A new experiment in the Central African Republic (CAR) is about to have a big impact on the land rights of remote forest communities. After months of advocacy by civil society, one government ministry has opened the door for local communities in the country’s south-west to officially gain control of their forest resources.
Thanks to an historic decision by the Ministry of Water, Forests, Hunting and Fishing earlier this year, CAR has now become the first country in all of Central Africa to formally allow communities to gain control of genuinely usable land within commercial logging zones.
As Rainforest Foundation UK’s (RFUK) CAR Coordinator Marjolaine Pichon explains: “This experiment is basically about taking widely accepted customary practices and translating them into more formal, legal rights. Given the context the country faces, this kind of flexible and inclusive approach may be the start of a more practical solution to land rights and forest management.”
RFUK started working in CAR in 2009, helping local communities to map their customary forests as a basis for claiming rights to their traditional lands. Today, the organisation is supporting those communities to take advantage of the country’s community forestry laws to secure rights and officially control their natural resources.
At present, forest communities in the country’s south-west face a harsh reality: virtually all of the rainforest in this region has been allocated to logging concessions or protected areas. The only legally available lands for forest communities are small parcels within the boundaries of logging concessions which are generally poor in resources. Local forest communities desperately needed a means of securing their rights to forest resources on larger parcels of land that correspond to their customary territory, in order to improve their livelihoods.
The new rights available to forest communities are a chance to demonstrate how local villagers and logging companies can live side-by-side. While logging companies will retain exclusive rights over timber, communities who apply for an official community forest may be able to secure rights over non-timber resources like fruits, medicinal plants, nuts, and so on.
RFUK’s objective is to draw lessons from the experience of several pilot communities, working with government agencies and local civil society in order to help scale up sustainable community forestry in CAR.
One of the most interesting benefits of the laws on community forests is that they are helping unite people – a truly important development in a country that is still recovering from a deadly civil conflict. In the region of Mbaïki, three separate villages are coming together to submit a joint application for the management of the surrounding Lomba forest, located within an industrial logging zone.
David Ouangando, Ministry Focal Point for Community Forests was part of a delegation, along with RFUK, that recently visited these local communities in order to better understand how community forestry is unfolding on the ground.
"The way in which these communities have mapped the resources of their forest, proves that we have nothing to teach them. These communities have perfect knowledge of their forest, and are able to manage it better than anyone else.”
François Mosseba is President of the Customary Council of Lomba Community Forest. Speaking to RFUK’s team, he expressed his satisfaction on behalf of his community:
"It was we who asked NGOs to support us in the process of obtaining a community forest. [...] Today, the Government has agreed to let us continue the process. We can only say thank you.”
One of the next steps is for local communities to sign agreements (or “protocols”) with the logging companies operating in the area, outlining their respective rights and responsibilities. RFUK and its partners will accompany the communities to ensure that they have collectively expressed their Free, Informed and Prior Consent (FPIC).
“Everyone involved in CAR’s community forestry experiment are under pressure to avoid the mistakes made by others in the region,” explains Pichon. “In some neighbouring countries, we’ve seen how influential individuals have taken advantage of the process, sometimes with the complicity of local elites. This phenomenon has also been observed in CAR, especially in cases where communities have not had the opportunity to secure rights over their land or resources. That’s one reason it’s so important to support communities and make sure no one tries to take advantage of them.”
CAR is home to just over 20 million hectares of forest cover, and only about a 25 per cent of this is rainforest, which is almost entirely located in the south-west. As community forestry is scaled up, more and more areas of forest will potentially be available for communities to use sustainably and collectively.
RFUK’s work in CAR is part of the CoNGOs project, an IIED-led consortium, funded by the UK Department for International Development (DfID), which aims to achieve improved governance and practice in equitable and sustainable community forestry livelihoods in the Congo Basin.