In Ivory Coast, a battle to save cocoa-ravaged forests

By Joe Bavier, Maytaal Angel and Ange Aboa

DJIGBADJI, Ivory Coast (Reuters) -This cocoa-growing settlement was all but destroyed last year by Ivorian forest agents, leaving farmers to rake through their beans amid broken concrete and other remnants.

“They set the whole village on fire,” said Alexis Kouassi Akpoue, describing the day in January 2020 when the agents raided the settlement in Rapides Grah, a protected forest, where he had illicitly planted cocoa with thousands of other farmers. “The next morning at 5 o’clock they sent in the bulldozers.”

Yet when Reuters returned to the village a year later, business was again thriving. Farmers dried and bagged beans among the demolished buildings as buyers hunted for quality cocoa, much of it destined for use in chocolate bars and candies made in Europe.

The government of Ivory Coast, the world’s top cocoa-growing country, has been cracking down on cultivators after decades of intensive and often illicit farming decimated its tropical forests. Leading chocolate and cocoa companies are meanwhile monitoring their own supply chains for illicitly grown cocoa.

But the conservation efforts are falling short, European Union officials say.

That’s one reason the bloc’s executive arm, the European Commission, proposed legislation on Wednesday that would compel companies to find and fix environmental and human rights risks in their international supply chains – or face penalties. Companies would be restricted from sourcing beans grown on land deforested after a certain date, which is to be set by the law.

“Voluntary initiatives by companies to stop deforestation have largely failed,” said EU Parliament member Delara Burkhardt. Though not finalized, the legislation is expected to pass in some form as soon as 2023.

Chocolate and cocoa companies say they support the new regulations but dispute that their efforts have failed. They told Reuters their supply chain monitoring systems, including GPS mapping, satellite surveillance and third-party certification, give them assurance that the beans they source do not come from the Rapides Grah forest or other illegal farming operations.

However, the sector’s leading cocoa certification body has acknowledged that thousands of farms in protected areas received its stamp of approval in error.

In addition, purchasing documents and interviews with farmers and farmer cooperatives suggest that co-ops serving some of the chocolate industry’s biggest players – including Nestle, Mars Inc, Cargill Inc and Touton S.A. – source at least a portion of their beans from protected forests.

Reuters did not trace specific shipments of illicitly farmed cocoa to the companies. In separate statements, Cargill, Mars and Nestle said they had not knowingly purchased illegally grown cocoa. Touton did not respond to Reuters’ requests for comment.

Tracing the origin of cocoa beans is extremely difficult, in part because co-ops regularly buy from growers who are not members. Ivory Coast’s Ministry of Water and Forests estimates 20% to 30% of the roughly 2 million tonnes of cocoa produced annually is grown illegally and that practically all those beans enter the global supply chain.

“We want that to stop,” said Water and Forests Minister Alain-Richard Donwahi.

The Ivorian government faults locals for the problem but contends multinational corporations continue to profit from deforestation and have a duty to help forests recover.


In 2017, Ivory Coast and neighboring Ghana, the world’s No. 2 cocoa producer, teamed up with dozens of companies under an initiative aimed at eliminating deforestation. A study by the University of Maryland found the two African countries reduced the rate of primary forest loss by over 50% in 2019 compared to the previous year.

Ivory Coast now aims to plant 3 billion trees on government-managed land over the next decade. Meanwhile, state forestry management company SODEFOR estimates some 1.3 million people are living illegally in protected forests, mostly farming cocoa.

Pilot-phase reforestation efforts, which include eliminating illegal settlements in the Rapides Grah forest, point to a tough road ahead for the government and farmers. Most growers are immigrants living below the United Nations poverty line of $1.90 a day.

Over the years, the 10,000 or so residents of Djigbadji – commonly known as Bandikro, or Bandit Town – chopped down the towering canopy. The 315,000-hectare forest is today covered in cocoa plantations, most of them illegal.

The proposed legislation by the EU Commission would prohibit companies that sell products in the EU from sourcing beans grown in officially protected forests like Rapides Grah, no matter when they were cleared.

