* Chocolate industry trying to improve environmental record
* Sustainable cocoa mixed up with beans from forest reserves
* Kicking farmers out of parks only temporary solution
* Forests in focus at World Cocoa Conference here next week
By Tim Cocks and Ange Aboa
DUEKOUE, Ivory Coast, April 19 (Reuters) - Faced with the prospect of losing all its forests, Ivory Coast has partnered with chocolate makers to try to halt the spread of cocoa plantations in protected national parks and reserves.
Ivory Coast, the world’s biggest cocoa producer, and major chocolate companies from Mars to Hershey to Barry Callebaut pledged last year to eliminate the production and sourcing of cocoa from protected forests.
Stamping out deforestation in the cocoa supply chain is just one of the commitments made by the world’s chocolate makers to make the industry more sustainable, along with finding ways to end child labour and boost farmers’ incomes.
If deforestation continues unabated, Ivory Coast risks losing all its forest cover by 2034, environmental campaigners say here. The country's rapidly disappearing forests are home to Western chimpanzees, classified as critically endangered since 2016, forest elephants and the rare pygmy hippopotamus.
Yet plans to end deforestation, a major threat to the long-term sustainability of the cocoa industry, face major hurdles.
Ivory Coast estimates 40 percent its cocoa comes from protected areas, providing livelihoods for hundreds of thousands of farmers and their families.
Ethical certification schemes and Ivory Coast’s laws have failed so far to stop forests being replaced by plantations while eco-friendly farming alternatives are typically difficult and costly to implement on a large scale.
Ivory Coast’s forests have been cut down to make way for agricultural products such as cocoa, palm oil and rubber for decades since the country’s independence from France in 1960.
The decimation of its national parks and forests since the turn of the century, however, has shocked researchers and led to the agreement here to end deforestation, which was signed at the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP23) in November.
A study here published in the journal Tropical Conservation Science in 2015 concluded that three-quarters of the land in five national parks and 18 forest reserves in Ivory Coast had been transformed for cocoa production.
In a 2017 Mighty Earth investigatihere, the director of Ivory Coast's Forest Reserve protection agency (Sodefor) estimated that 40 percent of the country's cocoa came from protected areas.
Almost half the 34,000-hectare Mont Peko National Park had been converted to cocoa by 2015, data from the environmental campaign group seen by Reuters shows. Marahoue National Park had lost 40 percent of its forest by the same year.
One contributing factor was the outbreak of civil war in Ivory Coast in 2002. The country was split for a decade between a rebel-held north and government-controlled south, with the forest regions in the west home to several armed groups.
Many park rangers and forest officials abandoned their posts, allowing warlords to move in and parcel off fertile forest land ideal for cocoa production to locals and immigrants alike, accelerating the deforestation.
Despite an end to the war in 2011, many of the lucrative fiefdoms carved out by former rebels remain in place.
Attractive world cocoa prices also encouraged farmers to move deeper into protected forests, helping Ivory Coast consolidate its position as the world’s biggest cocoa grower ahead of neighbouring Ghana.
The deforestation agreement was signed by Ivory Coast and Ghana along with 24 trading firms and chocolate makers, including Ferrero, Nestle, Lindt, Mondelez , Ritter Sport, Olam, Cargill.
A number of chocolate makers have committed separately to ensuring none of the beans they buy come from deforested areas by 2030.
The details of the plan have yet to be worked out but cocoa exporters are pinning hopes on global positioning system (GPS) mapping and relationships with cooperatives producing beans under certified schemes such as the Rainforest Alliance.
The idea is to trace all cocoa back to the farm where it was produced to prevent beans grown illegally in national parks and protected forests getting into the chocolate supply chain.
“We believe cooperatives are the best driver,” said Lionel Soulard, Africa director for Cargill, the region’s top exporter.
“It starts with ... GPS mapping the farmers, then making sure we can trace where (the cocoa) comes from and how we can prove it comes from there,” he told Reuters in an interview in Ivory Coast’s main city of Abidjan in February.
