Central African Republic

An image of the country's flag.

Recent reports of a more stable political environment and more effective economic policies in the Central African Republic (CAR) have begun to indicate the possibility of a more positive future for the 4.4 million citizens of this low-income, landlocked, resource-rich and sparsely settled nation that occupies an area roughly the size of Texas. Constraints to realizing greater economic growth and human development are enormous: inadequate transport infrastructure; banking infrastructure incapable of supporting greater investments; low levels of technology; high levels of illiteracy; limited access to healthcare and education; and neighbors experiencing ongoing domestic and regional conflict (with frequent spillovers into the territory of the CAR). USAID does not have a presence in Bangui, and threats of violence have occasionally caused the US Embassy to close its doors. The United States government (USG) provides development assistance largely through the medium of regional projects.

Governance of the mineral and timber resources of the country is of concern to the USG. The Congo Basin forest reserves are second only to those of the Amazon; many view the sustainable management of these reserves as a key to mitigation of climate change. While the CAR does not possess the largest segment of the Basin forests, timber exports are an important source of export revenues, and the sector provides a substantial amount of employment in CAR. USAID’s Central Africa Regional Program for the Environment (CARPE) includes assistance to the CAR because part of the Sangha Tri-National area – one of CARPE’s 12 priority landscapes – is located in the CAR. The USG is also interested in ensuring that the CAR’s diamond reserves are managed in accordance with the Kimberley Process, which tracks the source of diamonds in an effort to identify “conflict” diamonds, and appropriately recognizes the property rights of the small-scale artisanal diamond miners. The Property Rights and Alluvial Diamond Development (PRADD) pilot project was launched in 2007 in the CAR as a joint activity by the US Embassy and USAID and has already demonstrated practical ways to achieve these goals.

The majority of CAR’s population is rural, dependent largely on farming or animal husbandry (primarily in nomadic systems) for food and incomes. Conflict and violence have periodically displaced people from their homes, increasing the threat of hunger and food insecurity. Because poor transport and market infrastructure have limited the potential for commercial production and possible export to neighboring countries or to world markets, much of the production is destined only for family consumption or local-market sale. Two-thirds of the population is estimated to live below the poverty line. The United Nation’s Human Development Index has placed CAR at or near the bottom of the rankings for many years. Greater security of land tenure rights could help to increase investments for productivity, especially in small irrigation facilities and for women farmers, but an array of other interventions will also be needed to improve the productivity and performance of the agricultural sector overall.

If the USG or other donors to decide to invest greater resources in addressing critical issues of property rights and resource governance, the first questions will be where to begin and how to sequence interventions. The people of CAR prioritize their needs as follows: restoration of law and order, followed by transparent and effective management of public services; increased income (especially in rural areas); and improved access to social services, particularly housing and water. As long as stability and peace are maintained, both through the 2010 elections and beyond, efforts to strengthen the legal and institutional foundations governing access to land, security of land rights, and sustainable and fair exploitation of CAR’s mineral and forest wealth would appear to be of high priority. Specific areas for action are detailed in the next section.


  • Legal framework for land and forest rights. CAR’s legal framework for land rights is dated, and the administrative structures established to govern them have limited reach. While more work has recently been done to establish a Forest Code that recognizes different users of forest products and services, growing markets for tropical woods and the possibility of greater exports through the Democratic Republic of the Congo may challenge the government in its implementation of the 2008 Code. Donors have several opportunities to collaborate with each other and with the government in developing a relevant legal framework (and implementing institutions) for land and forest rights. USAID has already made some contributions through its CARPE support, for example, but it could also draw on significant experience with legal frameworks and comparative knowledge of those in comparable countries to design and draft a comprehensive framework that: (1) capitalizes on the strengths of the country’s customary laws and traditional institutions; (2) provides the architecture for adoption of the rule of law and realization of the principles of equity and justice set forth in the country’s Constitution; (3) integrates principles of decentralization of governance; and (4) provides for the protection and improvement of the rights of women and marginalized populations such as forest dwellers, pastoralists, and nomadic herders.
  • Informal urban and peri-urban settlements. Urbanization accelerated during the years of civil conflict and violence, and an estimated 40% of the CAR’s population resides in urban areas. Little is reported about the numbers of people living in informal settlements in peri-urban and urban areas or their settlement conditions. A focused assessment of urban land tenure conditions could enable donors – and the government – to ensure that an appropriate legal framework for formalizing the rights of squatters and other residents to the plots on which they live is put in place.
  • Community-based natural resource governance. The PRADD pilot project has been a useful limited way for the United States to engage with the CAR on critical issues of resource governance even without a full- time USAID presence in-country. Donors could also consider piloting efforts to decentralize control over natural resources and develop community-based natural resource management models. USAID, for example, could use its experience in creating community-based forest management programs in sub- Saharan Africa or its prior work with water-user association development to shape these pilots. The experience for these pilots, coupled with CAR’s own experience, would help inform regulations and program procedures and create decentralized, community-based resource governance models.


