(Bloomberg) -- Ivory Coast, the world’s top cocoa producer, plans to legalize farming on almost 5 million acres (2 million hectares) of protected reserves to help balance the rebuilding of forests with output of its most important export.
Unauthorized farming has destroyed three-quarters of 66 identified reserves and the government wants to reclassify these areas as “protected agroforests” where existing farming may continue while new trees are planted, according to a Forestry Ministry document obtained by Bloomberg. The reclassified forests would remain the property of the government, which said it aims to recover half of the areas and intensify farming, without giving any deadline.
The nation has one of the highest deforestation rates in Africa, losing 80 percent of its forests since the 1970s. That’s mostly due to the unauthorized settlement of cocoa growers, but also because of uncontrolled timber trade, farming of rubber and small-scale mining.
The document’s proposals will be included in a forestry code review scheduled to be presented to lawmakers and would concern 1.9 million hectares of land, the Forestry Ministry said in the document that Minister Alain Richard Donwahi presented this week to financial partners and non-governmental organizations.
“Reality dictates that forests widely colonized by agricultural practices and people won’t completely be reclaimed,” the ministry said in the report.
Government spokesman Bruno Kone confirmed the report’s content.
Ivory Coast produced a record 2 million metric tons of cocoa in the 2016-17 season that ended in September, partly because of new plantations in some of the country’s protected western reserves. As much as 40 percent of its cocoa output may come from protected reserves and national parks, officials said last year.
The nation needs to legalize farming in widely destroyed areas “to pursue the socio-economic development of the country,” according to the document. About a quarter of the population live directly or indirectly off cocoa. The commodity accounted for $3.75 billion, or 29 percent, of the value of the nation’s total exports in 2015, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity.
Deforestation has been accelerated by a 10-year conflict that left park rangers faced with rebels or ex-soldiers who seized protected areas and began distributing land in return for illicit taxes. Ivory Coast’s forest cover dropped to 3.4 million hectares in 2015 from 5.09 million hectares in 2000, the document showed.
As part of the new strategy, the government aims to also protect forests damaged less than 25 percent, the document showed. Authorities will force the immediate departure of growers in five protected areas across 114,000 hectares and proceed with high-density tree planting, it said.
In 31 other forests covering 427,000 hectares and destroyed by 25 to 75 percent, the government will seek a gradual removal of farmers over as long as 40 years, depending on the crops, the document showed.
The government will deploy 1,000 soldiers in the Gouin-Debe forest in the west during the next three months to start disarming cocoa farmers after clashes with local residents, spokesman Kone told reporters on Thursday. The farmers will be resettled at a later stage, he said.
Since September, land disputes have stoked conflict between members of native ethnic groups and farmers who come from other parts of the country.
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