Almost 37% of the 62 million hectares of land in the Central African Republic (CAR) is forest. The forestry sector represents an important source of income and employment for the country, contributing 13% of its export revenue.
Within this rich forest, however, is widespread criminality. Organised flora crime in the CAR includes illegal logging, firewood trafficking for charcoal and timber trafficking, and each criminal act contributes to a devastating deforestation rate of about 1% of the total rainforest land coverage every year. The most sought-after wood species is Sapele – a reddish-brown hardwood widely used for furniture making, decorative veneers and musical instruments.
At the base of the criminal chain are traffickers from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Congo-Brazzaville, Cameroon, Chad, Sudan and South Sudan, according to findings from a recent ENACT assessment. The kingpins, however, are foreign nationals from Asian countries. While the CAR is the source country for illegal logging, illicit timber and products are trafficked through neighbouring countries via multiple road and waterway transit corridors.
According to both state and non-state actors who spoke to ENACT under the condition of anonymity, the illicit timber trade is exacerbated by weak law enforcement, border porosity and increasing transnational demand for the country’s timber products.
Illegal logging and timber trafficking have also been enabled by the country’s protracted instability and have played a major role in funding the conflict that has decimated the country. Illicit timber exports have attracted multiple militias and armed groups seeking to extract wealth to fund the purchase of weapons in a power struggle that has collapsed the state. These conflicts have left thousands of citizens dead and hundreds of thousands displaced from their homes.
In March 2013, a coalition of Séléka rebels came to power by deposing then-president François Bozizé. A Global Witness investigative report found that during the Séléka rule, Chinese, French, and Lebanese trading firms continued to illegally trade the CAR’s rainforest timber on a large scale for profit. Thousands of innocent civilians were killed and tortured by the Séléka rebels.
The report says these trading companies paid an estimated €3.4 million for ‘protection’ services, empowering the Séléka rebels to sustain armed groups on the ground and procure weapons.
In what appears to be a historical pattern of scrambling for the CAR’s natural resources by foreign establishments, the recent incursion of the Russian Wagner Group – the controversial private military company – has brought this criminal enterprise back. This has resulted in devastating harm to both rural residents and the environment in the CAR’s rainforest regions. According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, 180 events involving Wagner mercenaries targeting civilians have been recorded since December 2020.
According to an investigative report, civil society sources have raised concerns about the links between the protracted conflict and forest exploitation in the CAR. In order to log the timber for almost no cost, the mercenaries have committed gross human rights abuses, including invading and ‘emptying’ towns and villages. Foreign mercenaries are therefore partly responsible for the instability in the rainforest region.
Principally, it’s a tripartite arrangement between some government officials, the Wagner Group, and a Russia-based enterprise registered in the CAR. This enterprise is apparently headed by a local director who works with Russian representatives to sell wood from the CAR that has been harvested through fraudulent forestland concessions.
For example, military operations were launched by the CAR army and supported by the Wagner Group in several cities located in the Lobaye region and in Ndanga village. The military action was staged to dislodge the rebel forces in the area. But the investigative report confirms that Wagner mercenaries were already in control of Boda town and surrounding areas by the time the Russia-based enterprise was awarded the forestry concession tender. This suggests that the military operation provides disguised protection for the timber-logging enterprise.
These crimes are happening in a context of corruption and complicity. In the CAR and most forest-rich African countries, illegal logging is often facilitated by fraudulent forestland concessions awarded by state authorities. Logging permits meant for local logging and timber processing companies are instead granted to large foreign timber logging and trading companies. In addition to the concession to log in these otherwise restricted areas, the foreign firms operate loosely without government oversight.
Through this, the Wagner Group and its business partners could be generating a potential revenue of US$890 million in international markets (using the hypothesis that 30% of the concession is exploited). As such, wood exports would be a profitable business for the Wagner Group and a way to channel cash back into a sanctioned Russia, says the report.
The state-sponsored corruption in the forestry sector presents a complex case in the CAR. Nevertheless, international advocacy groups on environmental conservation can help by working with citizens and pro-reform policymakers to drive the needed change.
Mitigation measures would include enhancing transparency, strengthening government oversight and full participation in the implementation of timber concessions. It would also entail promoting legal and process reforms, as well as increasing fair competition to guarantee indigenous business participation in the forestry sector.
As a start, the highest levels of government must prioritise and demonstrate the political will to stamp out extractive corruption in the logging sector, especially regarding illegal loggers and their associates who are protected by state authorities. A practical example of this exists in Gabon, where the vice president and minister of forests were sacked in 2019 over a scandal related to corruption and illegal logging.
However, a Herculean task lies in strengthening the enforcement of rules to address the role of foreign actors and enablers of illegal logging and timber trafficking in the CAR. Getting rid of foreign business establishments perpetrating illegal logging and timber trafficking requires international advocacy groups to support the CAR by lending their support for sanctions on such businesses in the global timber trade.
Oluwole Ojewale, Regional Organised Crime Observatory Coordinator – Central Africa