By Rachel Riegelhaupt, graduate student of Human Rights at Columbia University
When asked about buying conflict-timber from the Central African Republic during an undercover investigation led by Global Witness, a representative from the French manufacturing company Tropical Bois responded, “It’s Africa. War is so common we don’t really pay attention…it’s not a war where they attack white people. It’s not a war we have to avoid.”
The Central African Republic (CAR) has been plagued by violence since November 2012, when predominately Muslim Seleka rebels began to take up arms. In March 2013, they overthrew the president in a bloody coup d’état and pursued a campaign of violence throughout the nation, provoking a violent backlash from the Christian Anti-Balaka militia in September 2013. Although a transitional government is currently in place, with the Seleka’s leader Michel Djotodia serving as interim president, the balance of power is still rocked by clashes between ever-present armed groups. War atrocities such as the use of child soldiers, rape, summary killings, enforced disappearances, and torture have been prevalent, and thousands of civilians have been killed, hundreds of thousands have been internally displaced, and half a million have fled to neighboring countries since the fighting began.
One of the main funding streams behind this violence has been the country’s primary export, timber, leading the UN Panel of Experts on the Central African Republic to recognize logging companies as a key source of income for armed forces in the CAR. As Seleka rebels gained power, they instantly began to monopolize on the country’s prized natural resource; anti-Balaka movements have recently been taking over the country’s rainforest for the same reason. These armed groups sell timber to logging companies based in Europe, China, and Lebanon, who then illegally export it to their home countries. The companies with the largest presence in the CAR are IFB from France, SEFCA from Lebanon, and Vicwood from China—together, they account for 99% of the country’s timber exports.
According to Global Witness, all three of these companies frequently make payments to the Seleka rebels, “as bribes, to pass roadblocks, for armed escort, and for the protection of their logging sites, including a single transaction of nearly 381,000 euros by SEFCA to the Seleka government.” Based on the sheer size of these payments, these companies essentially fund the war, rendering them accessories to war crimes. However, foreign trade of CAR timber has only increased. Europe is the main destination for illegally harvested timber, accounting for nearly two-thirds of the CAR’s total exports. In fact, the French company Tropical Bois, the CAR’s biggest trader, increased profits by 247% over the course of the current conflict in the CAR (they are conveniently co-owned by the biggest logging company operating within the CAR, SEFCA).
Ironically, European governments have provided thousands of troops and invested hundreds of millions of euros to peacekeeping operations in the CAR. France deployed 1,600 troops to the CAR in 2013 in an attempt to disarm the Seleka rebels, along with 700 peacekeepers to maintain security. The UN peacekeeping mission currently has nearly 12,000 troops maintaining security in the CAR. Despite this, European governments have not taken adequate measures to block conflict timber from reaching EU markets. In 2013, the EU initiated the Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) in order to regulate illegal logging. Its stated purpose is to “guarantee that any wood exported from a timber-producing country to the EU comes from legal sources [and to] help the partner country stop illegal logging by improving forest governance and regulation.” Once a VPA is established it is legally binding—both for the timber exporting country and for the EU countries importing timber. Though the CAR signed on to the agreement in 2011, the ongoing conflict has made it impossible for the CAR to maintain its end of the agreement. However, European companies have also ignored the agreement and continue to import and trade illegally harvested timber from the CAR.
In contrast, the CAR was suspended from the Kimberley Process just two months after the coup d’état in 2013, prohibiting the country from exporting diamonds—the CAR’s chief export at that time—to international markets in an effort to control violence. The initiative is considered to be widely successful, and the trade of conflict diamonds has fallen significantly. Similar steps were taken to control exports of conflict diamonds from Sierra Leone a few years before. While the issue of blood diamonds has received international attention through groundbreaking exposés, shocking media campaigns, and beloved Hollywood films, blood-timber is seemingly less sexy. The lack of a substantial media campaign against conflict timber stops it from ever reaching the court of public opinion, giving companies no genuine incentive to enact risk-based due diligence measures and giving governments no real incentive to better regulate the trade of conflict timber.
Some may argue that sanctioning timber may inadvertently do more harm than good by hurting the CAR’s economy; they may argue that imposing sanctions against the Central African Republic violates the CAR’s Right to Development. Firstly, there cannot be sustainable development in the context of a war-zone. Secondly, while it would be ideal to hold only the companies at fault (and not the entire industry) accountable for their complicity in war crimes, the existence of the corporate veil makes this option tenuous. Even if litigation were to be brought against specific logging companies and were to be successful, the punishment would simply take the form of monetary compensation—a punishment not nearly substantial enough to bring an end to the company’s illegal activities. Thirdly, it should be noted that robust sanctions are not being suggested, but simply the sanctioning of the timber trade—the industry fueling CAR’s war. While the overall harvesting and sale of timber may create jobs and bring money into the country, these gains are insignificant when considering the role of timber sales in perpetuating the country’s instability and conflict.
Perhaps we need another Hollywood screenplay. Perhaps Edward Zwick and Leonardo Dicaprio will come together to disseminate another message about the resource curse to their audience, steering the public to hold its companies more responsible for their actions. Or perhaps it is time for the EU to properly regulate its timber imports and hold its companies accountable for complicity in war crimes. Or maybe, perhaps it is finally time for corporations such as IFB, SEFCA, Vicwood, and Tropical Bois to step it up themselves—to end illegal logging, to enact proper supply-chain due diligence measures and to ensure that their businesses are not fuelling conflict, human rights abuses, and the continual underdevelopment of the Central African Republic.
Rachel Riegelhaupt is an M.A. Candidate at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. Her research focuses primarily on conflict resolution, peace-building, and women’s rights.