October 26, 2017

S.E.M Alain-Richard DONWAHI
Minister of Water and Forests
Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire

Dear Minister Donwahi,

We write to offer our comments on your government’s draft policy for the preservation and rehabilitation of forests, circulated on September 15, 2017.

We fully support the efforts of the Ivorian government to address the devastating deforestation the country has suffered in the last few decades, and we thank the government for allowing civil society organizations to provide comments on the new policy.

As human rights organizations, our analysis of the policy focuses on its implications for individuals living in and around national parks and protected forests.

Our comments focus on three elements of the draft policy:

  1. The introduction of a new “Agro-Forest” status into the Forestry Code.
  2. The transformation of protected forests that retain significant forest coverage into “aires protégées” – protected areas – falling under the jurisdiction of the Ivorian Parks and Reserves Office (Office ivoirien des parcs et réserves, OIPR).
  3. The strict enforcement of laws prohibiting the unauthorized occupation and farming of protected forests that have suffered little deforestation (e.g. not reclassified as Agro-Forest).

Introduction of “Agro-Forest”

The decision to assign the management of the proposed category of Agro-Forests to private companies carries significant risks for the rights of occupants of protected forests, and for the forests themselves, if companies’ action is not properly supervised and regulated by the Ivorian government.

Many occupants of protected forests are small-scale farmers who have lived there for decades. While many accept that they do not have legal tenure, they nevertheless occupy land that their families have relied on for generations for food and income. Many of these farmers know no other way of life and the Ivorian state has made little or no effort to remove them.

The transfer of management over protected forests from the Ivorian government to private companies means that these small-scale farmers must now rely on private companies to protect them from interference in their rights to food, livelihoods, education and health.

Our research has found that private large-scale agricultural companies routinely fail to protect rights of local communities that are directly impacted by their operations, especially when regulation is not clear or not enforced. Human Rights Watch published a report on this topic in Zambia on October 25.

While our own concerns focus on risks to local communities, we note that other organizations have also expressed concern that the Agro-Forest model would not adequately protect biodiversity, which in turn can impact human rights. Private companies can destroy complex ecosystems by converting natural but degraded forests into monoculture industrial plantations. In commenting on the draft policy, the Ivorian Observatory for the Management of Natural Resources (Observatoire Ivoirien Pour La Gestion Durable Des Ressources Naturelles) stated:

There is a significant risk that private sector actors put their economic interests above the restoration of forest cover, which must remain, above all, the ultimate objective. Nothing guarantees that the state will have the ability to supervise the activities of industrial operators authorized to work in agro-forests.[1]

It is ultimately for the Ivorian government to determine the appropriate model for the sustainable management of forests, as well as to adopt the necessary regulations to protect forests and the communities that live in them. We believe, however, that the government should study the possibility of adopting a model for management of Agro-Forests aligned with “community forest management” principles, which devolve management of forests to the communities who occupy and rely on them.

Research has shown that community forest management, if properly regulated and supervised by government institutions, can incentivize forest conservation and reduction of carbon emissions from deforestation. Nine countries in Central Africa met recently to create a roadmap that sets out priority actions to be taken by all stakeholders in order to strengthen and scale up community-based forestry in the sub-region. 

If the government continues with the Agro-Forest model, we believe that any new classification of forest as Agro-Forest should be accompanied by further legislation specifying in more detail the mechanisms for government oversight of private management of Agro-Forests. This legislation should include:

  • A requirement that companies submit a detailed feasibility study, including an environmental and social impact assessment (with discussion of key human rights elements), prior to obtaining a contract to manage an Agro-Forest;
  • A process for government analysis and approval of the feasibility study, including evaluation of the environmental and social impact assessment;
  • Detailed environmental, social and human rights standards that companies should respect when managing Agro-Forests, including bans on child labor and on forced evictions;
  • Procedures for government monitoring of companies’ compliance with those standards and penalties for non-compliance.

No agreement to allocate Agro-Forests to private actors should occur before the government has given more thought to appropriate oversight and supervision of private companies’ management of Agro-Forest.

