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Ivory Coast Cocoa Growers Find Plentiful Harvest Stymied by War - 2002-10-15


The spreading rebel conflict in Ivory Coast has reached the country's rich cocoa-growing areas over the past few days, posing what observers say is a major threat to cocoa production, the backbone of Ivory Coast's economy.

Farmers in Bonon say they were expecting this year's cocoa harvest to be the best in recent memory. Rainfall, they say, has been good and prices are high. After collapsing over the past decade, world prices for cocoa beans were rising even before hostilities broke out in Ivory Coast, which produces just over 40 percent of the world's cocoa.

News of fighting between loyalist troops and rebels in nearby Daloa prompted banks to close and townspeople to flee. Also fleeing were laborers who had been preparing to work on the main harvest that is due to begin at the end of this month.

Most of those fleeing were immigrant workers from Burkina Faso, who have faced harassment by citizens and security forces after the government-sponsored media accused their country of supporting rebels.

At a bar hidden off the main road, cocoa growers gathered to drink beer and express their despair. Lazare Bi Ohou is a farmer and local delegate of Ivory Coast's cocoa producers' association.

He said that not only can he not harvest, but he cannot transport the cocoa to the port because of the fighting. He said exporters who work with him have started to tell him they will not pay for the shipments in advance because they are not sure they will get their deliveries. This, he says, is why he is worried. Mr. Bi Ohou also says that with banks closed, he has not been able to get cash to pay workers and creditors, something that is putting further strain on people in the town.

Farmers and townspeople worry that government forces may be not be willing or able to stand up to the rebels if and when they come.

Within hours of hearing that fighting had started in Daloa late Saturday, paramilitary police officers in Bonon and other nearby towns took off their uniforms and abandoned the checkpoints that were expected to protect the town.

Without police or military around to protect the region east of Daloa, this farmer in Bonon said he can only hope that the rebels will leave him alone.

He said he hopes the rebels will at least allow him to work. He said he needs to be able to continue farming his cocoa and coffee if he is going to feed his family.

As the world's top producer of cocoa and one of Africa's largest producers of coffee, Ivory Coast depends almost entirely on agricultural exports. About 68 percent of its work force is employed in the agricultural sector.

This dependence has caused alarm among some local economists who fear a continuation of fighting may lead to an economic collapse and widespread unemployment.

On Monday, false reports that rebels were approaching San Pedro, Ivory Coast's second largest port, prompted banks in the city to close their doors halting operations at the docks.

At the main port in Abidjan, authorities have barred the unloading of containers after port officials said they were no longer able to move cargo to and from the conflict areas.

Among the cocoa farmers in Bonon, there is disappointment over what they perceive is the imminent failure of what was by all expectations set to be a good harvest. Lazare Bi Ohou of the cocoa growers' cooperative said he finds the situation ironic and tragic. The rainfall has been plenty, he says, and the harvest looks like it will be good, so he says he is not worried in that regard. He says the only enemy is these war conditions that are approaching.

The conflict has helped push cocoa prices up to a near-17-year high.

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