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Exploring the Cavally Forest Reserve in Ivory Coast
Exploring the Cavally Forest Reserve in Ivory Coast
News Nov 15, 2021

This multimedia piece is part of Earthworm Foundation's awareness campaign on the importance of forests and healthy forest landscapes. Visit our #ForTheForests campaign page and follow #ForTheForests across social media channels to learn more.

How to ease pressure on forests without increasing it on people?

In Léonkro, a scattering of clay and wooden dwellings bordering the vast Cavally Forest Reserve, people are worried.

If the cocoa plantations inside the forest are destroyed, some say it will cut a lifeline for them and their families. Léonkro is a makeshift village which provides temporary homes for people who come from far and wide to plant cocoa and other crops in and around the Cavally Reserve.

“There is nothing here. No factories. No companies. We have to do this to get by,” says one young man.

His words go to the heart of the challenge faced by those trying to end the destruction that cocoa farming inflicts on Ivory Coast’s forests.

How do you protect nature, while also protecting the livelihoods of thousands of smallholders who dominate an industry that contributes around a tenth of the Ivory Coast’s GDP – yet which at the same time is a major factor in more than 80% of the country’s forests disappearing over the past 50 years?

Or, to be more concise: how can you ease pressure on forests without increasing it on people?

Complex challenge

This destruction of Ivory Coast’s forests continues.

In 2018, the country experienced the second highest increase in rainforest loss in the world after Ghana: a grim statistic clearly linked to its position as the biggest cocoa producer on the planet.

The complexities involved in tackling this are glaringly evident in the Cavally Forest Reserve.

At 67,541 hectares, it is one of the largest forest reserves (Forêt Classées) in the west of Ivory Coast, and home to endangered forest elephants and pygmy hippopotamuses, among other precious wildlife. But they and their habitats are threatened.

An endangered pygmy hippopotamus. Photo courtesy of J. Pluhacek.

An estimated 35 to 40% of the Ivory Coast’s cocoa crop is grown illegally in national parks and forest reserves, and illegal deforestation driven by cocoa farming is rife in the Cavally Reserve.

Much of it happens under canopies, making it hard to spot from the air at an early stage.

Yet as challenging as these problems are, they are not intractable - as the pioneering Cavally Reserve Forests project dramatically shows.

It was launched as a pilot project in November 2017 by Earthworm Foundation, SODEFOR (the government agency in charge of the development Ivorian forest reserves) and Airbus. Its central tenet was to protect forests as well as livelihoods, says Earthworm’s Félicie Forgeois, the project’s former manager.

“Community engagement is the entry point,” she says. “If you’re not working with communities, then it won’t be sustainable. You have to be with people, be with communities.”

The first step in the project was building a detailed picture of what was happening in the Reserve using Starling satellite technology, which was developed by Airbus and Earthworm.

This monitors deforestation and disturbances under the forest canopy in real time with 95% accuracy.

This satellite data was then used to produce a base map – which revealed that 33% of the forest was degraded because of cocoa planting – and increase patrols targeting illegal plantations.

Shifting the problem

Yet cracking down on illegal cocoa plantations without offering farmers alternative means of survival is a recipe for disaster: it doesn’t tackle the problem, but merely shifts it.

To address this, the programme expanded in July 2020.

Earthworm, SODEFOR and the Ministry of Waters and Forests (Ministère des Eaux et Forêts or MINEF) were joined in a three-year project by Nestlé, who committed $2.7 million investment to end deforestation in the Reserve and restore degraded forest while supporting transition pathways for farmers currently producing in the reserve.

For Darrell High, Head of Nestlé’s Cocoa Plan, this was a chance to tackle a problem he had grappled with for years.

Nestlé is committed to deforestation-free supply chains. This requires ensuring sustainable livelihoods for smallholders farmers.

“To succeed in our no-deforestation and net-zero commitments, we realised that we didn’t just need to address deforestation risks in our supply chain, but we needed to invest in forest conservation and restoration in the landscape,” says High, whose background in both development and as a former cocoa buyer for Nestlé, gives him a perspective on the tensions and pressures from both sides.

“The Ivory Coast has lost a lot of forest over the years and addressing it can be a difficult path to tread. You’ve got people farming in protected areas, but it would be quite wrong to regard them as criminals. Yet if you let them continue, you’re going to lose more forest. The situation isn’t binary,” says High.

A way out of this quagmire, he says, is to provide “transition pathways” for illegal cocoa farmers to find alternative land or jobs. But, he cautions: “It needs to be a very delicate balance as to how it’s done and how it’s conveyed to communities.”

Finding this balance is central to the Cavally Reserve Project – and was part of its attraction for Nestlé.

“It’s a quite remarkable step that we went through with something on this scale, that we went for something really quite major,” High says.

Nothing to lose

The Cavally Reserve is in a region scarred by low development. For years, cocoa farmers – many of them migrants from Burkina Faso who fled drought, civil war or seeking economic opportunities – have encroached into the forest.

To regenerate and protect it though, it was vital to understand the needs of those living there. To do this interviews were conducted with 755 people from 66 villages. They revealed in meticulous detail the pressures driving illegal cocoa farming in the area.

Most locals (86%) don’t earn enough to meet their basic needs. A quarter live below the national poverty line (€380 a year), with more women than men falling into this category. Basic health care is scarce, power shortages are common, and access to good quality water is insufficient.

A lack of alternative employment, and the quality of the soil within the forests - where land is perceived as “free” and fertile - are the main reasons for cultivating cocoa in the Reserve. The farmers sell the beans to middlemen at average prices below those set by the state.

In short, says Félicie Forgeois: “People are going into the forest to cultivate cocoa because they have nothing to lose.”

What’s more, many locals also expressed a striking observation, says Emmanuel Dabo, an Earthworm Communications consultant, who helped conduct many of the interviews.

“People say to us: ‘There are lots of projects to protect forests, but look at our region. There’s no power. Poor development. Does that mean that trees are more important than humans?’”

“If you ask people who are illegally in the forest to leave, then what are you going to do for them?” says Dabo. “If you give them money or create projects for them, then you can build frustration among those who have never farmed within the forest. All these aspects bring challenges, but if you approach it through consensus and by listening to the community and developing something together, it can work.”

Falling deforestation

Through these consultations it has become clear that many farmers are open to leaving the forest, if they are offered alternatives sources of income. Working towards this by establishing productive well-run farms outside the Forest Reserve, is therefore the project’s next stage.

But that’s not all, as Forgeois explains: “We are also planning various programmes, including a tree-planting one. Another to strengthen farmers’ routes and access to markets, as well as programmes to encourage resilient farming practices and establish proper traceability for cocoa from the area.”

All this will happen over the immediate and long-term. Yet, already the Cavally Forest Reserve project is reaping rich dividends.

Between 2019 and 2020, there was a sharp decrease of 21% in the deforestation rate in the Reserve, as a result of the Starling technology enabling ground patrols to be targeted with almost pinpoint accuracy.

Sustaining this over the long-term will require continuing to carefully balance local peoples’ interests with those of the land they’re custodians of. If this is successful, the benefits are likely to reverberate far beyond the Cavally Reserve.

While some lessons from the project are specific and perhaps not replicable everywhere, the most important one certainly is.

It is that engaging local communities, and considering their needs, must be at the heart of the fight against deforestation, both in Ivory Coast, and around the world.

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