In Côte d'Ivoire, this tropical forest is both a refuge and a dumping ground

A vanishing gem of lush greenery in Abidjan, the economic hub of the Ivory Coast, is at the center of the government’s efforts to promot...


A vanishing gem of lush greenery in Abidjan, the economic hub of the Ivory Coast, is at the center of the government’s efforts to promote ecotourism. Those who live and work there worry about what it means to them.


ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – The sound of the men’s chisels and hammers was deafening as they dismantled a rusting truck, the din only fading as it reached the dense forest surrounding them.

Mechanics worked in the largest junkyard in Ivory Coast, where the skeletons of thousands of disused vans, buses and taxis lay endlessly and engine oil soaked through the muddy ground.

But they were also working within the boundaries of Banco National Park, one of the world’s last surviving primary rainforests in a major metropolis. The park is a vanishing gem of greenery in the bustling economic center of Abidjan, an oasis that the Ivorian authorities are trying to revitalize, despite all the environmental threats it faces.

After losing around 85% of its forest cover over the past 60 years, Côte d’Ivoire is committed to protecting what remains and reforesting as much as possible.

In Abidjan, a metropolitan area of ​​about 5.5 million people, authorities have turned Banco National Park – 10 times larger than New York’s Central Park – into a poster boy for their conservation efforts, courting Ivorians who have long avoided cycling and walking expeditions. as part of a fledgling ecotourism plan.

But in doing so, authorities have pitted conservationists against residents of nearby neighborhoods whose ancestors once owned the land – and against informal workers operating in the protected area. Both of these groups said they recognized that the forest needed to be protected, but felt excluded by the government’s approach.

“We are asked to protect the forest and leave, but without being given land to settle in,” said Amara Camara, a mechanic who sat at the entrance to the truck graveyard on a recent afternoon, a guard forester on the wooden bench next to him. . “So where are we going?” »

Ranger Lt. Kodjo Casimir Aman – who is the park’s chief security officer charged with protecting it from informal workers and poachers – stressed that people were just one of his problems, and a more mobile one. .

“Even if we kick you out,” he told Mr. Camara, “where are we going to put all these wreckage?”

With many African cities living under rising temperaturesin the face of alarming levels of air pollution and devoid of green spaces, the Banco National Park is what makes Abidjan special. Its nearly 8,500 mostly forested acres serve as a carbon sink and flood regulator, which conservationists say is vital for the city. The groundwater in the park provides 40% of the city’s drinking water.

But unregulated urban sprawl and illegal activities like vehicle graveyards have steadily encroached on the park. Landfills contaminate its sources and poachers endanger pangolins, chimpanzees and other species that inhabit it.

A wall will soon encircle Banco Park, making it more attractive to some, and less accessible to others: Any entry outside the main entrance, where it costs 1,000 CFA for Ivorian visitors and most western visitors -Africans, or $1.60, is illegal. International visitors pay around $7.75.

There was a time, however, when locals left their cattle to graze freely in the forest or grew coffee, cocoa, cassava and maize indoors. Children swam and fished in its ponds, and boys went into the forest for initiation ceremonies.

In the neighboring commune of Agban-Village, a highway now separates the houses from the forest which, according to the inhabitants, belonged to their ancestors. Parts of their neighborhood were requisitioned to build a bus station, others for a metro line. The local cemetery no longer exists.

Rodrigue Djro, the local chief, said authorities were grabbing land without letting locals sprawl in the park.

“We are making this sacrifice for the common good,” Mr. Djro said. “What do we get in return?”

General Adama Tondossama, head of the office of national parks and reserves, said the state had owned the land for decades. Local authorities have promised to hire young people from surrounding neighborhoods as park guides and employees, although General Tondossama acknowledged that tourism revenue will most likely be limited until the park develops more activities.

“We need domestic visitors,” he said.

For decades, Banco Park has fascinated and frightened Ivorians.

It is surrounded by workers’ communes which took part in the civil war in 2010 and 2011 which killed more than 3,000 people. During a previous political crisis in 2000, dozens of bodies were discovered on the edge of the park.

The park now welcomes visitors with a sign promising “safety guaranteed”. On weekends, hundreds come to breathe the fresh air, discover fish farming in one of the many ponds that dot the park or go mountain biking on its trails.

“There were legends of bandits and spirits haunting the park,” said Amira Amian, 22, a law student who cycled there with a friend for the first time on a recent Saturday. Taking selfies, she added, “Now it’s pretty cool to experience our forests and the blessings of nature.”

Children living nearby look at the park’s entertainment potential with wistful eyes, but most don’t venture inside, but instead play hide-and-seek and bungee (a game that combines elements of hopscotch and skipping rope) on the sandy paths that lead to it. Teens and young adults brave enough to go inside risk being stopped by patrolling rangers like Lt. Aman.

Many still think it’s worth it. They hide at the edge of the forest to smoke marijuana or set traps to capture guinea fowl that they resell to local restaurants. They collect guavas and berries, or banana leaves on which fermented cassava is served.

“It belongs to us too,” said Ahmed Akhadri, 23, who said his father once gave him a turtle during a hunting expedition in the park.

But some actions of those living near the park are more damaging to the environment: locals cut down trees for warmth and dozens of men wash clothes in a pond linked to the forest, contaminating some of its waterways. water with soap and dye.

However, local residents are not the only ones to degrade the park. The authorities are also responsible. A high-voltage power line built decades ago cut off the northeast part of the park, and mechanics set up shop in the open area below. Next to the newly erected wall, a 20 meter wide strip of forest has recently been razed to make way for a road.

Nahounou Daleba, activist for JVE Ivory Coastan Abidjan-based environmental group, said authorities were eating away at the park without acknowledging the effect of their own actions on its biodiversity.

“We can’t even plant a seed in the forest,” he said, “but they just destroyed parts of it without accountability.”

On a hill overlooking the forest one recent afternoon, Lt. Aman parked his motorbike and scanned the park, spotting a woman illegally picking leaves on its edge. His gaze fell on two children dumping trash in a meandering stream in the forest.

“We can’t stop everyone from interacting with the forest,” he said. Lieutenant Aman included himself in this statement: He is having his car repaired at the scrapyard in the park.

Mr Camara, the mechanic and single father of a 16-year-old boy, said he was ready to leave if given the opportunity to move. He said reforestation of the park was one of his dreams. But he added: “Right now we’re focusing on how to live.”

Loucoumane Coulibaly contributed report.

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Newsrust - US Top News: In Côte d'Ivoire, this tropical forest is both a refuge and a dumping ground
In Côte d'Ivoire, this tropical forest is both a refuge and a dumping ground
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