French, Chinese, and Lebanese logging companies operating in the Central African Republic have paid millions of euros to brutal militias during the civil war there, fueling atrocities including mass murder and rape, according to a report released today.
The timber felled during a civil war that has cost thousands of lives and displaced tens of thousands of people since 2012 was sold to European markets, where unlike diamonds, wood sourced from countries riven by conflict is not subject to trade restrictions.
In an undercover investigation, NGO Global Witness found three international logging companies made frequent payments to a rebel group during a period in which it engaged in the mass and indiscriminate killing of civilians, as well as other abuses such as the forced recruitment of child soldiers.
'It's not a war where they attack white people'
Global Witness also secretly recorded representatives of European companies linked to the firms paying militia in CAR, who dismissed concerns about the conflict.
"It's Africa, we don't really pay attention," said a representative of Tropica Bois, a French timber importer half-owned by Lebanese logging firm SEFCA, one of three named by Global Witness as cooperating with rebels. "It's not really a concern. It's not a war where they attack white people. It's not a war we have to avoid."
CAR's civil war began when the Seleka militia, a loose rebel alliance from the country's north and east, started taking over the country in November 2012. The Seleka overran the capital city of Bangui in a coup in March 2013 then rapidly set about tightening its grip on one of the country's most valuable natural resources — hardwood timber.
In April 2013, they moved to take control of the timber-rich southwest of the country. In May, they revoked logging permits granted under the previous administration, leaving them free to authorize their own.
The Seleka had made inroads into the logging trade even before that. In an unsuccessful effort to stave off the rebellion, the previous President François Bozizé had acceded to Seleka demands to appoint their third-in-command General Mohamed Moussa Dhaffane to head the coveted Water, Forests, and Fisheries Ministry in February 2013, as part of a national unity government.
Dhaffane acquired a reputation for brutality and avarice. In June 2013, commanding a squad of Seleka facing down a demonstration, he reportedly grabbed a gun from his aide-de-camp, and begun to fire indiscriminately into the crowd. In the ensuing violence, at least six people were killed.
Shortly afterwards, he was sacked by his colleagues, allegedly for privately enriching himself from logging contracts. But the companies continued to operate, and Dhaffane remains at large.
Global Witness claims that individual militia leaders, including Dhaffane, continue to hold personal wealth skimmed from the timber trade. It estimates that the Seleka were paid 3.4 million euros ($3.7m) by the three logging companies between March 2013 and January 2014.
There were three companies logging in CAR after the fall of Bangui: the Lebanese SEFCA, the French IFB, and the Chinese VICA. All three, the report says, paid the Seleka in order to continue working. The companies preside over an area of CAR rainforest over two hundred times the size of Paris, say Global Witness, and together account for 99 percent of timber exports from the country.
A leaked document shows that SEFCA, the largest of the three, paid an "advance" worth more than 380,000 euros ($418,000) to the Seleka-controlled government straight after the coup, even while it was known that the militia was siphoning state coffers.
In September 2013 Human Rights Watch documented extensive human rights abuses by the Seleka, including the indiscriminate killing of civilians and the destruction of thousands of homes — but the companies continued to work with the rebels.
All three companies would have had to pay fees to Seleka militia men guarding checkpoints along the route out of the country, a sum estimated by Global Witness at around 1.2 million euros ($1.3m) in total. They also paid an estimated 1.77 million euros ($1.95m) in protection payments for their employees and facilities, according to the report.
Other companies either did not want to play ball with the Seleka, or did not know how to: they lost permission to continue logging.
'They need to be fed'
Once the Seleka were driven from the forests in the fall of 2013, a movement known as the Anti-Balaka took its place. The Anti-Balaka, a largely Christian force, undertook indiscriminate violence against Muslim civilians, who they associated with the largely Muslim Seleka.
Anti-Balaka checkpoints, too, extracted payments from the logging companies.
"These formalities allow us to operate," an Anti-Balaka chief told a local journalist. "We don't have other sources of revenue. These are young people, who are manning the roadblocks, and they need to be fed."
Much of the valuable hardwood exported by the companies will have been used for luxury flooring, garden furniture and fine musical instruments in Europe and China, according to Alexandra Pardal, a researcher on the report. During the conflict, timber overtook diamonds as the CAR's number one export, she said.
'What kind of legality can there be when someone's pointing a Kalashnikov at you?'
Tropica Bois, the French company part-owned by SEFCA whose representative dismissed the conflict as "not a war where they attack white people," registered record profits in 2013, according to Global Witness — up 247 percent from 2010.
The three companies told Global Witness their timber logged in CAR was legal. SEFCA told the NGO it hosted Seleka militias on its site alongside international peacekeeping forces for security reasons.
Timber imports for sale in Europe are governed by the European Union Timber Regulation, which entered into force just weeks before the Seleka took Bangui in March 2013. It prohibits illegally logged timber, but makes no specific provision for the status of timber logged during war.
Global Witness argues that logging in CAR during the conflict took place outside the framework of law, but rather on the whim of militia leaders.
The director of a European logging company asked an undercover researcher from the organization: "What kind of legality can there be when someone's pointing a Kalashnikov at you?"
Diamonds are another of CAR's natural resources, but so-called blood diamonds tend to be better regulated than some other commodities, including wood.
"Diamonds are a lot more high profile, but timber needs to receive more attention," Pardal of Global Witness told VICE News.
CAR was suspended from the Kimberley Process, which exists to prevent conflict diamonds entering the international market, in May 2013. But no similar steps were taken for CAR timber, despite the fact that it was worth more.
"Timber has been associated with fueling conflict in many fragile states, places like Liberia, DRC, Cambodia, Myanmar, so it is certainly not a peripheral issue to the conflict finance question," Pardal said. "It's a product that can be easily controlled and exploited by armed groups. Anybody with a chainsaw can make money out of the timber trade."
Global Witness is calling on the EU and its member states to cut all trade links to CAR's logging industry, and for the United Nations to examine the links between the timber trade and the financing of armed groups.
"The companies themselves have been making a lot of money," said Pardal. "The two Lebanese guys who own SEFCA, the logging company which was exporting most timber, have made a dividend jointly with a French business associate in France of over 600,000 euros last year in France. Their profits have trebled in three years. They are making a lot of money, and obviously they didn't want to shut down because of some pesky conflict."
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Watch the VICE News documentary, The Human Cost of War in CAR here: