Africa, Environment, Headlines

COTE D’IVOIRE-ENVIRONMENT: Saving a Botanical Landmark

Melvis Dzisah

BINGERVILLE, Cote d'Ivoire, Jul 26 1996 (IPS) - This small town perched on a hilltop overlooking a lagoon is a historical landmark.

It is here that the French colonial administration fled in 1900 after a yellow fever outbreak chased them away from their first settlement, the Atlantic Coast town of Grand Bassam, where they had been since 1842.

But when Ivoirian President Henri Konan Bedie went there this week, it was not to see the remnants of the colonial buildings that attract many of the tourists who visit Cote d’Ivoire each year. He was more concerned about environmental degradation.

Bingerville, which is about 20 minutes drive by car from Abidjan, has had more than its share of ecological damage. The virgin forest that covered the hillside below it has long been cleared and replaced by oil palm plantations just as many of the colonial buildings in the town have been torn down to make way for moderns ones.

“My presence here,” declared the 63-year-old president, “is to signal to all Ivoirians that our environment, which is our source of life and happiness, is in danger … Unless we put our hands together to save what is left of our forests and wildlife, we shall before long become victims of our own abuse of the environment.”

Bedie went to Bingerville to launch a national reforestation programme whose them is ‘One citizen, one tree’ and, in particular, a related project to save a collection of trees and plants that used to be the pride of Cote d’Ivoire.

Bingerville hosts the country’s oldest botanical garden, created at the start of this century.

Historians say that the lush tropical vegetation which the French met when they arrived in Bingerville encouraged them to create the 55-ha garden where, according to early 20th century botanical magazines, more than 1,000 species of tropical plants could be found.

The garden is still there, but those who knew it in its heyday would have been disappointed had they been there with the Ivoirian president on Jul. 23 to see what was left of it.

Years of neglect have devastated the once beautiful garden. Most of its plants have disappeared, while those that have remained receive little attention.

“Our botanical garden is now in an advanced stage of deterioration,” said Bingerville mayor Jeanne Batlo. “Unless something is done very soon to save it, it will disappear totally within few years.”

She said that 13 years ago, 117 workers were employed to take care of the garden, “but this number has been reduced to 23 due to lack of resources to pay them, which explains the rate of deterioration of the plant life in recent years.”

The Bingerville Botanical Garden may still be saved. Konan Bedie’s visit ended with an announcement that his government would spend the equivalent of about 2.6 million U.S. dollars to rehabilitate it.

“We are reserving 17 ha of land under the programme as a botanical zone, a real botanical zone in which we would plant all the plant species which already exist in the garden and others which are found outside it,” said Cisse Abou Dramane of the Public Works Department.

He said the rehabilitation programme would also include the construction of a children’s playground, a restaurant and a 300- seat sports complex in the garden.

“We need all hands on deck to save our botanical garden and restore it to its former position as a paradise of wild plant life,” Bedie said after planting a tree in the garden to mark the start of the rehabilitation project.

The degradation of the Bingerville Botanic Garden is symptomatic of the fate of Cote d’Ivoire’s plants and trees over the years.

According to Agriculture and Animal Resources Minister Lambert Kouassi Konan, at the beginning of this century Cote d’Ivoire had 16 million ha of forests. Today it has under eight million.

“Timber was our first exportable resource before cocoa, coffee and pineapples,” he explained. “The rate of exploitation rose from 900 sq. metres (a year) at the start of the century to five million m2 by 1973. Today, it has stabilised at 2.5 million m2 annually.”

Efforts by Cote d’Ivoire’s Forest Protection Council (SODEFOR) to protect forests and establish a balance between the use of forest resources and reforestation have met with some success, but the degradation has continued and even nature reserves have not escaped the axes and saws of illegal loggers and farmers.

“Today, excessive pressure by timber companies and illegal agricultural practices has become so high that even the 4.7 million hectares of national forest reserves are under threat from all sides,” lamented Kouassi Konan.

Since its establishment in 1966, SODEFOR has planted 100,000 ha of trees and rehabilitated another 1.5 million ha of classified forests, according to its managing director, Denis Konan.

“Our objective is to increase this to 300,000 ha of new plantations and rehabilitate 3.5 million ha. by the year 2015,” he said.

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