Residents of Côte d’Ivoire’s protected forests live in fear of arbitrary evictions and have suffered extortion and physical abuse by forest conservation authorities, according to Human Rights Watch and the Ivorian Coalition of Human Rights Actors (Rassemblement des Acteurs Ivoriens des Droits Humains, RAIDH). The Ivorian government should halt all forced evictions, investigate and prosecute abuses, and introduce legislation that provides farmers with the protections required by international law.
The Forestry Development Agency (Société de Développement des Forêts, SODEFOR), a state agency under the Water and Forests Ministry, regularly evicts farmers without warning, often burning their homes and possessions in the process. Farmers are also frequently beaten and humiliated during eviction operations.
Côte d’Ivoire’s 231 protected forests (forêts classées), state land set aside for conservation, have been devastated by deforestation, with more than half of the country’s four million hectares of protected forest cut down for farmland. As part of its efforts to combat climate change, announced prior to the December 2015 Paris climate summit, the Ivorian government in September restated its intention to restore protected forests as part of a broader commitment to return at least 20 percent of its territory to forest.
While conserving forests can play an important role in combatting climate change, however, environmental protection measures should respect the human rights of people living in protected forests. International law protects anyone who occupies homes or land from forced evictions that are not preceded by adequate notice or do not respect the dignity and rights of those affected, regardless of whether they occupy the land legally.
In May 2015 and March 2016, Human Rights Watch and RAIDH conducted week-long research missions to the protected forests of Cavally, Goin-Débé and Scio in western Côte d’Ivoire. These forests, in which cocoa farms run by small-scale farmers have replaced vast tracts of forest, typify the challenge the Ivorian government faces in protecting the environment while respecting the rights of farmers.
Human Rights Watch and RAIDH interviewed more than 85 community leaders, union activists, SODEFOR officials, and farmers, including 25 people whose homes or plantations had been destroyed by SODEFOR during eviction operations spanning 2014 to 2016.
None of the families evicted, many of whom had lived in protected forest for years, had been notified in advance of when the eviction was to occur, as required by international law.
Several people interviewed showed researchers the burned out remains of their homes, with their charred possessions still visible inside. Villagers said that they were not given the opportunity to remove their belongings before their houses were set alight.
“My house was in the first courtyard as you enter the settlement, and as soon as SODEFOR arrived they started burning down the houses,” said one farmer, who said his house was set alight while his newborn baby slept inside. “Fortunately my wife heard the firing and shouting, and she rushed back to the house to save the child. SODEFOR hadn’t checked to see who was in the house before they set it on fire.”
For communities in protected forests, many of whom rely on their land for cash crops and food to support their families, the impact of losing their longtime homes and livelihoods is severe. “Without our land in Goin-Débé, I don’t know what we’re going to do,” one farmer said. “The people you see today have practically nothing to eat… We don’t even have enough food to give us the energy to work.”
Community leaders and aid workers said that SODEFOR failed to ensure that families who have been evicted and are unable to provide for themselves have adequate alternative housing or productive land, as international law requires.