April 28, 2017

ABA ROLI Explores Effects of Illicit Timber Extraction on Indigenous Central Africans

In 2015, European consumption of lumber from the Central African Republic (CAR) played a significant role in funding the conflict that decimated CAR and left thousands dead and hundreds of thousands displaced from their homes. Illicit timber exports attracted militia factions as they sought to extract wealth and fund weapons purchases in a power struggle that led to the collapse of the Central African state. The conflict destroyed state institutions and infrastructure, and the fighting exacerbated social differences that continue to fuel division and occasionally erupt into violence today. While the situation remains precarious, CAR has improved substantially since 2013. In late 2015, with considerable assistance from the international community and U.N. peacekeeping, CAR successfully held its first democratic elections. Since then, the government in cooperation with international partners, has sought to rebuild and move beyond the crisis. Nonetheless, large numbers of the population remain displaced, unable to return to their communities due to lingering fears of violence, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation and susceptible to labor trafficking.

The American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) recently conducted a case study in CAR on large-scale forestry and the trafficking in persons vulnerability of indigenous and displaced populations in association with logging. In partnership with Verité, the African Labour Research Network and the Solidarity Center, ABA ROLI is conducting a two-year interdisciplinary investigation to identify trafficking risks and best practices for combating those risks in global supply chains in sub-Saharan Africa. The study explores four topics: African supply chain characteristics, trafficking in persons risks in the African context, company and industry practices that enable or help prevent trafficking, and the legal and policy frameworks in which supply chains operate.

Initial findings of the case study show how complex the interplay between global supply chains, industry regulation, conservation and the rights of marginalized populations can be, particularly in the context of a country struggling to emerge from civil conflict. Timber extraction in CAR has long been a lucrative business, attracting investment from multinational corporations to a poorly regulated industry in which illegal logging is widespread. The forests of CAR’s southernmost prefectures in Sangha-Mbaéré and Lobaye, on the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), are among the most appealing for logging. These districts are home to some of CAR’s most marginalized populations, including the Bayaka or Aka, an indigenous minority, many of whom continue to live nomadic lifestyles, collecting forest products and hunting wild game to sell in national markets. Unregulated logging threatens the forest-dependent Bayaka’s traditional lifestyle in ways that ripple out from the act of timber harvesting itself. In an immediate sense, timber exploitation destroys the habitats for these forest products; the presence of timber workers then triggers further invasion into the forests, as poorly paid loggers seek to supplement their wages by plowing fields for farming and hunting game themselves, driving animals further from Bayaka communities.

The introduction of logging camps often brings improved transportation routes, leading to increased pressure on the Bayaka to produce hunted game. To help the Bayaka keep up with demand, loggers provide better hunting weapons, leading to an overhunting of game and the threat of exhaustion of resources on which Bayaka communities have traditionally relied. When communities such as the Bayaka are displaced from the forest or no longer able to survive on natural resources, they become vulnerable to exploitation and domestic labor trafficking. Vulnerability is amplified by past practices of enslavement and their historic treatment as inferiors to other Central African ethnic groups.

Prior to the recent crisis, CAR made progress by incorporating protections for minority groups like the Bayaka into the national legal framework. Having voted in favor of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007, CAR became the first African country to ratify the International Labor Organization’s Indigenous and Tribal People’s Convention (Convention No. 169) in 2010. In practice however, enforcement has lagged, capacity to uphold the laws has been lacking and oversight has been weak. “Nothing is respected in (CAR’s) statutes. While participation in public affairs is guaranteed in the (Central African) Constitution, there is no genuine inclusion of (the Bayaka),” said Saint-Jerome Sitamom, a founder of the organization Maison de l’Enfant et de la Femme Pygmées, a Central African nongovernmental organization established to assist the Bayaka.

In-depth studies examine the linkages between implementation of targeted rights protections, enforcement of broader administrative and regulatory regimes and the political economy of implicated global supply chains. Using these studies, ABA ROLI contributes data and analysis that can be used in the design of future interventions to tackle complex problems — strengthening local governance, enforcing international standards, combatting discrimination, empowering indigenous communities and fostering transparent and equitable economic development.

To learn more about our work in the Central African Republic, please contact the ABA Rule of Law Initiative at rol@americanbar.org