Seeing the wood for the trees in Côte d’Ivoire’s cocoa fields

2022-02-09

Côte d’Ivoire is the world’s top cocoa producer. But the country’s principal economic activity is driving devastating deforestation – which is both harming the environment and promoting the illicit timber trade. Cocoa’s top export status in Côte d’Ivoire is based on modern production methods. Simon Nanga, a cocoa expert, told ENACT that cocoa farmers typically rely on natural soil fertility in virgin forests for high cocoa yields. Natural forest soil has better nutrients than the already-farmed cocoa fields. This necessarily leads to clearing forest trees and planting cocoa in the rich forest soil. After five to 10 years, the fertility dwindles and farmers move to the next fresh two to three acres of virgin forest to plant a new cocoa crop to maintain high productivity.

This practice is replicated in many parts of eastern-central and western Côte d’Ivoire, leading to the growth of towns and villages in protected forest areas over the years. Recent research found an illegal settlement of around 30 000 people in two national parks – Marahoué in central Côte d’Ivoire, and Mont Péko in the west.To further diversify and increase their income, some cocoa farmers make profitable deals with predatory logging companies and illegal timber traders to remove the trees that are felled to make way for the cocoa crops. Farmers find this practice more lucrative than the income they receive from cocoa bean production. The proceeds from this chain of activity make illegal logging arguably one of the most prevalent and lucrative forms of organised crime in the country.

Illegal logging has increased in step with the spread of cocoa farming across the country and is well organised. Funded by shadowy financiers and coordinators, ‘artisans’ carry out logging in the forests that have been targeted by cocoa farmers. In flagrant contravention of the country’s 2019 Forest Act, these loggers mill raw timber into semi-finished products at the felling site. When the volume of timber reaches the required load, truckers transport it to markets in urban centres.

Inconsistent implementation and enforcement of state regulations have left loopholes that illegal loggers exploit to go deeper into protected forests

Côte d’Ivoire lost 47 000 ha of forest in its cocoa belt in 2020 alone, a rate that experts argue could lead to a total loss of the country’s forest cover by 2034. The illegal logging associated with cocoa farming continues to wipe out endangered tree species, such as teak, framiré and gmelina, which fall under the strict international trade regulations stipulated in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora’s Appendices. This has also resulted in a loss of biodiversity and wildlife in Côte d’Ivoire, such as the massive decline in elephants and primates in recent years.

Inconsistent implementation and enforcement of state regulations have left loopholes that illegal loggers exploit to go deeper into protected forests. Years of independent evaluations have found that corruption and system weaknesses have facilitated illegal logging in areas designated for timber exploitation, most of which are also cocoa-producing areas. For example, in 2019, a Wild Chimpanzee Foundation report revealed shortcomings at the Forest Development Corporation of Côte d’Ivoire (SODEFOR), which manages the country’s permanent forests. These included logging beyond authorised areas, irregular issuance of licences to log prohibited species, and authorising logging before a full inventory was carried out and in the absence of a monitoring agent or without transportation slips. SODEFOR was found to lack the capacity to monitor the activities of private companies and impose legal administrative sanctions against infringements of the country’s 2019 Forest Act.

As a result of this lack of systematic law enforcement, illegal loggers in Côte d’Ivoire produce the bulk of the timber used across various industries, leading to a substantial loss of income for the country’s economy. The Ministry of Water and Forests estimates that illegal logging networks produce between 15 and 30 times more timber than formally licensed timber traders, making illegal logging worth more than €33.5 million annually.

The plan includes improving enhanced forest governance through sustainable cocoa farming with mechanisms such as the Cocoa & Forests Initiative

On the global stage, there have been interventions to address cocoa production-related environmental degradation, including illegal logging. Demand by cocoa consumers on the global market has led to the certification of cocoa, a new approach used by multinational companies involved in the international cocoa industry to ensure sustainability in the cocoa sector. Incentivised by access to the international market, certification in the cocoa sector has gained interest and momentum among cocoa production cooperatives in Côte d’Ivoire since the late 2000s.

However, some cooperatives told ENACT that certification limited them to niche markets such as fair trade or organic farming. Certification is prohibitively expensive for the majority of individual farmers and the cooperatives/associations they belong to. For those who can afford the certification, ENACT researchers heard that the payout for certified beans to the farmer is not worth the efforts involved to achieve certification. The Coopérative Agricole Mawobé de Yére Yére (CAMAYE) informed ENACT that the demand from this niche market is a total volume of around 300,000 tonnes out of Côte d'Ivoire’s current annual production of over 2 million tonnes.

Official commitments to international standards that inform the certification process in Côte d’Ivoire include the European Union Timber Regulation, the New York Declaration on Forests and other international initiatives. These show high-level political will, but are undermined by weak law enforcement. This allows organised crime networks to exploit the expansion of cocoa farming into forests, fraudulent practices and corruption by officials who accept bribes at every stage of the timber supply chain – logging, transportation and sale.

Funded by shadowy financiers and coordinators, ‘artisans’ carry out logging in the forests that have been targeted by cocoa farmers

Moreover, civil society groups, who view sustainable cocoa production as a solution to deforestation and illegal logging, argue that the Forest Act prejudices local cocoa farmers who are interested in preserving forest land. The law gives 24-year concessions to multinational chocolate-producing companies in certain protected forest areas. The concessions are given to these foreign companies in the hope that infrastructure development and good farming practice will promote reforestation to mitigate logging and the legal trade in timber.

The provisions of this law are arguably in conflict with Article 12 of the Ivorian Constitution, which explicitly prevents rural land ownership by legal entities. For the Forest Act to permit such concessions, although not ownership, the spirit behind the constitutional provision is defeated. Reforestation is addressed in the government’s 2018 Forest Preservation, Rehabilitation and Expansion National Policy. The policy’s key objective is to restore forest cover to 20% of the national territory by 2030 in protected areas, which cocoa farmers are being encouraged to move away from. It includes an ambitious €940 million master plan to deter cocoa-related deforestation and illegal logging.

The policy also aims to discourage farmers from clearing virgin forests to expand and produce quality cocoa. The plan includes improving enhanced forest governance through sustainable cocoa farming with mechanisms such as the Cocoa & Forests Initiative. Increasing the implementation of these initiatives while reassessing its laws and policies to avoid mistakes that could lead to further deforestation is a critical first step for Côte d’Ivoire. In addition, curbing fraudulent practices that encourage the illegal timber trade must be prioritised, as this could be the blind spot that undermines the laudable efforts to achieve sustainable cocoa farming.

Allan Ngari, ENACT Project Regional Organised Crime Observatory Coordinator for West Africa and Deo Gumba, Research Consultant, ENACT Project

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