In Ivory Coast, a battle to save cocoa-ravaged forests

By Joe Bavier, Maytaal Angel and Ange Aboa

DJIGBADJI, Ivory Coast (Reuters) -This cocoa-growing settlement was all but destroyed last year by Ivorian forest agents, leaving farmers to rake through their beans amid broken concrete and other remnants.

“They set the whole village on fire,” said Alexis Kouassi Akpoue, describing the day in January 2020 when the agents raided the settlement in Rapides Grah, a protected forest, where he had illicitly planted cocoa with thousands of other farmers. “The next morning at 5 o’clock they sent in the bulldozers.”

Yet when Reuters returned to the village a year later, business was again thriving. Farmers dried and bagged beans among the demolished buildings as buyers hunted for quality cocoa, much of it destined for use in chocolate bars and candies made in Europe.

The government of Ivory Coast, the world’s top cocoa-growing country, has been cracking down on cultivators after decades of intensive and often illicit farming decimated its tropical forests. Leading chocolate and cocoa companies are meanwhile monitoring their own supply chains for illicitly grown cocoa.

But the conservation efforts are falling short, European Union officials say.

That’s one reason the bloc’s executive arm, the European Commission, proposed legislation on Wednesday that would compel companies to find and fix environmental and human rights risks in their international supply chains – or face penalties. Companies would be restricted from sourcing beans grown on land deforested after a certain date, which is to be set by the law.

“Voluntary initiatives by companies to stop deforestation have largely failed,” said EU Parliament member Delara Burkhardt. Though not finalized, the legislation is expected to pass in some form as soon as 2023.

Chocolate and cocoa companies say they support the new regulations but dispute that their efforts have failed. They told Reuters their supply chain monitoring systems, including GPS mapping, satellite surveillance and third-party certification, give them assurance that the beans they source do not come from the Rapides Grah forest or other illegal farming operations.

However, the sector’s leading cocoa certification body has acknowledged that thousands of farms in protected areas received its stamp of approval in error.

In addition, purchasing documents and interviews with farmers and farmer cooperatives suggest that co-ops serving some of the chocolate industry’s biggest players – including Nestle, Mars Inc, Cargill Inc and Touton S.A. – source at least a portion of their beans from protected forests.

Reuters did not trace specific shipments of illicitly farmed cocoa to the companies. In separate statements, Cargill, Mars and Nestle said they had not knowingly purchased illegally grown cocoa. Touton did not respond to Reuters’ requests for comment.

Tracing the origin of cocoa beans is extremely difficult, in part because co-ops regularly buy from growers who are not members. Ivory Coast’s Ministry of Water and Forests estimates 20% to 30% of the roughly 2 million tonnes of cocoa produced annually is grown illegally and that practically all those beans enter the global supply chain.

“We want that to stop,” said Water and Forests Minister Alain-Richard Donwahi.

The Ivorian government faults locals for the problem but contends multinational corporations continue to profit from deforestation and have a duty to help forests recover.


In 2017, Ivory Coast and neighboring Ghana, the world’s No. 2 cocoa producer, teamed up with dozens of companies under an initiative aimed at eliminating deforestation. A study by the University of Maryland found the two African countries reduced the rate of primary forest loss by over 50% in 2019 compared to the previous year.

Ivory Coast now aims to plant 3 billion trees on government-managed land over the next decade. Meanwhile, state forestry management company SODEFOR estimates some 1.3 million people are living illegally in protected forests, mostly farming cocoa.

Pilot-phase reforestation efforts, which include eliminating illegal settlements in the Rapides Grah forest, point to a tough road ahead for the government and farmers. Most growers are immigrants living below the United Nations poverty line of $1.90 a day.

Over the years, the 10,000 or so residents of Djigbadji – commonly known as Bandikro, or Bandit Town – chopped down the towering canopy. The 315,000-hectare forest is today covered in cocoa plantations, most of them illegal.

The proposed legislation by the EU Commission would prohibit companies that sell products in the EU from sourcing beans grown in officially protected forests like Rapides Grah, no matter when they were cleared.

Separately, under the Ivorian government’s plan to double the country’s forested area, farmers who help with reforestation can stay and maintain existing cocoa plantations for 10 to 15 years, until their trees die off.

