Cote d’Ivoire: Saving West Africa’s last intact tropical rainforest through ecotourism (IPS)

June 23, 2014
A translation for this article is available in French

Jonas Sanhin Touan has big dreams. He sits under a canopy in Gouleako, near the entrance to Côte d’Ivoire’s Taï National Park, and waits for tourists to come and buy his food.

He hopes to raise enough money to build a hotel on the three hectares of land which he has purchased outside the park. Mr. Touan points to an area of bush and says, “Here will be the restaurant.”

Taï National Park is one of the last intact tropical rainforests in West Africa. It is the region’s largest tropical forest and was designated a World Heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

The park is close to the Liberian border in southwestern Côte d’Ivoire, and is only accessible from the capital, Abidjan, by a seven-hour drive on a potholed path.

But Mr. Touan’s dream is not only threatened by the lack of reliable public transport. The area is also affected by conflict and sporadic violence, as well as encroaching deforestation. Carefully planted fields of cocoa, coffee, rubber and palm oil trees now occupy an area once covered in lush tropical vegetation.

Ecotourism may be a solution for those locals in search of a better and sustainable future. Since January 2014, about 100 tourists have taken part in a tour organized by the Wild Chimpanzee Foundation, or WCF, together with the Ivorian department of forest protection.

Ecotourism is still new and the numbers of tourists modest. Mr. Touan admits, “Of course this will take time. But this area is beautiful. I think that ecotourism will bring desperately needed money.”

Currently, 80 per cent of villagers earn their living by growing cocoa, often slashing and burning the forest to increase their harvesting area. Many animal species, including chimpanzees and pygmy hippopotami, are now endangered.

Christophe Boesch is a primatology professor and WCF’s West Africa director. He says the population pressure around the park is very important, and the current migration of people to the area is a direct consequence of global warming.[ST1] [VC2]

Professor Boesch explains, “West Africa faced dramatic climate changes in the last 50 to 60 years. The Sahel region has become a desert.” Ivorian and foreign migrants have made Côte d’Ivoire the world’s biggest cocoa producer, but at the cost of its forests.

In Gouleako, the villagers perform a traditional ceremony and serve palm wine to half a dozen tourists seated on couches. Later, they will guide the tourists along the muddy trails of the park to see the chimpanzees, or sail on the Cavally River which divides Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire.

Emmanuelle Normand is WCF’s country director in Côte d’Ivoire. She says, “We hope by this project to teach people, more the local population than the tourists, about the added value of a forest.” Similar projects in the Great Lakes region have been successful at helping endangered species survive.

Valentin Emmanuel is the deputy chief of Gouleako. He remembers that when he was young, elephants crossed rice paddies and chimpanzees emerged from the forest to play in cocoa trees.

He adds, “Before, we were living with the wildlife close to us. Now, you have to go far away, deep into the forest, to see that.”

Mr. Touan knows that the only way to return the forest to its former glory is to introduce more people to it. He says, “Cocoa planters have a very difficult life. Ecotourism is an opportunity for a better future.”

To read the full article on which this story is based, go to: http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/05/ivorians-learn-save-one-last-intact-tropical-rainforests-west-africa-exploiting-tourism/