AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE
Published — Saturday 13 July 2013
Last update 13 July 2013 1:59 am
SASSANDRA, Ivory Coast: It was a brutal end to a long-term problem. Faced with the dilemma of trying to save a protected forest, which had become home to thousands of people, the Ivory Coast government turned to force.
Soldiers, some armed with rocket launchers, and bulldozers were sent in to reclaim the southwestern forest of Niegre.
In a swift operation last month, the army completely razed the small town of Baleko-Niegre, tucked away in the tropical forest of the Sassandra region, about 360 kilometers (225 miles) west of the commercial capital Abidjan.
Little was spared: Brick houses and clay huts were flattened, and the local school, church and marketplace were demolished. Camps deeper into the forest were also destroyed.
The government says the operation was to preserve Ivory Coast’s woodland from illegal exploitation by people, often farmers, who squat the land. “The government has decided to take back control of its protected forests, which slipped away from it for 10 years,” Minister of Water and Forestry Mathieu Babaud Darret said.
The June evacuation is believed to have left at least 20,000 people who had been living on the land for years bereft of homes and employment.
“We had occupied the protected forest in search of food,” local farmer Raymond N’Dri Kouadio told AFP.
Those who had moved to the forest had done so to grow cocoa, of which Ivory Coast is the world’s leading producer. Leon Koffi N’Goran, a man in his 80s who lived in the Niegre forest for 28 years, acknowledged that the villagers were engaged in “clandestine” activity.
But the evacuation was “brutal and surprising,” he said.
Many of those who were forced to flee complain of more abuses.
The government says it acted as part of a policy to regain control of protected woodland, exploited illegally during a decade of rebellion and warfare culminating in post-electoral violence in 2010-11 that claimed 3,000 lives.
During the years of troubles, many people began living in the forests, ignoring the government ban covering tracts of land rich in plant and animal life.
Sometimes, local warlords would “privatize” entire zones to exploit their resources.
Darret is convinced that it is time to act to prevent “the abusive and illegal exploitation” of some three million hectares (7.4 billion acres) of remaining forest in Ivory Coast.
Forest cover has dropped drastically since the 1960s, when it stood at 16 million hectares. Deforestation is blamed largely on the timber trade and the growth of the cocoa sector.
The desire of the Ivorian government to protect its forests appears to have support in Europe.
“The illegal exploitation of forests is a priority issue for Ivory Coast,” said Thierry de Saint Maurice, the head of the European Union delegation in the country. He added that forestry management poses considerable challenges in matters of “governance” and pleaded for “more regulations and more respect for rules.”
Conservation experts say the exploitation of forestry has been aided by corruption at government level.