“Listen, we have the national interest in mind,” Lt. Olivier Nogbo of SODEFOR, who is in charge of Rapides Grah’s northern half, told Reuters during an armed patrol last year, with his handful of agents dressed in camouflage and carrying AK47s.

“It’s not for 10,000 people that we’re going to allow the environment to be destroyed.”


During an initial visit to Bandikro weeks after the January 2020 raid, Reuters scoured the remains of half a dozen demolished co-op purchasing outposts that store cocoa. It found remnants of a thriving buying hub as well as possible indications of who was purchasing the illicit beans.

At one bulldozed outpost, Reuters found a receipt book along with the sign that once hung above the door, both bearing the name of the farmer cooperative SCAES COOP-CA.

SCAES is part of the in-house sustainability programs run by Cargill and Touton, two of the world’s largest agricultural commodities traders. The companies say the programs aim to ensure their practices do not harm people or the planet. Cargill sells SCAES’ cocoa to Nestle, according to Nestle’s supply-chain disclosures on its website.

Jean-Robert Gnanago, a SCAES director and head office employee at the co-op’s headquarters in Meagui, told Reuters the co-op sold cocoa to various industry majors, including around 5,000 tonnes a year to Cargill, but denied it purchased beans inside Rapides Grah.

“If someone used our sign somewhere, that’s possible,” Gnanago said. “But we aren’t aware of it.”

In a statement, the chairman of SCAES’s board of directors, Souleymane Coulibaly, said the co-op does not buy cocoa from protected land and that it stopped sourcing from buyers who operate near high-risk areas in 2015. The statement added that the cocoa purchase receipts Reuters discovered in Bandikro predate SCAES’s move out of high-risk areas.

Cargill and Nestle did not directly address Reuters inquiries about the SCAES receipt book and sign.

Many co-ops that once operated inside Bandikro have since the January 2020 raid simply moved their purchasing outposts just outside the Rapides Grah boundary, Reuters found. But “eighty percent of the product comes from here,” said Bandikro village leader Francis Bogui, referring to the protected forest.

Bandikro’s traditional chief Phillipe Ipou Kouadio told Reuters early this year he had personally sold 120 tonnes of cocoa to a co-op called SOCAGNIPI between October 2020 and January. Several other Bandikro farmers also told Reuters they sold beans to SOCAGNIPI.

SOCAGNIPI is listed as a supplier by U.S. confectionary giant Mars, maker of M&Ms and Snickers. The co-op participates in Mars’ in-house sustainability program.

In its statement to Reuters, Mars did not address questions about SOCAGNIPI. Employees at SOCAGNIPI’S main office, in an Ivory Coast town called Gnipi 2, declined to speak to Reuters.

The co-ops named in this article were audited by independent third parties such as UTZ, a Dutch nonprofit that certifies sustainable agriculture. Auditors’ labels indicate a product has been certified as free from human rights and environmental abuses such as deforestation and child labor.

UTZ used a subcontractor called Bureau Veritas to audit SCAES in 2019. Later that year, UTZ reprimanded Bureau Veritas for poor performance. In a statement to Reuters, Rainforest Alliance, which merged with UTZ in 2018, said the reason for the reprimand is confidential.

Bureau Veritas could not be reached for comment.

After a 2019 review discovered that nearly 5,000 of its certified farms in Ivory Coast were on protected land, UTZ suspended the expansion of its certification programs in Ghana and Ivory Coast, saying it wanted to focus on improving the quality of current certification.


Mars, Nestle and Cargill said they use GPS technology to map farms belonging to cooperatives with which they partner, making sure their boundaries don’t overlap with protected areas. Cargill said it monitors those farms via satellites that alert it in real time to forest loss.

In separate statements, Cargill and Nestle said they source beans from SCAES COOP-CA and that the co-op participates in their in-house sustainability programs. Cargill said audits of the co-op had not found evidence it buys from protected land.

Mars and Cargill both said they have yield estimates for farms belonging to co-ops in their sustainability programs. If yields are high compared to estimates, this can result in supply-chain audits.

Cargill and Nestle said the co-ops with which they partner also tag and bar-code the sacks of beans they get from individual farmers.

This “gives us greater assurance that beans come from known and mapped farms,” Cargill said.

