Ivory Coast has lost more than 80 percent of its forests in the last 50 years, mainly to cocoa production. The government has a plan to turn over management of former forest to international chocolate manufacturers: Is it a conservation strategy or a land grab?
How can you save the last rainforests from rampant deforestation in one of Africa’s most biodiverse countries? A crackdown on those responsible — in this case, chocolate growers and traders? In the Ivory Coast, the government thinks differently. It is unveiling a plan instead to remove protection from most of its remaining forests and hand them over to the world’s chocolate traders. Is this madness, a brutal land grab, or the only way out?
In the past half-century, few countries have lost rainforests as fast as the Ivory Coast. More than 80 percent of its forests are gone, most following an illegal invasion by as many as a million landless people into national parks and other supposedly protected forests. The Marahoue National Park alone has 30,000 illegal inhabitants. The invaders are growing cocoa to supply the global chocolate business.
The Ivory Coast, a West African country the size of New Mexico, produces more than a third of the world’s cocoa. The crop contributes around a tenth of the nation’s GDP. But around 40 percent of the country’s cocoa crop — more than a tenth of the world’s chocolate bars — is grown illegally in the country’s national parks and 230 supposedly protected government-owned forests, known as forêts classée, says Etelle Higonnet of Mighty Earth, a United States-based environmental group active in cataloging the footprint of key global commodities.
Most cocoa is grown in monocultures of what is known as the full-sun system, requiring the removal of all surrounding trees. Meeting the world’s insatiable demand for the beans that make chocolate has resulted in many protected areas being “completely converted to farms,” according to Eloi Anderson Bitty of the University Felix Houphouet-Boigny in Abidjan.
Wildlife, especially forest elephants and chimpanzees, have suffered badly. The forests form part of the West African Guinea Forests, famous for its primates. But Bitty found that 13 of the 23 protected forests he surveyed no longer had any primates.
Pressure has been growing on the government to act. Yet, rather than redoubling its efforts to keep cocoa growers out of its protected forests, the government plans to remove the largely ineffectual legal protection from thousands of square miles of wrecked rainforests and convert them into agro-forestry reserves, to be run by international chocolate manufacturers. The stated aim is to protect other forests by improving cocoa productivity in already deforested areas. But the plan will at a stroke legalize large-scale deforestation and it appears to be rewarding the perpetrators of the forests’ destruction.
The initiative was approved by ministers in the Ivory Coast earlier this month. It is expected to be approved by the country’s Parliament in April, according to the World Cocoa Foundation, a trade organization that has helped mastermind the plan.
Land-rights campaigners say the expected changes will give the likes of Mars, Nestle, and Hershey’s control over many cocoa-growing communities in the forests, by wielding powerful influence over their only economic activity and likely giving the companies monopoly rights to buy the farmers’ crops.
Most of the cocoa in the Ivory Coast is grown by small farmers, typically on plots of 7 to 10 acres. Many farmers are migrants who sought refuge in the forests during droughts to the north in Mali and Burkina Faso in the 1970s and 1980s, and during the Ivory Coast’s civil war from 2002 to 2004.
The farmers are caught in an exploitative and corrupt system of cocoa trading and land appropriation, and most earn less than a dollar a day, says Higonnet. Meanwhile, she alleges that the government agencies charged with protecting the forests are more interested in collecting bribes than safeguarding woodlands. Asenior advisor in the office of Ivory Coast’s President did not respond to Yale Environment 360’s questions about corruption and bribery in the forest protection services, or to claims that the government had not consulted communities about changing the status of the forests they live in.
This mire of illegality supplies a highly centralized global cocoa trade. A dozen companies buy 85 percent of the cocoa harvest, two-thirds of which comes from just two countries: the Ivory Coast and neighboring Ghana, says Richard Scobey, president of the World Cocoa Foundation. “Very few international companies directly source from protected areas,” says Scobey. But they buy from middlemen who do…
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