Côte d'Ivoire 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. The European Union is the major export market for the wood.
The EU estimates that 75% of the former French colony’s forests have disappeared in the past 50 years, mainly due to farming including cocoa plantations.
Cocoa represents about 10% of the country’s economic output but the environmental costs of the industry's growth have been high.
The EU announced last month it would launch talks on a new trade agreement with Côte d'Ivoire to counteract the illegal logging, acknowledging that it is partly to blame for the illicit trade.
“Illegal logging continues to have a devastating impact on some of the world’s most valuable forests, and the people who depend on them to live and to make a living,” European Development Commissioner Andris Piebalgs said on 13 June in announcing the trade talks.
“Côte d'Ivoire exports 80% of its forestry products to the EU and as one of the biggest global markets for timber, the EU is part of both the problem and the solution. I hope that these negotiations will deliver a new agreement, which will be a crucial step forward in protecting this valuable forest before it’s too late.”
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 funding from world powers for rebuilding Côte d'Ivoire 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% of exports.
Illegal logging operates on a much smaller scale than cocoa farming.
Human rights concerns
But moving the farmers from the 231 reserves 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 in Baleko-Niegre, 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 the country’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 neighbours' 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 levelled 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."
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.
Côte d'Ivoire produced 1.2 million tonnes of cocoa during the 2000/2001 season. Despite war, conflicts over land and ethnicity, and smuggling into neighbouring Ghana, production hit a record 1.5 million tonnes 10 years later.
Farmers flooded in, many from neighbouring 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 President Alassane Ouattara's first two years in power.
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.