Potential Evictions

We recognize and respect the need for the Ivorian government to protect its remaining forests, including by preventing further infiltrations through lawful means.

We note, however, that the transformation of protected forests into protected areas – in which farming or habitation is not permitted – as well as the strict enforcement of laws prohibiting occupation of protected forests not converted to Agro-Forests, could ultimately lead to evictions of small-scale farmers living in these areas. 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.

We are encouraged that the government of Côte d’Ivoire, in the draft forestry policy, commits to respecting the rights of people living in undamaged protected forests (forêts non-dégradées, p. 3 of the policy), a commitment that should also be extended to forests that will be classified as, “aires protégées.”

Over the last 18 months, our research has shown the threat that evictions from protected forests and national parks pose to the livelihoods, health and sanitation of those living in protected forests and national parks, forcing those evicted to rely on humanitarian assistance for months on end. We have also documented the risk of other human rights abuses related to eviction operations, including extortion, theft of property and even physical abuses.

If the government does ultimately move forward with large-scale evictions, we believe that there are a number of steps the government could take to learn lessons from past eviction operations. This should not preclude the government from taking immediate steps to protect forests threatened with further infiltration and destruction, such as Cavally in western Côte d’Ivoire, but should be a precursor to any future large-scale eviction operations targeting long-term residents of forests.

The following measures could be important in this regard:

  1. Enact a policy, ideally codified in law, that sets out the protections accorded to occupants of forests during eviction operations. The policy would be an opportunity for the government to articulate how it will reconcile the need to prevent further infiltration and destruction of protected forests with the need to respect the rights of long-term forest occupants. This policy on evictions should:
    • Specify the circumstances in which evictions of communities residing in protected forests and protected areas can occur, and the protections required for occupants, including adequate notice ahead of evictions.
    • Require the government to provide access to alternative housing, sanitation, education and livelihood support to families who currently depend on protected forests for food and shelter.
    • Set out a framework for assessing compensation for property destroyed in eviction operations.
    • Provide guidance on how to deal with new or recent arrivals in protected forests, including by setting out basic due process rights in case of arrest or detention.
  2. Make an explicit commitment to auditing the capacity of the Forestry Development Agency (Société de Développement des Forêts, SODEFOR) and the Ivorian Parks and Reserves Office (OIPR) to oversee the supervision of forests, and particularly eviction operations. This should include consideration of how to address corruption at all levels of both agencies.
  3. Make a more explicit recognition of the security challenges facing the Ivorian government in many protected forests, including in western Côte d’Ivoire, where intercommunal violence has caused multiple deaths in 2017. To protect the safety of both occupants and the state agents conducting operations in protected forests, the government will need to address the presence of non-state armed groups and the relative lack of control of state security forces in large areas of protected forests.  
  4. Provide more details on the timeline and sequencing of any large-scale evictions of occupants of protected areas or forests. The policy should clarify, for example, whether evictions will occur before the completion of the National Forests Inventory (l’Inventaire National des Ressources Forestières et Fauniques), targeted for December 2018.
  5. Require the government to formulate a clear plan for each eviction operation that sets out – for each forest – how the rights of occupants will be protected. The execution of such a plan should be piloted, on a small scale, before being rolled out in other areas. The plan should include monitoring and evaluation of the impact on evictions on those affected.
  6. Include a commitment to independent monitoring of the state’s actions in protected forests, and that of private operators, including through the creation of an independent observer and auditor in the forestry code. Civil society organizations should also be involved in the monitoring of state and private actions in protected forests.

Thank you very much for considering our analysis and recommendations of the proposed policy.

Bamba Sindou
General Coordinator
Regroupement des Acteurs Ivoiriens des Droits de l'Homme en Côte d'Ivoire (RAIDH)

Jim Wormington
Researcher, Africa Division
Human Rights Watch

 

[1] Commentaires de la plateforme OI-REN sur la « déclaration de politique de préservation et de réhabilitation des forets », p. 2.