Ivorian forestry officers have reportedly beaten, robbed and extorted money from cocoa growers under the guise of a reforestation drive.
Meanwhile farmers who pay up are allowed to continue farming illegally in protected forest reserves.
A report released by Human Rights Watch accuses agents from the forest management agency of burning down the homes of farmers, destroying their belongings, beating them up and extorting money from them.
We spoke to many small scale farmers living in protected forests who have seen as the state forestry agency arrived to burn down their homes and crops without any warning.
‘‘We spoke to many small scale farmers living in protected forests who have seen as the state forestry agency arrived to burn down their homes and crops without any warning, forcing their children to walk tens of kilometers simply to find shelter. This type of policy has also created opportunity for abuses as the state agency demands illicit payments from farmers simply for them to stay on land they have lived on for decades. And in other cases, evictions were accompanied by violence as young men from villages were rounded up and beaten and told never to return to the land that they lived on,” HRW Africa researcher Jim Wormington said.
A technical advisor from SODEFOR, the forest management agency, Aboard Dogui, said there was no evidence of abuse by its agents and that reported abuses are being investigated.
“There are about 1000 agents at SODEFOR, we cannot vouch that all 1000 agents act in a professional manner. But I can confirm that 95 percent of the agents work according to the SODEFOR code of conduct”.
About 80 percent of Ivory Coast’s forests have been lost in the five decades since independence, amid an agricultural expansion that helped make it the world’s top cocoa producer.
President Alassane Ouattara wants to reverse the loss. A 2014 forestry code seeks to restore forests to a fifth of its territory, up from 6 percent.
SODEFOR agents are not meant to clear illegal plantations that are already in production but rather allow their output to decline naturally as reforestation is carried out.
In March, a U.N. experts panel said racketeering is widespread. Soldiers and park service agents earned some 1 billion CFA francs ($1.74 million) each year from illegal taxes collected in the Mont Peko National Park alone.