Separately, under the Ivorian government’s plan to double the country’s forested area, farmers who help with reforestation can stay and maintain existing cocoa plantations for 10 to 15 years, until their trees die off.

“Listen, we have the national interest in mind,” Lt. Olivier Nogbo of SODEFOR, who is in charge of Rapides Grah’s northern half, told Reuters during an armed patrol last year, with his handful of agents dressed in camouflage and carrying AK47s.

“It’s not for 10,000 people that we’re going to allow the environment to be destroyed.”


During an initial visit to Bandikro weeks after the January 2020 raid, Reuters scoured the remains of half a dozen demolished co-op purchasing outposts that store cocoa. It found remnants of a thriving buying hub as well as possible indications of who was purchasing the illicit beans.

At one bulldozed outpost, Reuters found a receipt book along with the sign that once hung above the door, both bearing the name of the farmer cooperative SCAES COOP-CA.

SCAES is part of the in-house sustainability programs run by Cargill and Touton, two of the world’s largest agricultural commodities traders. The companies say the programs aim to ensure their practices do not harm people or the planet. Cargill sells SCAES’ cocoa to Nestle, according to Nestle’s supply-chain disclosures on its website.

Jean-Robert Gnanago, a SCAES director and head office employee at the co-op’s headquarters in Meagui, told Reuters the co-op sold cocoa to various industry majors, including around 5,000 tonnes a year to Cargill, but denied it purchased beans inside Rapides Grah.

“If someone used our sign somewhere, that’s possible,” Gnanago said. “But we aren’t aware of it.”

In a statement, the chairman of SCAES’s board of directors, Souleymane Coulibaly, said the co-op does not buy cocoa from protected land and that it stopped sourcing from buyers who operate near high-risk areas in 2015. The statement added that the cocoa purchase receipts Reuters discovered in Bandikro predate SCAES’s move out of high-risk areas.

Cargill and Nestle did not directly address Reuters inquiries about the SCAES receipt book and sign.

Many co-ops that once operated inside Bandikro have since the January 2020 raid simply moved their purchasing outposts just outside the Rapides Grah boundary, Reuters found. But “eighty percent of the product comes from here,” said Bandikro village leader Francis Bogui, referring to the protected forest.

Bandikro’s traditional chief Phillipe Ipou Kouadio told Reuters early this year he had personally sold 120 tonnes of cocoa to a co-op called SOCAGNIPI between October 2020 and January. Several other Bandikro farmers also told Reuters they sold beans to SOCAGNIPI.

SOCAGNIPI is listed as a supplier by U.S. confectionary giant Mars, maker of M&Ms and Snickers. The co-op participates in Mars’ in-house sustainability program.

In its statement to Reuters, Mars did not address questions about SOCAGNIPI. Employees at SOCAGNIPI’S main office, in an Ivory Coast town called Gnipi 2, declined to speak to Reuters.

The co-ops named in this article were audited by independent third parties such as UTZ, a Dutch nonprofit that certifies sustainable agriculture. Auditors’ labels indicate a product has been certified as free from human rights and environmental abuses such as deforestation and child labor.

UTZ used a subcontractor called Bureau Veritas to audit SCAES in 2019. Later that year, UTZ reprimanded Bureau Veritas for poor performance. In a statement to Reuters, Rainforest Alliance, which merged with UTZ in 2018, said the reason for the reprimand is confidential.

Bureau Veritas could not be reached for comment.

After a 2019 review discovered that nearly 5,000 of its certified farms in Ivory Coast were on protected land, UTZ suspended the expansion of its certification programs in Ghana and Ivory Coast, saying it wanted to focus on improving the quality of current certification.


Mars, Nestle and Cargill said they use GPS technology to map farms belonging to cooperatives with which they partner, making sure their boundaries don’t overlap with protected areas. Cargill said it monitors those farms via satellites that alert it in real time to forest loss.

In separate statements, Cargill and Nestle said they source beans from SCAES COOP-CA and that the co-op participates in their in-house sustainability programs. Cargill said audits of the co-op had not found evidence it buys from protected land.

