Poaching and illegal farming in protected areas is a problem that plagues much of the developing world.
"It's not a problem found only in Côte d'Ivoire or even Africa," said Jean Not, an environmental specialist at the West Africa regional office of the WWF. "You find the same thing in Brazil and in other parts of South America, Australia, and Asia."
The World Wildlife Fund began working with villagers living near the Ehotiles islands in April 2000. The goal was twofold: find ways to keep people out of the park while developing alternative methods for the locals to make ends meet.
"We spent a lot of time talking with villagers, listening to their needs," says Jules Sezan, the WWF program coordinator for the park. "The ideas for solutions came from the villagers themselves."
Instead of preaching to people about the importance of safeguarding the environment, Sezan presented them with the possibility of projects that, if maintained properly, could help put food on their tables. In so doing, the hope was that those who once stole from the park to make a living and feed their families would no longer need to.
"We spend a full year educating the villagers about how these projects should work," says Sezan. "It's the only way to do it."
The results so far are as promising as they have been inexpensive to attain.
The 11 targeted villages near the Ehotiles islands were offered start-up grants of about $12,000 apiece, money given by the Ivorian government and a British development agency, said Sezan. Each village was then required to contribute nearly $400 of its own, either in money or in work hours.
Most villages decided to use the money to start cooperative farms or build structures to raise animals.
In Akounougbe, a town of 2,000 people on the lagoon, Gilbert Affoumin proudly dons his rubber work boots, grabs a broom, and steps into a pen of squealing baby pigs.
"Some people in the village used to try raising animals on their own," said Affoumin, looking around at some of the 26 pigs the village bought with its grant money. The newly constructed pen consisted of six concrete rooms covered by a thatch roof. "But we've never had anything as modern as this."
It is no small feat that the residents of these villages around the Ehotiles Island Park are so optimistic that their new projects will be sustainable, will fund improvements for their communities, and will help protect the park at the same time.
Broad Environmental Destruction
Elsewhere in the country, the struggle between Ivorian farmers and hunters and their environment has consumed millions of acres of rain forest across the country, killed untold numbers of protected species of animals, and even sparked deadly clashes with forestry officials.
Nowhere are the problems more acute than in the country's national parks.
For years villagers have been encroaching on the territory of the Comoe National Park, in northern Côte d'Ivoire, and Tai National Park, near the western border with Liberia, to hunt and farm. Comoe is the largest park in West Africa, and Tai is home to some of the region's most important virgin rain forests.
And earlier this year near the capital Yamoussoukro, people living around Abokouamekro Wildlife Reserve forced its closure when they destroyed park stations, killed animals, and chased away rangers.
The villagers were angry not only because the reserve's land was off-limits to them, but also because the government had yet to build schools and improve infrastructurepromises made to them when the reserve was created.
In December of last year the problem came to a head at the Marahoue National Park, in the central part of the country.
Officers visited several small villages near the western edge of the park in an effort to enforce a no-farming law. A disagreement got out of hand in one of the villages, where two villagers were killed and four officers were hurt.
"This is a battle against poverty," said Koffi Boussou, Côte d'Ivoire's director general of the Ministry of Water and Forests. "There is plenty of land in the country to farm. They go into the rain forest because the cocoa grows faster there."
Côte d'Ivoire is the world's number one exporter of cocoa. But the rich rain forest topsoil where the crop is often planted is thin, and razing the natural growth to plant cocoa robs the soil of its nutrients.
"We've given away tree seedlings and they've planted them in many areas," said Boussou. "And we want to create hunting zones and establish a system of permits. But we lack the money to reach everyone. We have the will, but we must have the financial support as well."
Concentrating on "sustainable" micro-business projects near Ehotiles Islands Park has had the added benefit of improving environmental understanding on the part of the villagers.
"We saw that the rains were less than before," said Elengan Kodia, a resident of Essouma, another of the villages on the lagoon. "And it's because there are no more trees. Maybe leaving the park alone will bring us more rain. And maybe the fish and animals will come back too."
"Before, many of the villagers just fished or hunted," said project coordinator Sezan, who adds that there are plans to implement similar projects in other Ivorian parks. "Now they know there are other ways to make money."
Back in Akounougbe, Affoumin says the village hopes to use its profits from selling pigs to expand into raising chickens and fish and growing bananas and rice. "Then we'll really start making money," he said. "And maybe we can build a primary school and a health centre."
"We've learned a lot. And we're confident we can keep the pig business going for a long time," he said, admiring the snorts coming from the pen.
Affoumin walks around to the back of the concrete and thatch roofed building, pointing out other structural improvements that would soon be made.
"But it's not the building that's most important" to ensure the project's success, he said. "It's the education."
Copyright 2002 Inter Press Service. All rights reserved.
Related Stories about Africa from National Geographic:
Satellites Reveal How Rare Elephants Survive Desert (with photo gallery)
Gabon to Create Huge Park System for Wildlife (with photo gallery)
Congo Trekking With the World's Most Adventurous Explorer
Interview: Mike Fay Is on a Trek to Preserve Forest in Gabon
National Geographic Congo Trek