As has been the case with most Southern countries, Côte d’Ivoire inherited from the colonial period the role of exporter of tropical agricultural products. Apart from the ivory from which the country was named, prior to colonization Côte d’Ivoire had less to offer for trading compared to its eastern neighboring country Ghana, more endowed with gold. So, when the French arrived in the area in the 1880s they found it simple to use the vast fertile land of dense tropical forest for agricultural production.
France's colonial division of labour determined that Côte d'Ivoire was to supply French markets with cash crops, so colonial authorities introduced the cultivation of cacao by 1912. That was the beginning of the cacao story in the country. Late in the 1900s, France's trading organization in West Africa, with firms like the Compagnie Française d'Afrique Occidentale (the first French trading company in Côte d'Ivoire), laid the foundations for a capitalist farming development, including research stations in the south for the improvement of varieties of seeds and plant diseases treatment. This type of development did not change significantly after the country's independence in 1960.
Each year, Côte d'Ivoire produces about 40 percent of the world's cocoa for the production of chocolate. Cacao is planted on large scale plantations and by individual farmers, and it has affected heavily the tropical rainforests of the country. From 12 million hectares, the Ivorian humid tropical forest decreased to some 2.6 million hectares nowadays. The area of cacao plantations has increased from 500,000 hectares in 1975 to some 2 million hectares at present and have contributed to nearly 14% of the deforestation in the country.
Apart from the direct impact on forests, this type of agricultural development goes along with road building, which destroys additional kilometers of forest –directly by the road itself and indirectly through providing access to new forest areas for logging.
The impact of such a devastation has changed the ecosystem and affected flora and fauna as well as living conditions in rural areas. The use of agrochemicals has led to soil and water pollution. To make matters worse, the cultivation of different trees – cacao, coconut, rubber, coffee- implies the use of a different set of chemicals in the different plantations. Those chemicals affect the biological composition of the soil and have a negative impact on terrestrial and aquatic biodiversity. Chemicals in the soil are drained by rains into rivers and as a result rivers and streams now carry less fish than before. But above all is the visible desertification in the northern part of the country, that has altered the climate and the rainy season.
Besides destroying most of the country's rainforests –and exporting the resulting logs- the export-driven agriculture pattern has not prevented Côte d’Ivoire from ranking very low in the UN's Human Development Index (163th. in 180 countries rated); indeed, it is at the root of it.
Article based on information from: “Cocoa Trade in Cote d'Ivoire (COCOA)”, Trade and Environment Database (TED), http://www.american.edu/TED/cocoa.htm ; “Shade Grown Cacao”, Koffi N'Goran, http://nationalzoo.si.edu/ConservationAndScience/MigratoryBirds/