Gold, guns, gangs: on patrol with the elite unit saving Ivorian forests | Global development

About an hour before dawn, Lt Mahi Landry and his team of rangers find the illegal gold mine they were looking for deep in the Téné forest in south-central Côte d’Ivoire.

It rained heavily for most of the night and the only light came from the beams of a few torches. The team, accompanied by the Guardian, must dodge the fallen branches, taking care not to fall into holes dug in the ground. Packets of cigarettes, empty liquor bottles and a few shoes litter the forest floor.

Two rangers begin to discover a pit that has been sealed with pieces of wood covered in materials and sand. They throw a stone into the hole and it takes about three seconds to hit the bottom. “It’s deep, probably about 25 meters,” Landry said. “It would have taken about two to three weeks to dig.”

Landry is the head of the Forest Control Service, an elite 10-man unit whose mission is to defend the 234 classified forests of Côte d’Ivoire against gold panners, loggers and illegal cocoa producers, and to safeguard the reforestation efforts.

A mine is discovered in the forest of Téné, in Côte d’Ivoire. Photograph: Sylla Cheick/The Guardian

Côte d’Ivoire has lost around 80% of its forests in 60 years. Between 2001 and 2021, the country lost 3.46 million hectares (8.5 million acres), a decrease of 23%, mainly due to intensive cocoa farming and oil extraction. gold. A 2019 Global Forest Watch report found that Côte d’Ivoire had the second-highest percentage increase in deforestation in the world between 2017 and 2018. About 70% of tree felling was in protected areas.

Faced with this dramatic loss, Côte d’Ivoire acted. In 2019, it adopted a code to preserve, rehabilitate and expand the country’s forests. Anyone caught illegally logging protected areas can now be fined or jailed for up to five years.

“Gold mining in protected forests has been a problem for a long time, but recently the situation has worsened,” says Landry, whose unit was created after the political crisis of 2010-2011, when the forests were heavily logged.

The last 10 years have been “a real struggle, but I can say that we have secured 75 to 80% of our classified forests”, he says. “We have many forests without any infiltration and many where they are at a minimum. As for where we are now compared to [before]I am satisfied with the situation.

The prospect of finding gold attracts diggers from neighboring Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea. They come to flee the conflicts in their country of origin and seek their fortune in dozens of small unlicensed mines. Some illegal miners will hire traditional hunters, the dreaded Dozos, to protect their mines. Many people in Ivory Coast see them as possessing special power, wisdom and strength.

Lt Mahi Landry: “The last 10 years have been a real struggle, but I can say that we have secured 75 to 80% of our forests.
Lt Mahi Landry: “The last 10 years have been a real struggle, but I can say that we have secured 75 to 80% of our forests. Photograph: Sylla Cheick/The Guardian

Landry explains that two grams of gold can fetch up to 25,000 CFA francs (£33). “Imagine what you can get from a kilo. It’s a much faster way to make money than farming.

During an operation in the Téné forest last year, 21 gold diggers were arrested and their equipment confiscated. Landry’s unit investigates gold smuggling rings.

The impact on the environment is deleterious. Ore mining displaces huge piles of dirt and rock, and trees are felled in the process. Mercury and cyanide used to extract gold pollute water and land, endangering the health of people and ecosystems. The river that runs through the Téné forest is a vital source of water for the country’s largest tree nursery, where millions of trees are grown for reforestation efforts.

Moreover, as Pierre d’Herbès, an independent defense and security expert specializing in West Africa, explains, the search for gold exacerbates social problems. “There is the issue of land degradation … but also the competition around who controls the mines and the land that proves suitable for exploitation. This often leads to inter-communal conflict,” he says.

Child labor and slavery are found in clandestine gold mining operations, as are prostitution, drugs, alcohol and firearms. In some cases, the miners have ties to jihadists, particularly in Mali and Burkina Faso, earning money for their terror campaigns back home, d’Herbès says.

Holes were dug in the ground around the Téné forest.
View of a mine in the Téné forest. Photograph: Sylla Cheick/The Guardian

As clandestine gold mining operations become more sophisticated and organized, Landry’s team has had to adapt. They use networks of informants who provide them with information and drones to spot illegal activity before planning an operation. They carry weapons, but only to defend themselves, he says. Moving silently on foot in the middle of the night and carrying little to be able to move quickly, the strategy is to take people by surprise, ambushing diggers early in the morning after working through the night, so that resistance is minimum.

At the Téné gold mine, Landry and his team discuss next steps. There were no arrests tonight; the heavy rain kept the diggers away. They are talking about setting up a surveillance operation to monitor what is going on and are considering filling in the mines which will hamper the progress of the gold diggers.

As they walk towards where they left the vehicles, five kilometers away at the entrance to the forest, there is the sound of crushers in the distance. They are almost certainly breaking up the rocks containing gold collected earlier at Téné. “They are located outside the forest boundary,” Landry explains. “There is nothing we can do.”

The government of Côte d’Ivoire paid for the Guardian’s accommodation.

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