The political instability that still confronts the Central African Republic undermines the protection and inclusive management of its forests. Almost non-existent government control and increases in chaotic logging threaten the livelihoods of local populations already deeply strained by years of conflict and an increase in forestry activities.
Independent forest monitoring (IFM) – mandated, external, community-based - is at the heart of Central African civil society’s efforts to combat deforestation and illegal logging, and to maintain the momentum of the Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) signed with the European Union (EU). However, this tool still suffers from weak support and supervision, which compromises its long-term impact.
Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) in the Central African Republic (CAR) are far from reassured: the Commission’s recent Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Fitness Check and the forthcoming deforestation-free supply chain regulation, whose drafts have been leaked to the press, continues to cast a shadow of uncertainty on the future of the VPAs (FW 268). The proposal to have a cut-off date for FLEGT licences, as recent leaks suggest the European Commission is considering, would irrevocably weaken them, and would prove to be a giant leap backward for the IFM activities that fight illegal deforestation, and indeed for the transparency and inclusiveness that have allowed such activities to develop.
IFM is a crucial part of determining whether timber is ‘legal’, and is the backbone of the FLEGT system, designed to limit illegal imports to the EU and instil transparency in the forest sector. But ‘legality’ is a complex issue, touching not only on a multitude of technical requirements along the timber chain of custody, but also on such fundamental aspects as respect for community and worker rights, and whether social contributions and obligations have been honoured and taxes paid. A spectrum of actions is necessary to verify legality.
In CAR, official monitoring of the application of laws and enforcement activities had largely been dropped after the security crisis of 2013; forest missions were carried out rarely, if at all, and the Registry of Infractions – an official document in which infractions of forest regulations, sanctions applied, and follow-up are noted – had not been updated since its creation in 2009. Relying on the transparency and stakeholder participation required under the VPA, CSOs spurred the Forest Administration to reactivate its enforcement role. Thus, Centre pour l’Information Environnementale et le Développement Durable - CIEDD updated the Registry of Infractions, and developed a detailed Manual of Forest Procedures, and Fôrets et Développement Durable, (FDD) developed a judicial toolkit/baseline for analysing events observed on the ground. CSOs also carry out complementary IFM activities directly.
Mandated IFM is carried out by CIEDD, which has been authorised in this role by the Forest Administration. CIEDD enjoys broad access to company records and carries out joint missions on the ground with Forest Administration agents.
But the few officially recognised independent monitors could not hope to cover all the forest activities in CAR: through the Independent Monitoring Working Group (GT-OI) created by the Gestion Durable des Ressources Naturelles et de l’environnement (GDRNE), non-mandated – ‘external’ – independent monitors receive strategic training and are also able to carry out IFM missions. Forest stakeholders exchange information, prepare upcoming missions, analyse denunciations of illegality and assess IFM reports. They also work with forest community watch groups (veille communautaire), training them to spot and document infractions, to substantiate their claims and denounce these to authorities.
“The reactivation of the forest enforcement system that had fallen by the wayside for years has allowed important progress,” explains Josias Ndewa Zeneth, of Observatoire de Gestion de Ressources Naturelles et de l’Environnement (OGRNE).
Marien Yakité, of FDD, notes: “Thanks to the VPA, Central African CSOs have been able to carry out IFM while involving local and Indigenous communities in the chain of denunciation through the community watch mechanism. The VPA has permitted civil society to collaborate with all forest governance stakeholders, in particular with the forest administration, which has triggered forest control missions following reports and denunciations from community monitoring.”
But the reinforcement of a multifaceted system of forest control may not withstand the shock of FLEGT VPAs being jeopardised. A certain reluctance persists on the part of the Forest Administration when it comes to enforcement and prosecution of forest infractions. Zeneth notes, “Despite advances, the gangrene of illegal logging is still acutely felt in CAR.”
By contrast with that of the Republic of the Congo, CAR’s Forest Code makes no reference to IFM; outside the provisions of the FLEGT VPA, no legal foundation exists for CSO involvement in IFM in the Central African Republic, or for protecting whistle-blowers. Zeneth adds, “If today we removed the legal basis that allows civil society to look at what’s happening, the result would be total chaos.”
A revision of the CAR Forest Code is soon to get underway, and the administration is seeking the help of a financial partner to launch the process. CSOs are asking that IFM and community watch activities that protect forest and climate governance be institutionalised in the revised Code. They would like to see increased judicial enforcement, and the creation of village community watch committees near forest management units.
For now, however, all progress will depend on the future of the VPA. CSOs are asking the EU to reiterate its confidence in the Agreements, and to expand financial support to CSOs, so that they can continue to protect the rights of vulnerable populations and fight illegal logging.