1. Home
  2. Africa
  3. West Africa
  4. Côte d’Ivoire

Civil war allows rampant illegal logging

[Cote d'Ivoire] This truck is carrying wood, marked with official stamp. But in many of Cote d'Ivoire's forests illegal logging is continuing apace.
This wood is marked with official stamp but much of the logging going on in Cote d'Ivoire's forests is illegal (IRIN)

Two years of civil war have broken down law and order across Cote d’Ivoire, allowing illegal loggers to decimate the country’s dwindling forest reserves at an alarming rate.

Sources in the timber trade told IRIN that pro-government militia chiefs, rebel warlords, timber companies and ordinary villagers were indiscriminately felling the giant hardwood trees that dominate the equatorial forests of southern and western Cote d’Ivoire.

"When war breaks out, forests are suddenly up for grabs. Long-term forest protection policies are abandoned for short-term financial gain," said Frans Bongers, a Dutch ecologist who has been carrying out research in West Africa's forests for the last decade, told IRIN.

"Trees that need 300 to 400 years to grow into maturity are felled without scruples. This is what's happening in Cote d'Ivoire."

In many cases there is no-one to stop the illegal loggers. In others instances, the gangs wield their guns to force their way past forest guards and any others who try to oppose them. The end result is the same -- there are virtually no official checks on their felling activity.

Occasionally, however, some loggers are caught.

In the central town of Bouafle, close to the frontline that divides the rebel-held north of Cote d’Ivoire from the government-held south, one government forestry agent proudly showed off his latest catch.

It was a truck, whose rear doors hung open revealing two-inch-thick planks that had been hurriedly and illegally cut with a chainsaw from the trunk of an Aniegre tree.

This is tropical hardwood with a pinkish tinge that is particularly sought after by guitar makers. It is one of more than 50 varieties of timber that are exploited commercially in Cote d'Ivoire.

“We call them chainsaw operators,” explained the forest guard, who asked not to be named. “They sneak into the forest, pick out a tree and cut it in planks -- right on the spot. Most of this wood ends up on the local market.”

Here, the forest guards intervened and the cowboy woodcutters were forced to flee, leaving their loot behind.

But in many other parts of Cote d’Ivoire the logging gangs simply carve up forests, threatening anyone who might feel tempted to stop them with their guns.

Corruption and poverty play a part

Furthermore, corruption is rampant and many people in the countryside are so poor that they are willing to do anything for some extra cash.

According to government statistics, 13 million hectares of virgin forest were felled during the decades after independence in 1960 to make way for cocoa plantations and farms.

Cote d'Ivoire is now the world's largest cocoa producer. But by the time the civil war broke out in September 2002 there were only 2.5 million hectares of forest left.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says this is disappearing at a rate of 2.9 percent per year, one of the highest deforestation rates in the world.

“The war situation and the parallel economy are putting the remaining natural resources under a lot of pressure,” said Eloi Kouadio of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). “There is no doubt that the crisis will have a severe impact on the environment.”

The International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based think-tank has meanwhile highlighted the fortunes being made from illegal logging in the free-wheeling environment of war-torn Cote d’Ivoire - fortunes that might dry up if hostilities ceased and law and order returned.

“The timber business is booming," the ICG noted in a report on Cote d’Ivoire earlier this year.

Port data provides firm evidence of this.

Cote d'Ivoire exported 265,000 metric tons of timber in the first half of 2004, only slightly less than the 270,660 tons shipped in the first six months of 2002, before the civil war erupted.

But this year’s figure only covered timber from forests in the government-held south of the country.

According to an internal document prepared by the government forestry service Sodefor, three national parks and 100 classified forests are located in rebel territory and logging goes on there uncontrolled.

The report, a copy of which was obtained by IRIN, said: "Several timber companies … indulge in a systematic pillage of the forests in occupied territory with the complicity of warlords and loyalist forces."

The fact that unregulated logging is continuing apace, is heart-breaking for village chiefs like Kouadio Yao. He lives on the rebel side of the frontline near the rebel capital Bouake.

Some villagers mourn lost trees

Yao told IRIN that he had seen the teak trees planted by previous generations near his village virtually disappear. But he is resigned to the fact there is nothing he can do about it.

"If someone came with a gun, would you be able to stop them and demand that they pay for the trees?" he asked. "What I do know that because of the conflict, we have lost everything."


