which they revealed that logging companies operating in CAR throughout the crisis paid more than 3.4 million euros ($3.8 million) in the form of bribes and “payments for protection” to several armed groups.

“As the country’s number one export, timber has made a significant financial contribution and can’t be ignored any longer,” said Alexandra Pardal, a campaign leader with Global Witness, in an e-mail. The money that the militia groups extracted from foreign logging companies financed operations and the purchase of arms, including grenades that sell for as little as 50 cents apiece, reports Global Witness.

“The cost of financing armed groups is measured in human lives in CAR,” Pardal said in a press release.

The report says that the wood coming out of CAR, of which nearly 60 percent ends up in Europe, should have been considered “conflict timber” through January 2014.

CAR’s interim government – in place until official elections slated for early 2016 – has come out against the research, which has stirred up mixed feelings among international NGOs and local civil society leaders.

“It’s a pretty explosive report since it points to a number of dodgy practices during the CAR crisis between logging companies and the then-government,” said Marie-Ange Kalenga, a forest governance campaigner with the NGO FERN based in Brussels.

“In that sense, it’s a very welcome report, because it sheds light on a very troubled period,” she added.

In a fragile country still recovering from a coup d’état a decade earlier, escalating violence at the end of 2012 led to the overthrow of President François Bozizé in early 2013 by Michel Djotodia, the leader of a predominantly Muslim rebel group called the Seleka. Under Djotodia’s watch as the country’s new president, violence continued as the Seleka solidified its control of the capital Bangui and other parts of the country.

By the end of 2013, the anti-balaka militia comprising mostly Christians had begun to fight back, and in January 2014, Djotodia was no longer in power, replaced by a transitional government. Spikes of violence continued until September 2014 when the UN peacekeeping force arrived. Since then, the violence has ebbed to a simmer.

During the conflict, at least 5,000 people have been killed. And according to the United Nations Refugee Agency, more than a million people – over a fifth of the country’s population – have been forced from their homes. In addition, the conflict has disrupted subsistence farming, education, and commerce, meaning that some 2.5 million people need help with basic needs like feeding their families and rebuilding their homes.

This resource-rich country also lost its biggest money maker, the trade of rough-cut diamonds, when CAR’s Kimberley Process Certification, a verification scheme intended to halt the “conflict diamond” trade, was suspended in May 2013 as a result of the conflict.

Wood then became the country’s highest-earning export. However, Global Witness reports that timber also bore the hallmarks of a “conflict” resource. Blood Timber accuses a handful of companies headquartered in France, Lebanon and China of paying CAR’s warring factions so they could continue harvesting and exporting timber during the crisis. Global Witness also levies accusations that these companies avoided paying taxes and ignored sustainable management plans for their concessions.

Mongabay contacted the companies identified in the report. All either did not respond or declined to comment.

With most of CAR’s wood ending up in Europe, Global Witness says that the EU needs to step up enforcement of the EU Timber Regulation and not allow the sale of that it calls “conflict timber.”

“This case illustrates the devastating impacts of EU inaction,” Pardal said. The report recommends halting the trade of timber between EU countries and CAR.

But Kalenga said FERN takes issue with Global Witness’s justification for that drastic step.

“In a way, Global Witness needs to be consistent with its definition of conflict timber because we don’t think that there is, as such, conflict timber in CAR,” Kalenga said.

The working definition from the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan for conflict timber says that it is “traded by armed groups” and that the revenue then bankrolls fighting, though Pardal pointed out that the FLEGT definition is not a legal one.

“We can’t say that the Seleka and the other militia groups used the timber sector to support their war effort,” Kalenga said. “It was just an opportunistic attitude for them, a move for them to ask for payments from timber companies.”

Yet Pardal said Global Witness’s research suggests that the exploitation of the sector was highly structured. “In CAR, Seleka had a well-developed system ­­– which involved, amongst other things, positioning soldiers in offices and headquarters of logging companies ­– in order to profit from the timber trade,” she said.

Global Witness uses a broader interpretation of “conflict timber.” The trade of resources need only “contribute to” violations of human rights or international humanitarian laws to meet the conflict designation, Pardal said.

The organization also recommends that the EU suspend its Voluntary Partnership Agreement with CAR. Known as a VPA, it’s intended to make sure that the wood arriving on European soil was harvested legally.

The Central African Republic still has standing primary rainforest and is home to some of the continent’s highest densities of forest elephants and lowland gorillas. Photo of Oubangui River by John C. Cannon.

The Central African Republic still has standing primary rainforest and is home to some of the continent’s highest densities of forest elephants and lowland gorillas. Photo of Oubangui River by John C. Cannon.

CAR signed a VPA in 2011, but Pardal said it doesn’t address the problems that Global Witness uncovered. “It’s not adapted to the country’s context and will not deliver what needs to change,” she said. Instead, Global Witness advises the formation of a committee to research the timber sector and root out corruption.

The proposed suspension of the VPA has raised concern among Central African NGO leaders and other members of civil society who believe the agreement should not be tossed out.

“This voluntary partnership agreement aims to improve forest governance and to combat the exploitation and illegal export of wood because it is a process that has been proven in terms of governance,” said Jean Jacques Mathamale, coordinator of CIEDD, in an article by the Network of Journalists for Human Rights. “This process should be strengthened so that within a few years we are able to legally utilize the forest.”

Short for the Center for Environmental and Sustainable Development Information (in French), CIEDD is a Bangui-based organization that works at the intersection of human rights and the environment. In 2014, Mathamale said CIEDD is actively working with the government to ensure issues important to Central Africans such as land rights are taken into account as the transitional parliament develops a new constitution.

Kalenga said that FERN echoes Mathamale’s stance on the VPA: “We really have a big problem with the recommendation that the VPA process should be suspended, because we think that it’s been a very important tool, although very imperfect.”

“You can’t get perfection in a country like CAR,” she added.

In response to the Global Witness report, the Central African government released a statement voicing its concerns about the wholesale cessation of the timber trade with the EU. “This campaign causes a lot of harm to the image of Central African Republic and its forestry companies,” according to the Ministry of Water, Forests, Hunting, and Fishing, noting that EU orders for timber have been cancelled since the report’s release.

They also reject many of the report’s assertions and argue that the timber trade operates legally in CAR. “No one voluntarily paid these groups,” they write.

Kalenga acknowledges that corruption is a problem in CAR, and she said that the interim government has awarded logging concessions under “peculiar circumstances.” But she counsels pragmatism in tackling these problems.

“You can’t have a perfect government, especially not in a country like CAR, but you have to work out solutions where you address these governance problems while helping the country recover,” she said. The government release identified the timber sector as “one of the foundations of reconstruction of the social cohesion of our country.”

“Our question to Global Witness is, ‘If you shut down the sector and you deprive the government of that source of revenue, what do you do instead?’” Kalenga said.

Reservations aside, Kalenga said, the organization has brought these issues to the attention of the international community, and Blood Timber makes a strong case for the government’s need for support.

It also has the potential to give a voice to civil society leaders and the people of CAR whom they are trying to represent.

“What I think the report does well is basically shake the government,” she said, “so civil society finally has a chance to ask the government to account.”

This report was originally published in Mongobay and republished by an agreement to share content.

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