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Natural resources at the heart of CAR crisis

Central African Republic
Children carrying wood in CAR

Internally displaced children in the Central African Republic. hdptcar under a Creative Commons Licence

Eight months after the Central African Republic (CAR) descended into chaos following a coup by a coalition of predominantly Muslim rebels known as Seleka, the world has finally awoken to the unfolding humanitarian crisis in the land-locked, resource-rich nation. More than 400,000 people – or 10 per cent of the population – have been displaced, and since 5 December, more than 500 people have been slaughtered in a violent outbreak between mainly Christian anti-Balaka (anti-machete) militia and ex-Seleka rebels.

That same the day, the UN Security Council voted unanimously to authorize France, CAR’s former colonial ruler, to intervene to restore order and protect civilians by assisting African troops already on the ground. Belgium – along with Britain, Denmark and Poland – has also promised practical help.

But if the international community is now belatedly turning its attention to a crisis that has been mounting for months, the media is still largely overlooking its complex causes.

For as much as poor governance and a weak state, this is a conflict driven by a battle for natural resources.

‘What we have been facing in the provinces is a struggle between different militia for control over natural resources such as diamond, timber, ivory and others, rather than willingness to actually change politics,’ says Paul Doko, a leading figure in CAR’s civil society, whose years spent fighting for community land rights were recognized when he was nominated as Minister of Environment and Ecology in January, a post he maintained after the coup.

Outside of the capital Bangui, the impact of this struggle has been devastating, and Seleka commanders have seized control of artisanal timber exploitation, ivory poaching and diamond mines.

Even under ideal circumstances, CAR’s responsible ministries lacked the means to control illegal practices on the ground. But this has been impossible since July 2013, when the transitional government’s money ran out. In Birao, in the north of the country, an underlying cause for taking up arms was the former president’s plans to exploit petroleum resources without including or informing the local stakeholders.

It is remarkable, therefore, that in the midst of the current violence and lawlessness the Ministry of Forestry has just launched a bidding process for five forest concessions covering an area of over a million hectares in the southwestern region. How this bidding process can occur without the necessary institutional structure to oversee it, and in a climate where several timber operators have been looted and are not operational, raises serious concerns over just how transparent it will be, and whether the present chaos is providing cover for some to gain control over natural resources.

The long-term solution to the present turmoil in CAR lies in decentralization and promoting local development through land-tenure reform and increased recognition of people’s customary rights. To this end, local elections would enable setting up administrations at community level that could ensure citizens’ participation in decision-making.

The price for not doing so is bluntly spelled out by Paul Doko: ‘The current way of doing politics in CAR is in the hands of a small aristocracy that is conservative and dangerous to the extent that it has almost led us to a genocide,’ he says.

An Bollen is the Forest Governance Campaigner for West and CentralAfrica for FERN, the environmental and social justice NGO. She organized a civil society workshop on legal reform in the forest sector in the Central African Republic in March and was forced to leave the country hours before the coup.

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