- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 29, 2002

EHOTILES ISLANDS PARK, Ivory Coast What began as a few fluttering flecks of black in the sky soon turned into a solid cloud of thousands.

It was sunset, and the millions of bats that had spent the day sleeping in the trees of this wildlife sanctuary in southeast Ivory Coast were starting their nocturnal insect hunt.

"They taste great with rice and eggplant sauce," said Ahoua Nogbou, 36, a fisherman and farmer who lives in a village near the park. "But we've stopped hunting the bats. They're protected."

As recently as two years ago, it didn't matter that the bats, antelopes, manatees and other wildlife inhabiting these islands were protected. The nearby villagers were notorious for stealing into the park to hunt, farm or gather wood illegally. But today, this little corner of West Africa is demonstrating that often the most effective aid efforts are not the ones that make the biggest headlines.

Development projects that are taken on with patience, rely on significant input from people who live nearby and stress an educational element have the best chance to create a lasting effect.

At this island park, such efforts are saving the environment, as well.

"We'll make money selling chickens now," Mr. Nogbou said, turning his attention to the 130 clucking fowl that he and his fellow villagers are raising in a project coordinated with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). "We don't need the bats anymore."

Ehotiles Island Park, created in 1974, had a difficult first quarter-century. A cluster of six islands in the Ivory Coast's Aby Lagoon, the site was a principal source of food and income for most of the villages along the lagoon's shore.

"People used to climb into their canoes early in the morning, saying they were going fishing in the lagoon," Mr. Nogbou said. "But they'd spend all day in the park, killing antelope or filling burlap sacks with bats. When they returned at night, they'd have enough to feed their families and sell some, too."

The hunters could get about $50 for a bag of 100 bats, villagers say. A good-size antelope harder to catch could fetch even more. These are hefty sums in Ivory Coast, where the average annual income is below $700 per capita.

Poaching and illegal farming in protected areas are problems that plague much of the developing world.

"It's not a problem found only in Ivory Coast or even Africa," said Jean Not, an environmental specialist at the West Africa office of the WWF. "You find the same thing in Brazil and in other parts of South America, Australia and Asia."

In April 2000, the WWF began working with villagers living near the Ehotiles islands. The goal was twofold: Find ways to keep people out of the park while developing alternative methods for them to make ends meet.

"We spent a lot of time talking with villagers, listening to their needs," said Jules Sezan, WWF program coordinator for the park. "The ideas for solutions came from the villagers themselves."

Instead of preaching the importance of saving the environment, Mr. Sezan told residents about potential projects that could help put food on their tables. The hope was that those who once stole from the park for a living no longer would have to.

"We spend a full year educating the villagers about how these projects should work," said Mr. Sezan. "It's the only way to do it."

The results have been as promising as they have been inexpensive to attain.

The 11 villages near the Ehotiles islands were offered start-up grants of about $12,000 apiece, provided by the Ivorian government and a British development agency, Mr. Sezan said. Each village also was required to contribute about $400, either in money or in work hours.

Most villages used the money to start cooperative farms or build structures to raise animals.

In Akounougbe, a community of 2,000 people on the lagoon, Gilbert Affoumin put on his rubber work boots, grabbed a broom and stepped into a pen of squealing piglets.

The newly constructed piggery consists of six concrete rooms covered by a thatch roof.

"Some people in the village used to try raising animals on their own," Mr. Affoumin said, looking around at some of the 26 pigs the village bought with the start-up money. "But we've never had anything as modern as this."

Part of the success of the project is that residents of the villages around the island park are confident their new enterprises will be sustainable, will pay for community improvements and will help protect the park.

Elsewhere in Ivory Coast, the struggle between farmers and hunters and the environment has consumed millions of acres of rain forest, killed untold numbers of protected animals and provoked deadly clashes with forestry officials. Nowhere are the problems more acute than in the country's national parks.

For years, villagers have been encroaching on Comoe National Park, in northern Ivory Coast, and Tai National Park, near the western border with Liberia, to hunt and farm. Comoe is the largest park in West Africa, and Tai is home to some of the region's most important virgin rain forests.

This year, close to the Ivory Coast capital, Yamoussoukro, villagers near Abokouamekro Wildlife Reserve forced its closure by wrecking park stations, killing animals and chasing away rangers. The people were angry because the reserve was off-limits to them, and the government had failed to build schools and improve infrastructure despite promises made when the reserve was created.

In December, the problem came to a head at Marahoue National Park in the center of the country.

Officers visited several small villages near the western edge of the park to enforce a no-farming law. A disagreement got out of hand at one village, where two residents were killed and four officers were hurt.

"This is a battle against poverty," said Koffi Boussou, director general of the Ministry of Water and Forests. "There is plenty of land in the country to farm. They go into the rain forest because the cocoa grows faster there."

Ivory Coast is the world's No. 1 exporter of cocoa. But the rich topsoil of the rain forest, where the crop often is planted, is thin, and uprooting the natural growth to plant cocoa robs the soil of nutrients.

"We've given away tree seedlings, and they've planted them in many areas," Mr. Boussou said. "And we want to create hunting zones and establish a system of permits. But we lack the money to reach everyone. We have the will, but we must have the financial support as well."

Concentrating on sustainable micro-business projects near Ehotiles Islands Park has had the added benefit of improving the environmental awareness of villagers.

"We saw that the rains were less than before," said Elengan Kodia, a resident of Essouma, another village on the lagoon. "And it's because there are no more trees. Maybe leaving the park alone will bring us more rain. And maybe the fish and animals will come back too."

"Before, many of the villagers just fished or hunted," Mr. Sezan said. He added that similar projects in other parks are planned, and "now they know there are other ways to make money."

In Akounougbe, Mr. Affoumin said the village hopes to use its profits from selling pigs to expand into raising chickens and fish and growing bananas and rice. "Then we'll really start making money," he said. "And maybe we can build a primary school and a health center.

"We've learned a lot, and we're confident we can keep the pig business going for a long time," he said, smiling at the sounds of snorts coming from the pen.

Mr. Affoumin walked around to the back of the building, pointing out other structural improvements that would be made soon.

"But it's not the building that's most important," he said. "It's the education."

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