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Tropical Wood Exploited In Ivory Coast - 2004-01-29


The division of Ivory Coast following the civil war in 2002 has provided an opportunity for criminals to exploit one of the country's main natural resources -- tropical wood. Large-scale illegal logging is threatening the country's forests, and even its national parks.

Near the main Ivorian port in the commercial capital Abidjan, teak wood is being sawed, before being shipped out to China or Europe.

But no one knows where the wood comes from, or whether it was logged legally.

When civil war broke out in Ivory Coast in late 2002, government officials had to flee rebel-held areas, where most of the country's forests are located. There is also forested land in the government-run south, but most of it is close to frontlines, in areas that remain volatile.

Ivory Coast exports teak, mahogany and other valuable types of wood. During the 1990s, wood products typically ranked among Ivory Coast's top five agricultural exports, at about 300 million dollars a year -- well behind cocoa, but in a similar range with coffee and tropical fruits.

A senior military officer in charge of protecting Ivorian forests, Captain Rene-Paul Gesseler, is worried that lawlessness has set back pre-war efforts to replenish Ivorian forests, already facing severe depletion. Before the war, the government passed a series of laws to protect the forests, and increased restrictions on their exploitation. But Captain Gessler reports all that has now been reversed.

As a power-sharing government with rebels has slowly established itself in Abidjan, his monitoring teams have started checking the damage in the forests in rebel-held areas in western Ivory Coast. He says what they have found is appalling.

"There is savage exploitation going on. It is a threat to our forests, our national parks. Some types of valuable trees have completely disappeared. These people do everything illegally. They pay no rights, no fees, no taxes. The government is losing millions and millions of dollars."

Captain Gesseler says lawless exploitation of forests also took place in government-held areas close to frontlines. He says poor farmers, gangster-type businessmen and militias seem to be the main culprits on both the rebel and government areas.

In the western government-held city of Guiglo, the state-run newspaper Fraternite Matin says Ivorian businessmen reaping profits from wood smuggling drive around in fancy cars.

Captain Gesseler says when his teams arrived in Guiglo last month, vandals connected to the illicit trade tried to burn his government car.

He says militias in government-held areas have also set up checkpoints at the entrances of national parks. They call themselves Eco Guards or guardians of ecology. Captain Gesseler says they are in fact guarding the entrance of the parks so that illegal exploitation can be done inside.

He says when his monitoring teams were finally able to get into one of these parks, everyone had fled, but their bulldozers and trucks remained.

The Fraternite Matin report says logs cut down are marked with stolen identification numbers and sold at reduced prices to mostly foreign-owned sawmill companies.

The head of a Dutch company in the rebel-held town of Daloa, Frederic Ober, (from the Societe de Transformation des Bois de l'Ouest), denies his own company receives any illegal wood.

Mr. Ober says because of the civil war, his business has gone down 50 percent. He says he was forced to dismiss 100 employees, about one-third of his staff.

Mr. Ober says he hopes Ivory Coast can be reunited so busness can be done in what he calls a more efficient and transparent way.

In the meantime, the forest inspector, Captain Gesseler, is hoping his teams will be given more power to reduce illegal forest exploitation. He says that is important for the country's economic future, and in the long term will benefit wood exporters, too.

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