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Surface Area: 622,984 km2
Population: 4.3 million
Forest Cover: 5 million hectares
Lying on the northern edge of the Congo Basin, the Central African Republic contains vastly different ecosystems, with dry savannah landscapes in the centre and north, and lush tropical forests, which account for some 8% of the national territory, in parts of the south. These forests contain some of the most abundant wildlife in Africa including forest elephants, bongos, lowland gorillas and chimpanzees.
Despite substantial natural resources which include significant reserves of diamonds, uranium, gold, oil and timber, CAR ranks only 179 out of 187 countries in the UNDP's Human Development Index (2011). The largest ethnic groups are the Baya, Banda and the Mandija; Sangho is the most commonly spoken language, as well as French. The forests in the south-west and south-east are inhabited by the indigenous Bayaka, who to a large extent depend on hunting and gathering for their subsistence, alongside other forest-dependent Bantu communities. The relation between them is often a historically complex one partly driven by different conceptions of land ownership and often unequal social and economic relations.
As the sole owner of al forest land, the Central African state has allocated the vast majority of the south-western forest for timber exploitation and strict conservation purposes (Botambi Forest, Bodingué-Mbaéré Park, Man & Biosphere Reserve, Dzangha-Ndoki National Park). To date these areas have been managed with the limited involvement of local and indigenous communities, reducing their ability to access traditional lands and resources on which they depend, whilst contributing little to local development.
In recent years the government has engaged in a number of land and forest governance reforms which could provide some limited opportunities for greater recognition of forest-dependent communities’ and indigenous peoples’ rights. The new Forest Code adopted in 2008 aims to "reconcile the exploitation of forest products with the requirements of conservation of forest resources and biodiversity for sustainable development" and asserts communities’ customary right to able to exploit forest products "freely, for their subsistence”. The law contains certain provisions for indigenous peoples around protected areas as well as for community forests, although the necessary legal implementing texts had yet to be passed as of July 2013. CAR has also embarked a land reform process and in 2012 entered into a voluntary partnership agreement (VPA) with the European Union through the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) initiative aimed at halting the import of illegal timber into the union – which in theory opens the door to further legal reform.
The country has also taken a lead on indigenous peoples’ issues in the region, being the first African state to ratify ILO Convention No. 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples. This legally binding convention has significant implications for the land and resource rights regime in CAR, as there are numerous obligations to ensure the rights to lands, territories and resources for indigenous peoples under this agreement. It also covers the right to consultation and other rights of indigenous peoples.
The participatory mapping programme in CAR has been coordinated by local NGO Maison de l'Enfant et de la Femmes Pygmées (MEFP) since 2009. MEFP’s mission is to promote the social, economic and cultural well-being of indigenous communities in general and indigenous women and children in particular, but also works with other forest-dependent communities as part of its mandate.
The programme has worked closely with other civil society organisations and government agencies, including the Ministry of Water, Forests, Fishing and Hunting and the High Commissioner for Human Rights particularly through training and policy development. Nationally it works to promote compliance with ILO Convention No. 169 on the Rights of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, promoting the greater recognition of customary rights and land rights that conform to internationally recognised norms. In the absence of fully developed legislative frameworks for protecting the rights to land of forest-dependent communities, the programme is also working to improve the implementation of existing legal provisions. These include the development of community-based forest management policy and developing approaches to the identification, allocation and management of community forests which are more appropriate to the needs, constraints and realities of communities than was initially foreseen.
Locally, mapping and other related activities have thus far been used to uphold the rights of around 20,000 local and indigenous people based in 70 communities around the 86,690 hectares Mbaéré-Bodingué National Park in the Bambio sub-prefecture in the south-western forest region. As of 2013, some 100 community mappers have been trained with a further 50 community representatives now capable of participating in negotiations over their land rights. A Community Lawyers programme is also supporting such communities to claim their civil liberties to gain better access to education and legal services and citizenship and hold logging companies to account.
In 2012, RFUK and MEFP launched major new programme funded by DFID which will significantly scale up the mapping work to cover most of the south-west forest estate of CAR in what is one of the biggest exercises of its kind ever attempted in Africa.