Western Africa thousands of Ivorian cocoa farmers evicted to save forest



Before the morning mists had broken over Ivory Coast’s Mont Peko National Park, thousands of newly homeless cocoa farmers and their families began to stir, fetching water and lighting cooking fires outside Sylvain Zongo’s church at the forest edge.

“I don’t know what I am going to do. All I can do is pray to God, otherwise it breaks my heart,” the pastor said, surveying a scene more evocative of the West African nation’s civil war years than its relative prosperity today.

This is the human toll of a government crackdown on illegal farmers that could leave hundreds of thousands destitute, dent gross domestic product and inflame tensions left over from years of unrest.

It is the consequence of what may be Ivory Coast’s last chance save the most rapidly disappearing forest in Africa, home to endangered chimpanzees, forest elephants and the rare pygmy hippopotamus.

Since independence in 1960, Ivory Coast has built its economy – French-speaking West Africa’s largest – on cash crop agriculture, growing about 40 percent of the world’s cocoa, which makes up some 15 percent of its GDP.

While the chocolate ingredient helped it become a relatively prosperous nation in a desperately poor region, it also brought it to the brink of an ecological disaster.

Ivory Coast lost 80 percent of its virgin forest between independence from France in 1960 and 2010, according to the European Union. Another study by Ivorian and French scientists estimated it had the highest rate of deforestation in Africa – with 265,000 hectares cleared annually by 1999 – even before the onset of political unrest that accelerated the destruction.

During the 2002-2011 crisis, which included two civil wars, park rangers and forest officials abandoned areas they were protecting.

The 34,000-hectare Mont Peko, which means “mountain of hyenas” in the local Guere language, became a symbol of the lawlessness that reigned during that period as armed warlords seized control of the land and sold off parcels, many to immigrants from neighbouring countries.

The government crackdown in Mont Peko is a significant step in ending illegal cocoa farming in Ivory Coast’s eight national parks, five nature reserves and 231 forest reserves.

Annual production in Mont Peko alone reached around 10,000 tonnes, worth over $28 million in export value, a U.N. panel of experts said in a report in March, though some exporters say the tonnage figure may be double that.

The government had repeatedly told illegal farmers to leave the park since 2012, but had not enforced its demand. On July 30, it formally issued a decree of eviction and sent in troops to clear plantations, destroying cocoa trees and settlements that housed tens of thousands of people.

“We must end impunity and we dare to hope that we will finish this once and for all,” said park ranger Kpolo Ouattara, as his men pulled down the remnants of the camp of Amade Oueremi, the park’s most notorious warlord and a major illegal cocoa grower, who was arrested in 2013.

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