Ivory Coast’s government is due to publish up-to-date maps on forest cover and land use for different forests, along with data on cocoa farmers and communities that depend on the forests, by the end of the year.
The government has committed to beefing up surveillance of its forest reserves and applying sanctions for any new infringements by the middle of the year at the latest.
Ivory Coast is also coming up with a plan to restore its national forests and develop models for sustainable agro-forestry, a model that aims to restore forest cover while also allowing cocoa production to continue in protected areas.
“It’s a lot of work,” said Jean Claude Koya, a specialist on sustainable development for Ivory Coast’s government. “Some of these forests are so degraded there’s nothing we can do ... but some can still be saved.”
To halt deforestation, Ivory Coast may be forced to kick out hundreds of thousands of farmers out of forests and find alternative livelihoods for them. To prove the provenance of all cocoa, every smallholder’s farm would need to be mapped and every cocoa bean tracked from farm to port.
But tracing where cocoa comes from is tricky and the supply chain is prone to manipulation. Reports by Mighty Earth and others have shown that cocoa farmed in national parks still ends being sold by cooperatives to large cocoa traders.
Certification schemes such as Rainforest Alliance are meant to ensure cocoa sold under the brand has not come from illegal farming in protected forests, but sustainability experts acknowledge the schemes are not foolproof.
In Duekoue, a town in west Ivory Coast surrounded by cocoa farms and thick bush, members of three cooperatives told Reuters that it was common for beans grown in protected forests to be mixed with cocoa from farms considered sustainable.
“There are weaknesses in the system. Companies may think they’re buying certified cocoa but there’s some jiggery-pokery going on,” Edward Millard, Rainforest Alliance director for Africa and South Asia, told Reuters. “You do the best you can, but there are risks in any system of verification.”
Attempts by the government to crack down on illegal cocoa farming since a second civil war in 2011 defused the country’s political crisis have also foundered, partly because of inertia and corruption.
In the past, Ivorian authorities tended to respond to encroachment on protected areas by sending agents to forcibly remove farmers and destroy their crops.
Park authorities evicted thousands of illegal cocoa farmers from Mont Peko here in 2016, destroying cocoa trees and settlements. But no alternative livelihoods were on offer and many cocoa farmers returned afterwards.
Farmers interviewed by Reuters in the Scio reserve said agents from Sodefor often came to remove them from the forest, but always ended up accepting bribes instead to let them stay.
Ivory Coast’s Minister of Water and Forests Alain-Richard Donwahi declined a Reuters interview. A ministry spokeswoman did not respond to emailed questions.
Cargill’s head of cocoa sustainability Taco Terheijden thinks kicking farmers out of forests is undesirable unless alternative livelihoods can be found.
“If hundreds of thousands of farmers are to be expelled, I would not want to be responsible for ... a social disaster,” he said. “If we expel them out of their own source of cocoa, we need to make sure there’s an alternative available.”
Last year, the Ivorian government began drafting plans to legalise cocoa plantations in some forests and reserves, creating so-called protected agroforests where new trees are planted while farmers continue to grow cocoa.
Under this model, trees are threaded through crops, helping shade cocoa plants while also doing less harm to biodiversity and keeping the soil fertile for longer.
This strategy could help Ivory Coast curb deforestation without evicting farmers or slashing cocoa output, which provides more than half the country’s export revenue.
But Ivory Coast’s aim to roll out agro-forestry on 2 million hectares of protected reserves is likely to prove costly and neither the government nor the cocoa industry have yet committed to footing the bill.
“Rolling out agro-forestry in 6 million hectares, wow that’s expensive,” said Etelle Higonnet of conservation watchdog Mighty Earth, referring to the amount of land devoted to cocoa in West Africa as a whole. “You can’t ask farmers to foot the bill. The companies have to stump up”.
Additional reporting by Ana Ionova in London; editing by David Clarke