By Ange Aboa
ABIDJAN (Reuters) - In Mont Peko National Park, thousands of leafless Iroko and Samba trees tower over a sea of lush plantations like headstones, a testament to the heavy environmental cost Ivory Coast has paid for a dramatic rise in its cocoa production.
Ivorian officials say 99 percent of the park's 34,000 hectares have been destroyed by cocoa farmers taking advantage of the chaos wrought by a decade-long political crisis in the West African nation.
With the years of turmoil over, the government of President Alassane Ouattara is preparing to re-exert state authority by expelling tens of thousands of farmers from parks and reserves in an attempt to save the dwindling forests.
Mont Peko, with an illegal population of around 28,000, will prove the first test of the government's new policy. Evictions are slated for December and similar operations will follow in Ivory Coast's more than 200 parks and reserves.
"The role of a national park is not to produce cocoa," said Adama Tondossama, director of the OIPR, one of the government agencies charged with managing protected land. "Those people who are there are there illegally and we'll fight to get them out."
But as it works to roll back decades of environmental destruction, the government faces a dilemma: can it foster conservation while avoiding social unrest and preserving the country's position as the world's top cocoa grower?
Ivory Coast produced 1.2 million tonnes of cocoa in the 2000/01 season, a year before a failed coup attempt sparked a civil war that split the country in half.
In the recently ended 2014/15 season, it harvested a record crop of around 1.8 million tonnes, or some 40 percent of world supply.
Though no firm statistics exist, analysts attribute much of the rise to illegal farming in protected forests. Shutting those illegal plantations would lead to a fall in output, at least in the short-term, industry figures say.
At a time when the industry is seeking to tap potential new markets in Asia, any major drop in production from Ivory Coast could drive up the price of chocolate on shelves around the world, from Brussels to Beijing.
OUTPUT IN DANGER?
Ivory Coast's first President Felix Houphouet-Boigny set out from the start to build his country into an agricultural powerhouse.
From around 12 million hectares at independence in 1960, Ivory Coast's primary forest, once the largest in West Africa, has fallen to less than 2.5 million hectares, mainly due to expanding agriculture, according to European Union figures.
Available land for new plantations ran out long ago, and so farmers moved into parks and reserves, up to 60 percent of which have now been destroyed to plant cocoa.
Cocoa farmer Vincent Karsamba, 42, said he was not aware he was doing anything wrong when he bought 20 hectares inside Mont Peko in 2007, but he is hardly apologetic.
"Plantations outside the protected forests and parks are old and aren't as productive as here," he said, standing, machete in hand, next to a tree dripping with ripe, yellow cocoa pods.
The government abandoned a short-lived attempt to evict farmers from national parks in 2013. If the strategy is pushed through this time, output will undoubtedly be affected in the short term.
But Christophe Kouame, country director for the World Agroforestry Centre, points out that low yields on plantations outside the parks and reserves leave much room for improvement.
"We can ease the drop in the long-term by using new production techniques that we implement via grafting and agroforestry," he said.
To have a real impact such techniques must become commonplace, something that will take time and require the shared efforts and resources of the government, farmer cooperatives and the industry.
In the meantime, less cocoa production may not be a disaster.
"Is it really in Ivory Coast's interest to have such a dramatic rise in cocoa output year-on-year?" asked Ecobank soft commodities analyst Victoria Crandall.
Rapid growth in production has in recent years outpaced relatively stagnant demand, potentially setting the stage for a drop in world prices that could end up hurting Ivory Coast and its farmers.
"There's got to be a balance in the market at some point. They don't want to dump all that cocoa on the market, so it might be a good thing," she said.
"WE WILL SUFFER"
Regardless of whether the sector thrives or simply survives as Ivory Coast reclaims its forests, it is farmers like Sory Bourahima, who will likely lose out.
Having arrived from Burkina Faso in 1990, he carved an 18-hectare plantation out of the protected Gouin-Debe forest, where he lives with his two wives and 10 children.
Forestry authorities say up to 60 percent of the 100,000 hectare reserve is occupied by farmers. Together with their families, they number around 50,000 people.
Not long ago a forestry agent dropped by Bourahima's plantation and told him to stop planting cocoa trees and prepare to leave.
"We've invested so much for so many years. Our children grew up here ... If they chase us away, we will suffer," he said, as he sun-dried cocoa beans on the ground.
Ivory Coast's short-lived first attempt to clear the forests in 2013, beginning with the Niegre reserve, led to accusations of human rights abuses by security forces. Thousands were left to fend for themselves when bulldozers leveled their homes.
This time around the authorities have pledged to do things differently.
"We want to avoid what happened in Niegre," said Kpolo Ouattara, the OIPR agent responsible for Mont Peko. "The government gave two extra years to the Mont Peko infiltrators to prepare. But their departure is not negotiable."
The government has offered to transport around 8,000 park inhabitants who have expressed a desire to return home to neighboring Burkina Faso. Others have told officials they plan to rejoin family members farming legally elsewhere in Ivory Coast or abandon cocoa for new lines of work.
Ivorian authorities have said they will offer resettlement packages. But the residents of Mont Peko say they still do not know how much help they will get. Thousands, like Lamine Ouedraogo, say they have nowhere to go.
"Cocoa is all we know. We don't have diplomas or another trade," he said. "So if we leave here, we don't know what we'll do."
(Writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Anna Willard)