Ousting Squatter Farmers to Save Forest, Ivory Coast Sets Off New Crisis

Workers filling sacks with cocoa beans at an agricultural cooperative in Guiglo, Ivory Coast. Credit Sia Kambou/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
 

MONT PÉKO NATIONAL PARK, Ivory Coast — Tramping through a thicket of brush alongside soldiers with Kalashnikovs, Kpolo Ouattara stopped at the sight of an interloper: a cocoa tree, gray with rot.

“We should let the forest reconquer the whole area,” Mr. Ouattara said as he picked at what was left of an illicit cocoa plantation deep within the 130 square miles of Mont Péko National Park. “Those who decide to re-enter the park,” he warned, “will be considered outlaws.”

Mr. Ouattara is a park ranger on the front lines of the Ivorian government’s renewed campaign to clear cocoa-farming squatters out of the country’s protected forests, which are home to dwindling populations of elephants, chimpanzees and other rare animals.

Ivory Coast has a serious deforestation problem: Some scientists say it is losing its woodlands faster than any other nation in Africa. Four-fifths of the forest cover that the country had when it became independent in 1960 was gone by 2010, according to the European Union.

Government officials put much of the blame on the many tens of thousands of people who took advantage of years of political unrest to seize land in protected forests and use it illegally to grow cocoa, the country’s most important export crop. Now, the officials say, the squatters have to go.

Teams of rangers like Mr. Ouattara fanned out across Mont Péko over the summer to evict the cocoa farmers. Deprived of their livelihood and driven from the forest, the farmers have poured into nearby villages, creating a humanitarian crisis that the United Nations estimates is affecting more than 51,000 people.

One of the overwhelmed villages, Michelkro, has seen its population nearly double since 2013. The influx has strained its food supply and flooded its schools with the former farmers’ children.

Cocoa pods left to rot in Mont Péko National Park, Ivory Coast, after squatting farmers were removed last summer. The evictions are part of a crackdown to save the West African nation’s dwindling forests. Credit Sean Lyngaas

 

“Some students don’t have materials, so I pay for them from my own pocket,” said Bleou Abel, a 39-year-old primary-school teacher.

Three meals a day are hard to come by, according to Mohammed Badini, a 37-year-old cocoa farmer who relocated to Michelkro. The United Nations said in its most recent assessment that food shortages, if not remedied quickly, could “cause social tensions” in the region, which was plagued by deadly violence in 2011 in the wake of a disputed national election.

The World Food Program delivered food rations to villages around Mont Péko in the autumn, including Michelkro, but that was a stopgap; advocates have pressed for a more lasting response.

They are also blasting the government’s handling of the evictions. The Coalition of Ivorian Human Rights Actors criticized officials for chasing the cocoa farmers out “without taking the necessary precautions to ensure that the displaced have access to food, potable water and sanitation.”

The government did announce in October that it would allocate more money to “reinforce” the eviction process around Mont Péko and to relocate “non-Ivorians to their country of origin.” (Many of the evicted farmers are from neighboring Burkina Faso.) It did not specify how much money was involved or how it would be spent. The World Food Program, in partnership with the Ivorian government, delivered $1.2 million in food aid to the villages around Mont Péko in late November.

Col. Adama Tondossama, the head of the agency that oversees national parks, acknowledged that the government had been slow to get assistance flowing. But he said that officials had been warning the farmers for years that they had to leave the park and that the government had asked humanitarian aid groups for help.

In Michelkro, those evicted from the park are living wherever they can, often in the crowded shacks of other farmers who have moved to the village in recent years. Some of the displaced still ply their trade, laying out to dry however many cocoa beans they managed to salvage as they were leaving.

When it comes to cocoa, the government faces a conundrum. It wants more farmers to grow more cocoa, but on less land.

Park rangers patrol Mont Péko to prevent evicted cocoa farmers from returning to claim their crops, but the park’s 130 square miles make this a difficult task. Credit Sean Lyngaas

 

The country already produces about 40 percent of the world’s supply, and it counts on the beans for a big chunk of its export earnings. President Alassane Ouattara wants to raise its share to half of the global market by 2020.

Ivory Coast also looks to agriculture as a main tool to combat poverty and hunger in the countryside. Most of its cocoa is grown on small family farms of a few acres, much like the plots the squatters carved out in Mont Péko.

But Mr. Ouattara has also set another goal: to restore 20 percent of the country’s territory to forest, up from less than 12 percent now.

The only way to reconcile these ambitions is to find ways to get much higher yields from the land that will still be cultivated, using modern farming techniques that are often beyond the knowledge of the squatters.

The chocolate industry is trying to help. The World Cocoa Foundation, a trade group that counts giant manufacturers like Mars and Nestlé as members, has spent millions of dollars trying to double cocoa productivity in Ivory Coast, “and therefore take the pressure off the kind of expansion into protected forest areas that we’ve seen,” said Richard Scobey, the foundation’s president.

Even so, higher-yield cocoa plantations are not likely to do much for the displaced farmers of Michelkro, who have no land to work, at least for the foreseeable future.

Along with growing more cocoa, Ivory Coast wants to process more of the beans itself, rather than export them for processing abroad. Only last year did the country get its first major chocolate factory, opened by the Cémoi Group of France.

Paradoxically for the country that grows more cocoa than any other, the chocolate treats on display in shop windows in the better-off neighborhoods of Abidjan, the country’s commercial capital, are almost all imported.

They are delicacies that few of the country’s cocoa farmers, legal and squatter alike, have ever tasted.

Source: nytimes