Mars and Cargill both said they have yield estimates for farms belonging to co-ops in their sustainability programs. If yields are high compared to estimates, this can result in supply-chain audits.

Cargill and Nestle said the co-ops with which they partner also tag and bar-code the sacks of beans they get from individual farmers.

This “gives us greater assurance that beans come from known and mapped farms,” Cargill said.

(Reporting by Joe Bavier and Ange Aboa in Djigbadji, Ivory Coast, and Maytaal Angel in London. Editing by Julie Marquis and Alexandra Zavis)

No evidence that Ivory Coast patient had Ebola, says WHO

(Reuters) -New testing has found no evidence that the woman in Ivory Coast who tested positive earlier this month for Ebola actually had the virus, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Tuesday.

“WHO considers that the patient did not have Ebola virus disease and further analysis on the cause of her illness is ongoing,” it said in a statement.

The positive result was found by a lab in Ivory Coast but subsequent testing in France came back negative, WHO said.

The initial test led Ivory Coast on Aug. 14 to declare its first Ebola outbreak in over 25 years. The woman had travelled to Ivory Coast’s commercial capital Abidjan from northern Guinea, hundreds of kilometers (miles) away.

More than 140 of the woman’s contact were listed in Guinea and Ivory Coast but none of them developed symptoms or tested positive, WHO said.

Ebola typically kills about half of those it infects, although vaccines and new treatments have proven highly effective in reducing fatality rates.

(Reporting by Aaron Ross; Editing by Leslie Adler and Sandra Maler)

Ivory Coast begins Ebola vaccinations after case confirmed in Abidjan

FILE PHOTO: A health worker fills a syringe with Ebola vaccine before injecting it to a patient, in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, August 5, 2019. REUTERS/Baz Ratner/File Photo

By Loucoumane Coulibaly

ABIDJAN (Reuters) -Ivory Coast begin vaccinating health workers in the commercial capital Abidjan against Ebola on Monday after a case of the deadly virus was confirmed over the weekend.

An 18-year-old woman tested positive on Saturday after travelling by bus to Abidjan from neighboring Guinea. It is Ivory Coast’s first confirmed case of Ebola in 25 years.

Workers at the hospital in Abidjan where the woman was admitted were the first to receive vaccinations as the health ministry officially launched its vaccination campaign. The country has 5,000 doses available, the ministry said.

In total, health authorities have identified nine people the woman came into contact with, including three family members and six hospital staffers, the World Health Organization (WHO) told partners in a report. The woman and one suspected Ebola case are in hospital, it said.

The WHO has said it is deeply concerned about the virus’ presence in Abidjan, a densely-populated city of more than 4 million people.

Ebola spreads through contact with body fluids and typically kills about half of those it infects, although vaccines and new treatments have proved highly effective in reducing fatality rates.

In Guinea, the health ministry said on Monday that it would begin vaccinating, although it did not say when. The country was declared free of Ebola on June 19, after a four-month outbreak in the south killed 12 people.

Authorities believe the woman who tested positive travelled from northern Guinea by bus, passing through the Nzerekore region in the southeast, where the last outbreak began.

She then crossed Guinea’s southern border into Ivory Coast and reached Abidjan several hundred kilometers farther south on Aug. 11. She was hospitalized the next day.

WHO said preliminary genetic sequencing showed a close match between her case and the 2014–2016 Ebola outbreak, which killed a record 11,300 people. That epidemic originated in southeastern Guinea before spreading to Liberia and Sierra.

Last week, Guinea confirmed one death from the Marburg virus, West Africa’s first case of the highly infectious hemorrhagic fever which is similar to Ebola.

(Reporting by Loucoumane Coulibaly in Abidjan and Saliou Samb in Conakry; Writing Cooper Inveen; Editing by Aaron Ross, Bernadette Baum and Jonathan Oatis)

Global COVID-19 infections up for first time in seven weeks, WHO says

ZURICH (Reuters) – The number of new coronavirus infections globally rose last week for the first time in seven weeks, the World Health Organization said on Monday.

