The United Nations estimated last month that as many as 53,000 people had been driven from the park
By Joe Bavier
ABIDJAN, Sept 16 (Reuters) - Rights groups have accused Ivory Coast authorities of failing to provide a minimum level of support when they evicted tens of thousands of illegal cocoa farmers from a national park, leaving them vulnerable and putting pressure on local communities.
The government rejected the criticism on Friday.
Park authorities and security forces started evicting the farmers and their families in July from the 34,000-hectare Mont Peko National Park as part of a nationwide operation to save rapidly disappearing forests.
The United Nations estimated last month that as many as 53,000 people had been driven from the park.
"The evacuation of Mont Peko resembles a forced expulsion carried out without sufficient regard for the rights of populations inside it and in surrounding areas," Ivorian rights group RAIDH's coordinator Bamba Sindou said.
Government spokesman Bruno Kone rejected the criticism, saying the park's inhabitants had been repeatedly told over several years to prepare to leave.
"The government is doing everything it can," he said. "All this time was intended to allow the population to leave with the least possible inconvenience."
Ivory Coast is the world's leading cocoa producer, and exports make up about 15 percent of GDP. But it lost 80 percent of its virgin forest between independence from France in 1960 and 2010, according to the European Union, most of it due to agriculture.
Hundreds of thousands of illegal farmers invaded its national parks and forest reserves during a decade of political turmoil that ended in a 2011 civil war.
The government has pledging to restore forests on 20 percent of its national territory from less than 12 percent today.
New York-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement that, while farmers were notified of the impending evictions, the authorities failed to ensure that villages bordering Mont Peko could shelter and feed them.
The result has been a crush on resources - including food, health and sanitation - in an area that was already a hotbed of tensions left over from years of land conflicts and civil war.
"International law protects anyone who occupies land from forced evictions that either do not provide adequate notice or do not respect the dignity and rights of those affected, regardless of whether they occupy the land legally," HRW said.
(Editing by Louise Ireland)
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