(Reporting by Joe Bavier and Ange Aboa in Djigbadji, Ivory Coast, and Maytaal Angel in London. Editing by Julie Marquis and Alexandra Zavis)

Global COVID-19 infections up for first time in seven weeks, WHO says

ZURICH (Reuters) – The number of new coronavirus infections globally rose last week for the first time in seven weeks, the World Health Organization said on Monday.

“We need to have a stern warning for all of us: that this virus will rebound if we let it,” Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO technical lead for COVID-19, told a briefing. “And we cannot let it.”

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the rise in cases was “disappointing but not surprising” and urged countries not to relax measures to fight the disease.

It was too early for countries to rely solely on vaccination programs and abandon other measures, he said: “If countries rely solely on vaccines, they are making a mistake. Basic public health measures remain the foundation of the response.”

Tedros noted that Ghana and Ivory Coast became the first countries on Monday to begin vaccinating people with doses supplied by COVAX, the international program to provide vaccines for poor and middle-income countries.

But he also criticized rich countries for hoarding vaccine doses, saying that it was in everyone’s interest for vulnerable people to be protected around the world.

“It’s regrettable that some countries continue to prioritize vaccinating younger healthier adults at lower risk of diseases in their own populations, ahead of health workers and older people elsewhere,” Tedros said.

Mike Ryan, the WHO’s top emergency expert, said the global fight against the coronavirus was in a better state now than it was 10 weeks ago before the roll-outs of vaccines had begun. But it was too early to say the virus was coming under control.

“The issue is of us being in control of the virus and the virus being in control of us. And right now the virus is very much in control.”

(Reporting by John Revill, Vishwadha Chander, Manojna Maddipatla; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Alex Richardson, Dan Grebler and Giles Elgood)

Pandemic pace slows worldwide except for southeast Asia, eastern Mediterranean: WHO

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – The COVID-19 pandemic is still expanding, but the rise in cases and deaths has slowed globally, except for southeast Asia and the eastern Mediterranean regions, the World Health Organization (WHO) said.

In its latest epidemiological update, issued on Monday night, it said that the Americas remains the hardest-hit region, accounting for half of newly reported cases and 62% of the 39,240 deaths worldwide in the past week.

More than 23.65 million people have been reported to be infected by the coronavirus globally and 811,895​ have died, according to a Reuters tally on Tuesday.

“Over 1.7 million new COVID-19 cases and 39,000 new deaths were reported to WHO for the week ending 23 August, a 4% decrease in the number of cases and (a 12% decrease) in the number of deaths compared to the previous week,” the WHO said.

Southeast Asia, the second most affected region, reported a jump accounting for 28% of new cases and 15% of deaths, it said. India continues to report the majority of cases, but the virus is also spreading rapidly in Nepal.

In WHO’s eastern Mediterranean region, the number of reported cases rose by 4%, but the number of reported deaths has consistently dropped over the last six weeks, the WHO said. Lebanon, Tunisia and Jordan reported the highest increase in cases compared to the previous week.

The number of cases and deaths reported across Africa decreased by 8% and 11% respectively in the past week, “primarily due to a decrease in cases reported in Algeria, Kenya, Ghana, Senegal and South Africa”, it said.

“In the European region, the number of cases reported has consistently increased over the last three weeks,” it said. “However, only a slight decrease (1%) was reported in the most recent week, and the number of deaths have continued to decrease across the region.”

In WHO’s western Pacific region, the number of new cases dropped by 5%, driven by less spread in Japan, Australia, Singapore, China and Vietnam. South Korea reported an 180% jump in cases, “mainly due to an increase in cases associated with religious gatherings”.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Giles Elgood)

African churches boom in London’s backstreets

Members of the Eternal Sacred Order of Cherubim & Seraphim Church sing as they celebrate their annual Thanksgiving in Elephant and Castle, London, Britain, July 29, 2018. REUTERS/Simon Dawson

By Simon Dawson and William Schomberg

LONDON (Reuters) – On a cold, grey Sunday morning, in a street lined with shuttered builders’ yards and storage units, songs of prayer in the West African language of Yoruba ring out from a former warehouse that is now a church.

The congregation, almost entirely dressed in white robes, steadily grows to around 70 people as musicians playing drums, a keyboard and a guitar pick up the pace of the hymns. Some women prostrate themselves on the floor in prayer.