“We need to have a stern warning for all of us: that this virus will rebound if we let it,” Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO technical lead for COVID-19, told a briefing. “And we cannot let it.”

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the rise in cases was “disappointing but not surprising” and urged countries not to relax measures to fight the disease.

It was too early for countries to rely solely on vaccination programs and abandon other measures, he said: “If countries rely solely on vaccines, they are making a mistake. Basic public health measures remain the foundation of the response.”

Tedros noted that Ghana and Ivory Coast became the first countries on Monday to begin vaccinating people with doses supplied by COVAX, the international program to provide vaccines for poor and middle-income countries.

But he also criticized rich countries for hoarding vaccine doses, saying that it was in everyone’s interest for vulnerable people to be protected around the world.

“It’s regrettable that some countries continue to prioritize vaccinating younger healthier adults at lower risk of diseases in their own populations, ahead of health workers and older people elsewhere,” Tedros said.

Mike Ryan, the WHO’s top emergency expert, said the global fight against the coronavirus was in a better state now than it was 10 weeks ago before the roll-outs of vaccines had begun. But it was too early to say the virus was coming under control.

“The issue is of us being in control of the virus and the virus being in control of us. And right now the virus is very much in control.”

(Reporting by John Revill, Vishwadha Chander, Manojna Maddipatla; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Alex Richardson, Dan Grebler and Giles Elgood)

Al Qaeda says Ivory Coast attack was revenge against France

ABIDJAN (Reuters) – Al Qaeda’s North African branch said its attack on a beach resort in Ivory Coast on Sunday that killed 18 people was revenge for a French offensive against Islamist militants in the Sahel region and called for its forces to withdraw.

The raid in Grand Bassam claimed by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb was the first of its kind in Ivory Coast but the third in the region since November.

It was also a setback for France, who lost four of its nationals when gunmen opened fire on people eating lunch at restaurants and sunning themselves on the sand.

“We repeat our call to all countries involved in the French invasion of Mali to withdraw,” the group said in a statement.

It named the attackers but gave no further details of their identities.

France is a key player in security in West Africa with about 3,500 troops in the region. It has also joined a campaign against Islamic State, which is based in Iraq and Syria.

Paris is to station a force of armed gendarmes in the capital of Burkina Faso to react swiftly in the event of another attack in the region and to provide training, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said on Tuesday.

“The desire to position this (gendarmerie) team in Ouagadougou is to enable us to immediately dispense advice and coordinate other actions in the event of a terrorist crisis,” Cazeneuve said.

He was speaking during a visit with Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault to Ivory Coast that aims to reassure the large French community and boost the investigation into the attack in Grand Bassam.

France launched Operation Serval to oust militants from northern Mali and replaced it in 2014 with Operation Barkhane which targets militants across the Sahel region.

Ayrault and Cazeneuve met President Alassane Ouattara and were due to visit the site of the attack and meet representatives of the French community.

Islamic State has also singled out France as a target and claimed responsibility for the attack in Paris in November in which 130 people were killed.

Twenty people were killed at a hotel in Mali in November and 30 died in an attack on a cafe and hotel in Burkina Faso in January.

Ivory Coast has French-speaking West Africa’s largest economy and has recovered from a decade of political crisis to boast one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.

(Writing by Makini Brice; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

Al Qaeda gunmen drank in bar before killing 18 in Ivory Coast attack

GRAND BASSAM, Ivory Coast (Reuters) – Gunmen from al Qaeda’s North African branch drank beer at a beachside bar before launching a shooting rampage at an Ivory Coast resort town that left at least 18 people dead, the group’s third major attack in West Africa in four months.

Sunday’s raid, details of which are beginning to emerge in witness and official accounts, was the furthest yet from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) traditional desert base, a worrying indication of the militants’ growing reach.

The attack raised questions about Ivory Coast’s preparedness for such an attack, with some asking why such a sensitive target was left so vulnerable.

Fifteen civilians and three members of the special forces were killed and 33 people were wounded in the attack in Grand Bassam, a weekend retreat popular with Ivorians and westerners about 25 miles east of the commercial capital Abidjan.

