Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Blood Timber, the Latest Conflict Commodity

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column,  Monday, July 27 / 15

Zack Gross

Academics and observers who study what makes some countries abjectly poor and conflict-ridden, say that being landlocked, being ruled dictatorially and possessing coveted natural resources are a recipe for national disaster. 

The Central African Republic (CAR) is a current example of this “rule
,” a smaller, less publicized version of the Congo, with a  long history of violence both civil and regional, yet replete with coveted resources such as diamonds, uranium and timber along with potential oil and gas in the future!

Coups in 2013 and 2014 have left the country armed and divided, with at least five thousand people killed in the past year and up to a million people displaced and living as refugees either internally or outside the country.  On the surface, it appears as if the conflict is fuelled by religious differences (Muslim vs. Christian) but that is more an outcome of the economic and political battle over power and resource wealth. 

The key players internationally in the conflict have been France, a former colonial presence in the CAR;  Chad and Sudan, next door neighbours to the CAR covetous of resources;  South Africa, interested in current and future mineral deposits and one of Africa's “superpowers”, and China, now a huge influence throughout the continent with millions of its nationals involved in economic development to China's advantage. 

The remnants of past CAR governments, going back more than a decade, fall in and out of favour with these powerful actors, depending on how the country can be manipulated as a resource cash cow.  Their militia's spread terror throughout the CAR and finance their internal struggle by selling resources to the above countries.  As is often the case, a United Nations-initiated peacekeeping force much smaller than is necessary is stationed in the country but unable to manage the situation.

Global Witness, an anti-corruption organization and Enough!, which focuses on genocide and crimes against humanity, have publicized the situation in the CAR.  The logging industry has drawn particular criticism, as European (particularly France and Germany) and Chinese concerns are estimated to have paid millions of dollars to both Muslim and Christian rebel groups as well as into state taxes in purchasing timber for export to their countries. 

Just as with diamonds in past years (watch the Leonardo Leonardo DiCaprio movie Blood Diamond if you haven't already!), the European Union has a legal obligation to keep illicit timber off the market.  A similar regulation brought in by the Kimberly Process in the diamond industry helped to clean up that market so that consumers could access fair trade or at least no-conflict diamonds.  As a positive result of this process, our own northern Canadian diamonds entered the marketplace as an alternative to those coming from questionable sources overseas.

In contrast to the diamond experience, imports of conflict timber into France, as an example, despite EU regulations have increased by over 200%.  A French timber company representative, interviewed and secretly taped by Global Witness responded to concerns that timber sales fuel CAR's internal war with these words:  “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.”

Some will argue that jobs created in the CAR by the logging industry outweigh the war that it fuels.  However, the other side of the story is that the country continues to generate civilian deaths, abject poverty, despotic governance and large numbers of refugees.  An election was recently called by an interim government to be held in October of this year.  At the same time, it was announced that those who have fled the country (at least 10% of the population) will be excluded from the electoral process.

Others have backed the chances of changing the direction of the country through the influx of development aid from abroad but, ironically, many countries putting money into assistance are also breaking international rules to access timber.  A forest management plan paid for with French aid dollars may just be another ploy to insert Europe's interests into the industry.  And taxes paid by foreign exporters for the timber do not impact on CAR's population but only enrich the leaders of its failed state.

Groups in opposition to the current situation are calling on the African Union and United Nations to address the key challenges facing the Central African Republic:  securing the country's borders to seal if off from regional conflicts and military incursions; reforming the national resources sector to make it an engine of economic and social development for all citizens;  working with all stakeholders (military, religious, women, youth and others) to bring about national reconciliation; and aiding real sustainable development in the country from health to education to the justice system.   

This situation is another example of how the “developed world” consumes the resources of poor countries with little regard to the effect on people overseas.  Hopefully, as with the international diamond trade, shining the light of publicity on it can help to bring about a positive resolution.

Zack Gross is a former Executive Director of the Marquis Project in Brandon.

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