West Africa Profile

Forest Conversion for Commercial Agriculture and Associated Exports

Cocoa production has been a primary driver of deforestation in West Africa, where nearly all production is destined for export (Brack 2013). In Ghana, for example, cocoa has been the major driver of land use change in the country’s high forest zone for over a century, and new full-sun varieties have accelerated the pace of deforestation. In total, agriculture is estimated to be responsible for half of all deforestation (Forestry Commission Ghana 2010). In neighboring Côte d’Ivoire (the world’s largest cocoa producer), agricultural expansion, especially for cash crops of cocoa, rubber, and palm oil, is acknowledged by the government to be the most important driver of deforestation (MINESUDD 2013). Agricultural expansion (including pasture) is the dominant driver of deforestation in Nigeria, though most is for subsistence needs (Federal Republic of Nigeria 2014).

Illegalities in Conversion

Weak law enforcement and civil strife have led to widespread illegal conversion of protected forests for production of cocoa and coffee in Côte d’Ivoire during the last 15 years. In some cases, corrupt officials have been directly involved in this process (IRIN News 2013). There is also a long history of widespread illegality in the conversion of forest reserve areas for cocoa production in Ghana, the region’s second largest primary cocoa producer (England 1993).

Breaches of regulations have also been commonly documented in other countries in the region. In recent years, examples have emerged of illegalities relating to development of oil palm plantations. Three large oil palm companies have in recent years obtained rights to 830,000 ha of land in Liberia for the development of plantations. Though each company has only cleared and planted a relatively small area so far, they have all already proved controversial. Malaysian palm oil giant Sime Darby was fined $50,000 by the Liberian Environmental Protection Agency in 2011 for breaching the terms and conditions of its Environmental Permit during plantation development (AllAfrica 2011). An independent assessment of the operations of the largest company, Golden Veroleum, published in March 2013, found that in multiple places the company had breached the terms of its Environmental Permit by converting forests along riverbanks (TFT 2013). Serious conflicts with local communities have also arisen in all three companies’ concessions.

In Nigeria, a local NGO has claimed that portions of the land granted for development of the largest new oil palm plantation overlap with Cross River National Park and the Ekinta Forest Reserve, and that Nigerian legislation was breached in the issuance of rights over these areas, because they were never formally degazetted as required (Rainforest Resource & Development Centre 2013). The same NGO also alleged that several thousand hectares were illegally cleared for the new plantation without an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) having first been produced. While a legal opinion sought by RSPO concluded that the company had operated legally, NGOs dispute this finding. For example, environmental permits had been issued by the Cross River State Ministry of Environment in lieu of an approved EIA, but the NGOs claim that Nigeria’s federal EIA law does not mandate the issuance of such permits by states (FoE &ERAN 2015).


Brack, Duncan. 2013. “Ending Global Deforestation: Policy Options for Consumer Countries.” Chatham House, London, and Forest Trends, Washington,

Forestry Commission Ghana. 2010. REDD+ Readiness Preparation Proposal (R-PP), December.

Ministry for the Environment, Urban Sanitation and Sustainable Development (MINESUDD), Côte d’Ivoire. 2013. REDD+ Readiness Preparation Proposal (R-PP), November.

Federal Republic of Nigeria. 2014. REDD+ Readiness Preparation Proposal (R-PP), June.

IRIN News. 2013. “Land Disputes Gnaw at Côte d’Ivoire’s Forests.” IRIN News, November 25.

England, Philippa. 1993. “Forest Protection and the Rights of Cocoa Farmers in Western Ghana.” Journal of African Law 37(2): 164-176. doi: 10.1017/S0021855300011220

AllAfrica. 2011. “Sime Darby Company Fined U.S. $50,000.” AllAfrica, October 7.

RSPO. 2014. Complaint on Equatorial Palm Oil PLC, October 4.

TFT. 2013. “Independent Assessment of Free Prior & Informed Consent Process, Golden Veroleum (Liberia) Inc.”

Rainforest Resource & Development Centre. 2013. “Issues Pertaining to Obasanjor Farms which is being Turnover to Wilmar.” Letter to RSPO grievance panel, February 6.

Friends of the Earth US & Environmental Rights Action Nigeria. 2015. ‘Exploitation and Empty Promises: Wilmar’s Nigerian land grab’.



This summary was last updated in September 2016. For more recent information, please see individual news stories.