Interior Minister Hamed Bakayoko said another 26 wounded were still receiving medical attention on Monday, as President Alassane Ouattara declared three days of mourning for the country, which has never before been hit by al Qaeda.

Three militants also died in the attack on the resort town, a UNESCO heritage site of crumbling colonial-era buildings.

Witness Christian Eddy said four men arrived in a Ford saloon car at the beachside bar where he works around noon on Sunday. While two remained outside, the two others entered and drank beers for around a half hour.

They then launched the attack.

“They didn’t speak French. They spoke Arabic. We communicated with them in English …. The guys who were still outside started shooting and the two seated at the table yelled ‘Allahu Akbar’ and flipped over the table,” he told Reuters.

He said the first victim was a boy who was made to kneel before he was shot. Bar staff tried to warn a deaf boy who was playing nearby.

“People were yelling ‘Come over here!’ But he didn’t know what was happening and just went down to the water. They shot him in the water,” Eddy said.

The gunmen then moved up the beach, continuing their killing spree and entering several seaside hotels.

Surveillance footage from Hotel Etoile du Sud – one of the attackers’ first targets where two people including a German woman and a Lebanese man were gunned down – showed the initial panic in the hotel bar as the first shots rang out.

Staff crouched and then fled along with customers, among them parents carrying babies or leading young children by the hand.

A man, apparently disguised as a waiter in a red waistcoat over a white dress shirt, entered with a rifle, fired at the empty bar and disappeared behind it, where the Lebanese man had been hiding. More gunshots were then heard.

The first police officers arrived on the scene around 15 minutes after the shooting began, witnesses said. It would be another half hour before special units from the security forces arrived from Abidjan.

The victims included foreign citizens from Burkina Faso, Cameroon, France, Germany and Mali.

Among the dead was Henrike Grohs, 51, head of the Abidjan branch of Germany’s Goethe Institut cultural body.

France’s President Francois Hollande said four French nationals were killed in the attack. The French government had earlier said just one of its citizens had died.


The attack is a heavy blow for Ivory Coast, which has recovered from more than a decade of political turmoil and a 2011 civil war to become one of the world’s fastest growing economies.

President Ouattara won a landslide election victory in October, promising to attract foreign investment to the largest economy in French-speaking West Africa which is also the world’s top cocoa producer.

AQIM has spread across the Sahara from Algeria and now operates in much of western and northern Africa.

In January, gunmen killed dozens of people in a cafe frequented by foreigners in neighboring Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, and also attacked a hotel. Militants attacked another hotel in the Malian capital Bamako late last year, killing 20.

Since those attacks, Ivorian authorities have increased security around hotels and shopping malls in Abidjan, a city of around five million inhabitants. But there were few signs that was the case in Grand Bassam ahead of Sunday’s attack.

“Attacking Bassam was the easiest thing for them to do. Bassam is where all the expatriates and middle class from Abidjan gather on the weekends,” said one longtime resident, who said he had seen no sign of recent security improvements.

“We don’t understand why this wasn’t considered a priority for protection. It would be easy,” he said, asking not to be named.

The recent attacks in the region are generally viewed as targeting France and its allies after Paris intervened militarily in Mali in 2013 to drive out al Qaeda-linked militants who had seized the desert north a year earlier.

The attack in Grand Bassam, thousands of kilometers from al Qaeda’s traditional operational zones, raises fears over where they might strike next. It poses serious security questions for former regional colonial power France, which has thousands of citizens and troops in the region.

While some 18,000 French citizens live in Ivory Coast, over 20,000 reside in Senegal.

France has 3,500 troops in the region, from Senegal in the far west to Chad. A French military base in Abidjan, manned by around 800 soldiers, serves as a logistical hub for regional operations against Islamist militancy in the Sahel.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve will travel to Ivory Coast on Tuesday to offer logistical support and intelligence, French diplomatic sources said. Counter-terrorism officials have also been sent to help the investigation.

(Additional reporting by Loucoumane Coulibaly and Ange Aboa in Abidjan and John Irish and Marine Pennetier in Paris; Writing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Joe Bavier; Editing by Janet McBride)