BALEKO-NIEGRE, IVORY COAST— The Ivory Coast is clearing tens of thousands of cocoa farmers from protected forests, threatening exports from the world's top grower and leading to complaints about human rights abuses.
Cocoa represents about 10 percent of the former French colony's economic output but the environmental costs of the industry's growth have been high.
The European Union estimates three-quarters of the West African country's forests, have disappeared in the past five decades, mainly due to farming including cocoa plantations.
President Alassane Ouattara's government says it is prepared to pay the economic price of phasing agriculture out to save the dwindling tropical forest and the security services have started flattening houses and forcefully removing the farmers.
“In America, you couldn't imagine people illegally occupying Central Park just because they say they have nowhere else to live, could you?” said government spokesman Bruno Kone.
Ouattara has won praise and promises of billions of dollars in funding from world powers for rebuilding Ivory Coast after a brief war that followed his 2010 election win.
The forestry service says around half the 4.2 million hectares of protected forest reserves are illegally occupied and The evictions form part of his efforts to reassert state authority after a decade of stagnation and political turmoil.
It also tallies with his plan to diversify the economy away from cocoa, which accounts for 40 percent of exports.
There also appears to be pressure on Ivory Coast to clear up its forestry sector as it starts negotiations with the European Union over a new timber trade agreement although illegal logging operates on a much smaller scale than cocoa farming.
But moving the farmers from the 231 reserves, some of whom have lived there with their families for decades, could leave them destitute, stirring unrest as well as hurting the economy.
“Everyone fed themselves through cocoa. Not everyone can make it in the city,” said Abo Baboue, a cocoa farmer, waiting beside a muddy track for a truck to carry off what belongings he could salvage after soldiers destroyed his home.
There are no figures for how many of Ivory Coast's 800,000 cocoa growers live and farm on protected land. In Niegre, the first forest to be cleared last month forestry agents counted 6,000 households - around 25,000 people - before the army moved in, cutting short the headcount.
Just weeks into the operation, those targeted have accusing security forces of abuse, including the looting of homes, stealing money and cocoa and, in some cases, rape, charges rejected by the government.
In Baleko-Niegre, the main settlement inside the Niegre forest, Reuters journalists saw flattened homes, shops and restaurants after forestry officials, flanked by heavily armed soldiers, bulldozed the area.
Amadou Ama, who sold metal sheeting for roofs, said he had provided shelter to homeless neighbors but soldiers broke down his door at night and dragged two women off.
“The next morning I found them. They told me the soldiers had raped them,” he said.
A day later, his house was leveled too, he said.
Kone, the government spokesman, rejected the accusations.
“There have been no cases of rape or violence,” he said. “If they refuse to leave, if they are aggressive towards our agents, we reserve the right to respond.”
In a country awash with weapons, many larger plantation owners head their own armed militias and may not go peacefully.
Land available for new cocoa plantations ran out long before Ivory Coast's political crisis began in 2002, but output has continued to increase, largely from the forests.
The country produced 1.2 million tons of cocoa during the 2000/2001 season. Despite war, conflicts over land and ethnicity, and smuggling into neighboring Ghana, production hit a record 1.5 million tons 10 years later.
Farmers flooded in, many from neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso due to a loose immigration policy, often paying for land illegally sold by local villagers, a practice that the government says has continued during Ouattara's first two years in power.
The illegal plantations in the Niegre forest produce between 60,000 and 70,000 tons of cocoa annually.
“A large share of the cocoa produced in this country comes from the forest reserves...The plantations inside the reserves are the youngest and most productive,” said one cocoa exporter based in the country's second-largest port, San Pedro.
Development workers familiar with the government's plans say long-term squatters will be allowed to keep to their plantations, as long as they live outside the reserve, until they are taken over by replanted hardwood and softwood trees.
Traders say next year's main crop harvest could be the first to take a hit if farmers are not able to access and tend their plantations during July and August.
But in any case, the government's goal is to stop farming in the reserves altogether, even if it hurts growth.
“If that's the price to pay, we're ready to pay it. This is something that is more important than a simple question of tonage,” said Kone.