La carte de la Côte d'Ivoire...
Country Map - Cote d'ivoire...
Wednesday, January 8, 2003
Manifestation devant les ambassades des Etats-Unis et de France
Country Map - Cote d'ivoire...

However the village elder was reluctant to point a finger of blame directly at the rebel authorities.

"When someone comes with a gun, your first reaction is to think it's one of the rebels. But when there's chaos, people come behind the rebels and take advantage of the situation," Yao said.

"Often it's someone who's not even really involved in the conflict that is coming to rob you."

In the southern half of the country, in the government-held zone, the forest guards have better access but there are still problem areas, particularly out west near the border with Liberia.

Olivier Ahimin, a trade union leader at Sodefor, said at least two classified forests there, and perhaps as many as six, were being exploited by local strongmen.

According to lvorian newspaper reports, armed militias guard the entrances to these forests, barring the way to anyone who tries to stop the pillaging. Sodefor agents do not venture out there, he said, because they are unarmed.

Many timber firms work hand-in-glove with the militias or the rebels who supply the logs for their saw-mills.

One timber expert told IRIN on condition of anonymity that such firms don’t hesitate to operate in protected forests or lend their bulldozers to the local strongmen because they would otherwise be barred from producing timber altogether.

Another man who works for a large timber firm in western Cote d'Ivoire confirmed this practice.

"Village youths repeatedly demand we lend them our bulldozers so that they can go out in the forests and cut whatever trees they find. Afterwards they usually try to sell them to us," he explained.

This man, who like most of those working inside the logging industry requested anonymity, said his own company had refused to cooperate, but others did.

The New Forces rebel movement officially denies allegations that it is profiting from deforestation by selling trees to timber firms in return for arms money.

"People know that these forests are protected from exploitation by international laws and conventions," New Forces spokesman, Sidiki Konate, told IRIN.

"We do not take money from forest concessionaries," he added, although he said rebels did allow those firms working in the area before the war erupted to continue going about their activities.

Trouble spots in the south

In the south, recent government attempts to regulate the timber trade have been plagued with accusations of corruption.

In September, Sodefor employees threatened to strike if the forestry ministry did not immediately withdraw all the logging licenses which had been illegally granted this year to local timber companies.

“Six out of ten logging licenses given out since January were destined for classified forests that are officially closed to commercial exploitation,” Ahimin, the Sodefor union leader, said.

“We demanded that the ministry put a stop to this anarchy, because if they don't act now, in ten years there will be no trees left to cut and no more jobs for us.”

The ministry listened and the strike was called off.


Many people in Cote d'Ivoire have been forced to switch to firewood from more expensive gas in order to cook their food. But this is adding to the deforestation problem. (File photo)...
[Cote d'Ivoire] Many people in Cote d'Ivoire have been forced to switch to firewood from more expensive gas in order to cook their food. But this is adding to the deforestation problem...
Thursday, December 23, 2004
Land disputes gnaw at Côte d'Ivoire’s forests...
[Cote d'Ivoire] Many people in Cote d'Ivoire have been forced to switch to firewood from more expensive gas in order to cook their food. But this is adding to the deforestation problem...
The fact that many people have been forced to switch from expensive cooking gas to firewood is aggravating the deforestation problem

Apart from commercial logging, there is also a problem of smaller-scale deforestation by impoverished villagers who hack down trees to try and make ends meet.

The issue here is not profit but survival.

When the civil war began two years ago, deliveries of bottled gas to the rebel-held north were suddenly interrupted, so people reverted to wood and charcoal as a cooking fuel instead. Most have not switched back.

Even in the southern government zone, the urban poor increasingly use cheap wood as they can no longer afford the relatively expensive gas.

“The level of poverty has increased so much that people chop down trees in forest reserves,” said Kouadio of UNDP. “They don’t see why they should preserve them.”

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

Share this article
Join the discussion

Help make quality journalism about crises possible

The New Humanitarian is an independent, non-profit newsroom founded in 1995. We deliver quality, reliable journalism about crises and big issues impacting the world today. Our reporting on humanitarian aid has uncovered sex scandals, scams, data breaches, corruption, and much more.


Our readers trust us to hold power in the multi-billion-dollar aid sector accountable and to amplify the voices of those impacted by crises. We’re on the ground, reporting from the front lines, to bring you the inside story. 


We keep our journalism free – no paywalls – thanks to the support of donors and readers like you who believe we need more independent journalism in the world. Your contribution means we can continue delivering award-winning journalism about crises.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian today

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.