The Central African Republic (République Centrafricaine, CAR) is a landlocked, sparsely populated country that is well-endowed with natural resources. CAR has abundant land, adequate soil, dense tropical forests, and a wealth of unexploited minerals. However, the country has a history of political instability and authoritarian regimes and military dictatorships alternating with one-party rule. The government and rebel groups signed a Comprehensive Peace Accord in 2008, and the government has taken steps to begin strengthening its core governmental institutions and bodies. However, opposition parties and others continue to vie for political power, and political instability remains a threat. Presidential and parliamentary elections have been delayed several times due to allegations that voting records are not complete and disarmament has not been achieved. A July 30, 2010 presidential decree rescheduled elections for January 2011.

The history of political unrest and violence has paralyzed the country’s development. CAR has only 650 kilometers of paved road, no railroad, and limited air transportation. The country lacks basic services, hospitals, and schools. The country was ranked 178th of the 179 countries on the 2008 Human Development Index and has been at or near the bottom for several years. Two-thirds of the population lives below the national poverty line. Thirty percent of the population suffers from chronic malnutrition, 10% with acute malnutrition. Sixty-eight percent of women and 46% of men are illiterate. Life expectancy in CAR in 2007 was 44 years, ten years below the average in African countries.

The northern region, which has been caught up in the conflict in Sudan, has become home to rebel fighters and while the populous northwestern region has been tense but stable since the 2008 peace agreement, the remote east and northeast continue to suffer from active indigenous rebellions and depredations from the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Thousands of farmers have abandoned their farms and are living in the bush. Others have fled to the cities, where physical security is more assured but water supplies and infrastructure are stretched beyond capacity. People who fled the violence have been slow to return home: as of January 2010, approximately 200,000 CAR citizens continued to be displaced and another 150,000 are refugees living in neighboring countries.

Eighty percent of the population relies on subsistence agriculture and livestock for their livelihoods. Lack of infrastructure, weak purchasing power, and violence have constrained the development of markets. Land rights throughout much of CAR are considered insecure as a result of political instability, lack of confidence in the government, weaknesses in government institutions, and widespread social unrest.

The potential in CAR’s land and other natural resources has yet to be realized: roughly a third of the country is considered suitable for farming, yet only about 3% is under cultivation. Close to half CAR’s land is suitable for grazing yet less than 15% is used. CAR is rich in forestland and forest resources, providing the population with fuel, food, shelter, medicinal plants, grazing land, and building materials. The timber industry serves as CAR’s main source of export earnings. This market is expected to grow as peace and stability in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has made export through the DRC easier, and Asian buyers are increasingly turning to Africa. This growth will have to be managed well to guard against overexploitation of CAR’s share of the Congo Basin forest and biodiversity resources. CAR also possesses considerable mineral wealth, most of it unexplored and unexploited, in part because political instability and conflict have provided few incentives to foreign investors and buyers. Artisanal mined raw diamonds, however, are a key export. The USAID and US Department of State’s joint Property Rights and Artisanal Diamond Development (PRADD) initiative has been piloting establishment of a property rights registry for artisanal miners to recognize and strengthen their rights.

Published / Updated: October 2010

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