In the early 1960s, Côte d’Ivoire had approximately 16 million hectares of forest. Today, it is left with two million hectares, making it one of the worst examples of deforestation in the world.
Illegal loggers in Côte d’Ivoire are ravaging virgin forests to meet both domestic and export demands as well as to clear the way for the lucrative cocoa crop.
In a 2013 report, the German Development Agency GIZ estimated that the formal logging sector was worth 108 billion Central African Francs (CFA, equivalent to US$176 million). Some 90 per cent of the timber is exported abroad, mainly to the EU, in the form of flooring, plywood and logs from planted forests such as teak and cedrela odorata.
Meanwhile, the informal logging sector – which accounts for pretty much the entire domestic market - is worth an estimated 82 billions CFA (€125 millions).
Corruption is a part of the problem, with officials accepting bribes at every stage of the supply chain to allow for the logging, transportation and sale of illegal wood.
But locally-produced and consumed charcoal has also played a role in the decimation of Ivorian forests, which are so important to the global ecosystem.
“Everybody can see the charcoal sellers on the roadside between [the commercial capital] Abidjan and [the political and administrative capital] Yamoussoukro. Everybody can see the lorries full of charcoal heading to warehouses. Pretty much none of them has the required papers to do that,” Delphine Ahoussi, president of Malebi, an organisation of female eco-friendly charcoal producers and sellers, tells Equal Times.
“It’s mostly illegal,” she says. “The police or an agent of the Ministry of Environment, Water and Forests might stop them, but then they get some money out of them and let them go. The business goes on. Corruption is an integral part of this system.”
Sold by a plethora of small-scale piecemeal sellers, charcoal is a leading source of cooking fuel in Côte d’Ivoire. As well as keeping the ubiquitous maquis (street restaurants) grills hot, it is used by an estimated 47 per cent of the urban population for cooking and other household uses, according to a 2002 study by the Ivorian National Institute of Statistics, quoted by the United Nations Development Programme.
The figure doesn’t surprise Ahoussi. “If you use gas stoves, many national dishes do not really taste the same. You need to cook them on charcoal,” she says.
But it’s not only a matter of culinary taste. The price of gas (2000 CFA/US$3.28 for a 6kg tank) remains prohibitive in Cote d’Ivoire, where 46 per cent of its 22 million inhabitants live below the poverty line, according to the World Bank. Moreover, obtaining reliable gas supply and functioning gas tanks proves difficult in rural areas.
The gross neglect of the domestic demand for charcoal, firewood, and timber has stimulated and sustained the black market over the course of six decades. Ivorian Customs recorded 360,000 tons of exported products in 2011, corresponding to 90 per cent of total formal and legal production.
The remaining 10 per cent is not enough for anyone – least of all the country’s smallscale domestic woodworkers.
“We artisans are obliged to resort to the black market because our raw material is scarce on the legal market. Around 20 per cent of the wood around here is illegally sourced,” Guei Serafin, General Secretary of GAMBI, an Abidjan-based carpenter association tells Equal Times.
Global leader in deforestation
Still, only a small fraction of this loss can be attributed to the charcoal black market.
As Ake Jerome, Director of Land Registration at the Ministry of Environment, Water and Forests explains to Equal Times: “75 per cent of the deforestation comes from the conversion of forest into cocoa fields.”
Côte d’Ivoire is the top world producer of cocoa, the export of which accounts for 15 per cent of the country’s GDP, according to Ivorian Ministry of Agriculture.
Unplanned urbanisation, conflicting property land laws, population growth and the lack of a viable reforestation policy have all compounded the issue.
To help fix the problem, Ahoussi set up Malebi in 2004. The organisation has developed a business model where charcoal production takes place alongside reforestation.
Since 2011, Malebi has formed a partnership with Sodefor, an Ivorian government agency in charge of managing the classified forests, to handle 4500 hectares of forest reserve. They use the wood to produce charcoal but they also reforest five hectares of forest every five years, with the support of the local community.
“Giving the raw material to the charcoal producers is crucial. If we do otherwise, they just get it through informal means,” says Ahoussi.
If her strategy can be rolled out nationally, Ahoussi believes that many people will be pulled out from the informal economy. Even the UNDP endorsed her system in a 2014 study on sustainable charcoal value chains in Cote d’Ivoire.
But while measures of this kind are much needed, they will not solve the problem alone.
The Ivorian authorities know all too well the need for a radical change in the industry after decades of negligence.
Ivoirian President Alassane Ouattara set the goal of increasing the amount of forested areas in Côte d’Ivoire from the current 10 to 20 per cent of the country’s land mass.
More significantly, in 2013, he started negotiations with the European Union on a Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) through the Flegt (Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade) Action Plan.
With ratification scheduled for 2017, the VPA aims to guarantee the legality of Ivorian timber in the European market, regulating the sustainability of the wood industry and enhancing local governance in Côte d’Ivoire.
The discussions seek to include all parties involved: local administration, civil society, traditional chiefs, and large industry players.
“For Ivory Coast, it is a chance to rethink its politics of development and trying to combine agriculture with forests for a sustainable and healthy management of lands and its natural resources,” Marta Brignone, EU-Flegt Negotiations Facilitator with Côte d’Ivoire, tells Equal Times.
Negotiations do not include the charcoal sector, but it should benefit from a better-regulated market. At the moment, one of the main conflicting points in the negotiations seems to be ideas around the export sector.
“We may have to put a quota on how much timber can go to the foreign market. In this way, we can channel more wood to the local one,” Arafan Haidara, from the Technical Committee of Negotiations for Ministry of Water and Forest told Equal Times.
The private timber industrial companies would hardly welcome a restriction on their business. Profits have been shrinking over the last decade, due to the rarefying of the Ivorian wood and the fall of the EU demand since the 2008 economic crisis.
The Malebi model offers a possible solution: the companies exporting timber could receive long-term concessions on forest areas.
“In this way, the industry players will secure their source of supply, can implement reforestation and keep illegal logging at bay better than the Ivorian Administration usually does,” an Abidjan-based timber consultant, tells Equal Times.
Pressure to succeed is also high for the EU. In total, it has already ratified six VPA agreements in the world. But unforeseen post-signature disputes have prevented their application in Ghana and Cameroon.
Meanwhile, the future of climate change, deforestation and the informal economy hangs in the balance in Côte d’Ivoire.