Ivorian security forces have driven thousands of cocoa farmers out of a national park this week at the start of an operation to preserve the refuge for endangered chimpanzees and forest elephants.
Mont Peko is one of a few dwindling patches of rainforest in Ivory Coast, but some 28,000 illegal farmers are growing cocoa there, many of them destitute migrants from Burkina Faso with few other means of making a living.
“Thousands of farmers have been fleeing the forest since the day before yesterday. More are coming to the village every hour,” said Alphonse Kapo, who lives in the village of Bagohoua, next to the park.
A government source who declined to be named confirmed the operation was under way.
Mont Peko was once a pristine forest home to hornbill birds, rare western chimpanzees and some of the world’s last remaining dwarf elephants, as well as Iroko and Samba trees.
Officials say almost all of it has now been taken over by farmers who exploited the chaos created by a decade-long political crisis to move in.
President Alassane Ouattara, who has presided over a strong post-war recovery in Francophone West Africa’s biggest economy, is determined to restore the state’s authority in the park.
Ivory Coast is the world’s biggest cocoa producer and analysts say much of its increase in production, to record levels in 2014/15, is due to illegal planters.
“We don’t know where to go or what to do,” Brahima Ouedraogo, a farmer who has been in the park for a decade and had a farm of 15 hectares, told Reuters by telephone. “Our whole life is in Peko. We have nothing left.”
Another cocoa farmer, Benjamin Kabore, said the authorities had sent in hundreds of police and paramilitaries, who had burned their crops on a massive scale.
The government previously attempted to evict farmers from national parks in 2013. It is unclear whether it will this time be able to prevent them heading back into the park to start again, unless it can offer them a sufficiently generous resettlement package.