In Côte d’Ivoire, the NGO African Parks is eyeing the Comoé National Park

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A sign in Comoé National Park, in Bouna, in northeastern Côte d'Ivoire, in January 2019.

Is the South African nature conservation NGO African Parks about to gain a foothold in Côte d’Ivoire? Present in ten African countries, with nearly 15 million hectares of protected areas under its management, it now covets the Comoé National Park, an exceptional biosphere reserve of one million hectares in the North. east of Côte d’Ivoire, on the border with Burkina Faso and close to Ghana.

While no contract has yet been signed between African Parks and the Ivorian authorities, negotiations between the two parties have accelerated in recent months. And meetings took place: in June and November in Benin, where the NGO is already piloting the management of two parks, W and Pendjari, and in Côte d’Ivoire, where several natural sites could be entrusted to it.

“Discussions are underway with the government of Côte d’Ivoire concerning the possibility for African Parks to support the management of protected areas in one or more parks”, confirmed the South African entity to World Africa. In private, a signature between the two parties in the first half of 2022 is regularly mentioned.

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The partnership model envisaged, initially, would be that of a “delegated management” of the park for a period of ten years, during which the NGO would commit to preserving what is one of the greatest savannah areas of West Africa. The question of the reintroduction of certain species, in particular the black rhinoceros and the lion, was addressed. In a second step, explain several sources familiar with the discussions, it will be a question of developing tourist infrastructures.

“Once you have the material, that is to say the animals and the tracks, you can build lodges”, Explain one of these sources, Ivorian, who requested anonymity. “This is the model that worked in southern Africa and that we must replicate here: it is up to them to take care of conservation and to the private sector, preferably Ivorian, to step into the breach. “ In recent years, a few ecotourism sites have emerged in the parks and nature reserves of Côte d’Ivoire.

Elephant sanctuaries

In the maneuver behind this merger, the Minister of Water and Forests, Alain-Richard Donwahi. According to the texts, the country’s reserves and parks, like that of Comoé, are the responsibility of the Ministry of the Environment. Only “classified forests” – less “exceptional” sites – are under the supervision of the Ministry of Water and Forests. But in fact, it is Minister Donwahi who is at the front on this issue and who went to Benin in June to visit the Pendjari park, managed by African Parks. This visit coincided with that of Peter Fearnhead, the head of the NGO.

On this occasion, the minister said about what he saw at Pendjari that “This is the path we want to take in Côte d’Ivoire in the management of protected areas and forests”, wishing that “The experience could be repeated in Côte d’Ivoire”. Alain-Richard Donwahi would also consider delegating to the NGO the management of certain classified forests to transform them into elephant sanctuaries, whose population, largely poached for decades, has grown from 1,200 individuals in 2001 to around 300 in 2020. On its website, African Parks is pleased to have made the fight against poaching one of its main areas of expertise.

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Despite the efforts made in recent years by the authorities to curb the destruction of national biospheres, “The situation is not improving”, estimates an Ivorian expert who wishes to remain anonymous: “Our forests continue to disappear and biodiversity in these areas is severely affected. “ So what does it matter if the outsourcing of protected areas to a foreign entity sounds like an admission of failure for the authorities; recourse to this type of management, with non-state actors, “Is the solution to the evils we know and the only way to save what can still be saved”.

Still others praise the fundraising capacity of African Parks. “Behind them, there is the European Union and the development agencies, that reassures us about the use that will be made of the funds”, slips an economic operator who knows the tourism sector well.

Heavily armed environmental guards

Still, the tourism potential of Comoé seems in the short term seriously compromised by the security risks weighing on the area and worrying the Ivorian authorities as well as its international partners. Between June 2020 and June 2021, a series of attacks targeted Ivorian security forces in the area between the Burkinabe border and the Comoé park. Eighteen gendarmes and police were killed. They have not been claimed, but the authorities and experts suspect elements of the katiba Macina, Amadou Koufa, at the head of a group affiliated with the Support Group for Islam and Muslims (GSIM).

On the other side of the border, in Burkina Faso, more and more attacks have been recorded in recent months, raising fears of an expansion of armed groups towards Côte d’Ivoire. “The Comoé park is neither a strainer nor a refuge for Sahelian terrorist groups to this day”, tempers a notable from the north, while admitting that some members of these armed groups may occasionally “To hide there, to train there or to refuel there”.

Also read: Comoé Park, a porous border

In this context, would Côte d’Ivoire be tempted to outsource the security management of the park to African Parks? The NGO is used to operating in sensitive areas, such as Benin, where the Sahelian terrorist threat is growing. In the Central African Republic, Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), African Parks has been working for many years on sites where armed groups are rampant.

Its eco-guards have often undergone quasi-military training and are heavily armed, to the point that the firm has sometimes been accused of “militarizing” conservation. Critics that she challenges, claiming that faced with armed poachers, her rangers, who protect flora and fauna, must also be. At any rate, African Parks n’est “Absolutely not worried when we talk to him about the security situation in the north”, confides an Ivorian source concerned by the discussions with the NGO.

Fishermen, transhumants and artisanal miners

There is also the question of the fate of local communities in the event of takeover by African Parks. In addition to the fishermen and transhumants who, historically, regularly roam the Comoé park, another category, more problematic in the eyes of the NGO, has been venturing there for several years: the artisanal miners. On a model that ranges from very artisanal to semi-industrial, the latter work without a permit and destroy the grounds and forests of the park.

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“It’s a challenge for the NGO, says an African Parks alumnus. Because if it drives them out, these populations will come to swell the battalions of unemployed in an already poor region. “ According to him, the organization has “Learned a lot from her past mistakes, especially in the Central African Republic, where she came as a conqueror without worrying about local communities”. The fact remains that almost everywhere on the continent, conflicts are increasing in protected areas between “conservationists” and local populations, who complain of being dispossessed of their land.

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In Côte d’Ivoire, the NGO African Parks is eyeing the Comoé National Park