In the sparse formerly industrial building, its interior brightened by touches of gold paint, a speaker reminds the group of a list of banned activities — no smoking, no drinking of alcohol, no practicing of black magic.

In a street outside, a pastor flicks holy water over the car of a woman who wants a blessing to ward off the risk of accidents.

The busy scene at the Celestial Church of Christ is repeated at a half a dozen other African Christian temples on the same drab street and in the adjacent roads – one corner of the thriving African church community in south London.

Around 250 black majority churches are believed to operate in the borough of Southwark, where 16 percent of the population identifies as having African ethnicity.

Southwark represents the biggest concentration of African Christians in the world outside the continent with an estimated 20,000 congregants attending churches each Sunday, according to researchers at the University of Roehampton.

Reflecting the different waves of migration to Britain in the 20th Century, Caribbean churches began to appear in the late 1940s and 1950s as workers and their families arrived from Jamaica and other former British colonies.

African churches opened their doors in London from the 1960s, followed by a second wave in the 1980s.

Migrants, many of them from Nigeria and Ghana, sought to build communities and maintain cultural connections with their home countries by founding their own churches, often founded in private homes, schools and office spaces.

As the communities grew, the churches moved into bigger spaces in bingo halls, cinemas and warehouses, gathering congregations of up to 500 people where services are streamed online by volunteers with video cameras.

There is a striking contrast with the empty pews at many traditional Church of England churches where congregations have dwindled for years.

Female members of the Apostles Of Muchinjikwa Christian church prepare to enter into the sea during a mass Baptism (Jorodhani) on the beachfront on Southend-on-Sea, Britain, August 25, 2018. REUTERS/Simon Dawson

Female members of the Apostles Of Muchinjikwa Christian church prepare to enter into the sea during a mass Baptism (Jorodhani) on the beachfront on Southend-on-Sea, Britain, August 25, 2018. REUTERS/Simon Dawson

“We pray for this country,” said Abosede Ajibade, a 54-year-old Nigerian who moved to Britain in 2002 and works for an office maintenance company.

“People here brought Christianity to Africa but it doesn’t feel like they serve Jesus Christ anymore.”

Anyone traveling around south London on a Sunday morning will see worshippers, often dressed in dazzlingly colored African clothes, making their way to churches, each with their different styles of worship.

Hymns are sung only in African languages in some temples, or only in English at others. Some pastors take worshippers for full immersion baptisms in the cold of the English Channel. Others believe that when congregants suddenly start speaking in unknown languages it marks the presence of the Holy Spirit.

But the researchers from the University of Roehampton found things that many churches have in common, including a drive for professional advancement, a commitment to spend three hours or more at Sunday service and typically very loud worship.

“That is how we express our joy and gratitude to God,” Andrew Adeleke, a senior pastor at the House of Praise, one of the biggest African churches in Southwark, in a former theater.

Senior members of the Apostles Of Muchinjikwa Christian church baptise members during a mass Baptism (Jorodhani) on the beachfront on Southend-on-Sea, Britain, August 25, 2018. REUTERS/Simon Dawson

Senior members of the Apostles Of Muchinjikwa Christian church baptise members during a mass Baptism (Jorodhani) on the beachfront on Southend-on-Sea, Britain, August 25, 2018. REUTERS/Simon Dawson

“The church is not supposed to be a graveyard,” Adeleke said. “It is supposed to be a temple of celebration and worship and the beauty is to be able to express our love to God, even when things are not perfect in our lives.”

For some, the noise from amplified services is a problem, leading to complaints to local authorities from residents.

But many churches face bigger challenges than unhappy neighbors: Some provide food for people struggling to make ends meet, or work with young people at risk of recruitment by gangs.

Andrew Rogers, who led the University of Roehampton researchers, said pastors had to juggle retaining the churches’ African identity while appealing to children of first generation immigrants, many of whom have never lived outside Britain.

They typically have a more liberal world view which can be hard to reconcile with conservative Pentecostal teachings.

Rogers recalled speaking to one pastor who lamented he was unable to talk about religious miracles to his children.

“If the church doesn’t adapt, then they are going to leave and look elsewhere,” Rogers said.

Click on for a related photo essay.

(Writing by William Schomberg, Editing by William Maclean)