In Ivory Coast, this Rainforest is both a refuge and a haven for the Junkyard

The lush, endangered greenery of Abidjan, the economic hub of Ivory Coast, is at the heart of government efforts to promote ecotourism. The people who live and work there worry about what it means to them.

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – The men’s chisels and hammers were shrill as they dismantled a rusty truck, the noise only fading as it reached the jungle that surrounded them.

Mechanics work at the largest scrap yard in Ivory Coast, where the skeletons of thousands of disused trucks, buses and taxis stretch endlessly and engine oil seeps into the mud. .

But they are also working within the confines of Banco National Park, one of the world’s last remaining virgin rainforests in a major metropolis. The park is an endangered gem with lush greenery in the busy economic heart of Abidjan, an oasis that Ivory authorities are trying to revive, despite all the environmental threats. that it has to face.

After losing about 85% of its forests over the past 60 years, Ivory Coast has vowed to protect what remains and reforest as much as possible.

In Abidjan, a metropolitan area of ​​about 5.5 million people, authorities have turned Banco National Park – 10 times the size of Central Park in New York – into a child of conservation efforts. Their attraction attracts the people of Ivory who have long avoided cycling and hiking expeditions that are part of a nascent ecotourism scheme.

But in doing so, authorities competed with conservationists against residents of neighboring areas whose ancestors once owned land – and against active informal workers. in the protected area. Both of these groups said they recognize that forests need protection but feel excluded by the government’s approach.

“We were told to protect the forest and left, but there was no land to settle in,” said Amara Camara, a mechanic at the entrance of the truck graveyard one recent afternoon, a ranger on the island. wooden bench next to him. . “So where are we going?”

Ranger, Lieutenant Kodjo Casimir Aman – the head of the park’s security department tasked with protecting it against poachers and informal workers – has pointed out that humans are just one of his problems and an even more disturbing one.

“Even if we kick you out,” he told Mr. Camara, “where are we going to put all these wrecks?”

With many African cities living under rising temperaturesface the alarming level of air pollution and lack of green space, Banco National Park makes Abidjan stand out. Its nearly 8,500 acres of mostly wooded land serve as a carbon pit and flood regulator that conservationists say is vital to the city. The park’s groundwater level provides 40% of the city’s drinking water.

But unchecked urban sprawl and illegal activities such as vehicle graveyards have gradually encroached on the park. Landfills are polluting its streams, and poachers are endangering the pangolins, chimpanzees and other species that inhabit it.

A wall will soon surround Banco park, making it more appealing to some and less accessible to others: Any entrance outside the main entrance, which costs CFA 1,000 to Ivorians and most West African visitors, or $1.60, are illegal. International visitors pay around $7.75.

However, there was a time when the nearby residents grazed their livestock in the forest or planted coffee, cocoa, cassava and corn inside the forest. Children would swim and fish in its ponds, and boys would go into the woods for initiations.

In the neighboring Agban-Village commune, a highway now separates the houses from the forest that residents claim belonged to their ancestors. Some of their neighborhoods have been requisitioned for the construction of a bus stop, others for a subway line. The local cemetery no longer exists.

Mr. Rodrigue Djro, the local leader, said the government is taking the land without allowing people in this area to expand into the park.

“We are making sacrifices for the common good,” Mr. Djro said. “What do we get in return?”

General Adama Tondossama, head of the national parks and reserves office, said the state has owned the land for decades. The local government has promised to hire young people from neighboring areas as guides and park staff, although General Tondossama acknowledged that tourism revenue will most likely be limited until the public member develops more activities.

“We need domestic customers,” he said.

For decades, Banco Park has fascinated and scared Ivory people.

It was surrounded by working-class communes that had participated in civil war in 2010 and 2011 killed more than 3,000 people. During the previous political crisis in 2000, Dozens of bodies were discovered on the edge of the park.

The park now welcomes visitors with a sign that promises “safety”. On weekends, hundreds of people come to breathe in the fresh air, explore fish farming in one of the many ponds that dot the park, or mountain bike its paths.

“There are legends of bandits and spirits haunting the park,” said Amira Amian, 22, a law student who rode there for the first time with a friend on a recent Saturday. She added, “Now, it’s great to explore our forests and the benefits of nature.”

Children living nearby look at the park’s play potential with longing, but most don’t venture inside, instead playing hide-and-seek and gliding (a combination of hopscotch and hopscotch) jump rope) on the sandy alleys leading to the park. Teens and young adults brave enough to go inside risk being detained by patrolling rangers like Lieutenant Aman.

Many people still think it is worth it. They hide at the edge of the woods to smoke marijuana, or set traps to catch guinea fowl, which they sell to local restaurants. They pick up guava and berries, or banana leaves to serve fermented cassava.

“It belongs to us too,” said Ahmed Akhadri, 23, who said his father once gave him a turtle from a safari in the park.

But some actions by people living near the park are even more damaging to the environment: Residents cut trees for firewood, and dozens of men wash their clothes in a pond connected to the forest, polluting a number its springs with soap and dye.

However, local residents are not the only ones degrading the park. Authorities are also responsible. A high-voltage power line built decades ago cut off the northeastern portion of the park, and mechanics settled in the cleared area below. Beside the newly erected wall, a 20-meter wide strip of forest was recently razed to make way.

Nahounou Daleba, an activist for JVE Côte d’IvoireAn environmental protection group based in Abidjan, says authorities are eroding the park without acknowledging the impact of their own actions on its biodiversity.

“We can’t even plant a single seed in the forest,” he said, “but they just destroyed parts of it without accountability.”

On a hill overlooking the woods one recent afternoon, Lieutenant Aman parked his motorbike and swept through the park, spotting a woman illegally picking leaves at its edge. His gaze shifted to two children dumping waste into a stream that was entering the forest.

“We can’t stop people from interacting with the forest,” he said. Lieutenant Aman included himself in that statement: He fixed his car at the scrap yard in the park.

Mr. Camara, a mechanic and single father of a 16-year-old boy, said he was ready to leave if given the opportunity to move. He said reforestation of the park is one of his dreams. But he added, “Right now we’re focusing on a way of life.”

Loucoumane Coulibaly contribution report.

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