DUÉKOUÉ — Hamidou Ouedraogo doesn’t need his machete anymore to get through the Mont Péko National Park, in the Ivory Coast town of Duékoué. Where trees over 40 meters tall used to stand, there are now only burnt out remains.

“Cocoa doesn’t like trees, so we burned them," says the Burkinabé planter, seemingly apologetic as he assures us that he’d only heard a few months ago he was exploiting a protected area.

For more than 10 years, an armed group reigned over this forest, shooting strangers who attempted to enter. Not only did their leader, Amadé Ouérémi, sell thousands of hectares to farmers from neighboring Burkina Faso, but also amassed riches trafficking gold, wood and even ivory. 

This chaos was made possible by the 2002 political and military crisis, when Ivory Coast was split into two. Mont Péko National Park was inside the UN-controlled area known as the “confidence zone.” No armed men could enter it, not even the officers who were supposed to protect the park.

Ouérémi was finally arrested in May 2013 when Ivory Coast authorities were finally able to enter the zone and assess the damage. According to a census carried out by the Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Authority (ADDR), 24,000 people had settled on camps across the park’s 28,000 hectares.

Half of them are children who work on the plantations. Some work in their parents’ fields, and others are said to be orphans rounded up from the streets of Burkina Faso and made to work like slaves.

Not just an environmental issue

The illegal farming in Mont Péko is both a human and ecological tragedy that the government is officially trying to end. “The ADDR asked us to leave, but we’re so invested here,’ asks Hamidou. “Where can we go? Some farmers have three wives, six children. Even if they left the camps to go to the villages on the periphery, they’d have to keep cultivating cacao in the park to survive.”

This situation is an outrage for the region’s natives. When the Mont Péko park was created in 1968, those who used to cultivate land in the areas now protected became displaced, sometimes violently. Now, seven months after Ouérémi's arrest, they are angry at the government’s lack of authority. And although officials from the Ivorian Office of Parks and Reserves did set some camps on fire, the villagers say that the planters returned quickly.

“The Burkinabé are in process of building a road in the middle of the park so it’s easier for them to move their cocoa out,” says a frustrated Obin Goulia Ata. “If their produce was seized, it would stop, but corruption prevents everything.” 

Ata founded an organization called Codeparc to protect Mont Péko, and he dreams of the day when the planters will finally leave. “In 2002, we could still see elephants and chimpanzees,” he remembers. “It’s by creating projects around the animals that people will be able to earn money other than growing illegal cocoa crops.”

Controlling cocoa flow

According to a 2012 study commissioned by the Ivorian Office of Parks and Reserves, 70% of the park has been destroyed since 2001 to make way for perennial crops — essentially cocoa. These illegal fields are thought to represent 1.4% of the annual production of the crop in Ivory Coast, the world’s biggest cocoa producer in 2013, and they fuel a vast network of corruption.

Though trucks driving out of the park are stopped at police and military roadblocks, they are more like toll booths than checkpoints. Extortion is institutionalized: When cooperatives arrive in the main towns, the beans are mixed into the produce whose origin is supposedly controlled.

Colonel Adama Tondossama, head of the Ivorian Office of Parks and Reserves, admits that it will be difficult to end this profitable traffic: “We’ll need three, four years to get these areas back. We’ll first try to get rid of the crops so that the corruption system falls on itself. Then the forest will regenerate naturally, like it did in Taï National Park.”

That park, much bigger and better protected than Mont Péko, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and has managed to recover and recreate most of the areas that had been invaded on its periphery. These days, scientists from all over the world come there to observe the chimpanzees.

Taï is a model, and a ray of hope for the residents back at Mont Péko.