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Ivory Coast Cocoa Unions Seek Money, Reform - 2004-08-16

Ivory Coast cocoa unions are threatening to shut down the main city, Abidjan, if their demands for compensation money and reform are not met.

Ivory Coast remains the world's leading cocoa producer, but civil war, falling prices and the semi-privatization of the sector have cut down earnings for growers of the fragrant bean.

Last week, cocoa union leaders blocked traffic onto the two main bridges in Abidjan, creating massive traffic jams, and held demonstrations in front of economic government agencies.

They now say that if their demands are not quickly met they will bring in 60,000 angry cocoa planters to the city to protest.

The leader of the rallies and the president of the main independent producers' union, Stephane Boa Amoacon, says the liberalization of the sector since President Laurent Gbagbo took power in disputed elections in 2000 has been what he calls "savage."

Semi-private agencies, with financial independence but politically appointed leaders, have replaced state agencies to regulate the sector. A system whereby growers were ensured a minimum yearly price for their cocoa from buyers and exporters has been abandoned.

Instead, planters have been paying a fluctuating charge on each kilogram of cocoa sold to a cooperative-type body called the regulation fund for coffee and cocoa. It has been about two cents this year, but more in previous years when cocoa prices were higher.

But they say the agency, instead of compensating them when prices on the ground fall as is happening now, has been investing in projects that unions never approved.

Another union leader, Guillaume Tano, says planters are being robbed. Mr. Tano says they are collectively owed about $80 million.

This year, growers are getting as little as 40 cents for each kilogram of cocoa sold to buyers and exporters, compared to more than $1 last year.

They are threatening to start a third port in Ivory Coast, apart from the existing ones in Abidjan and San Pedro, so they can control the lucrative sector themselves.

Another union, representing planters victimized by the two-year civil war, has demanded about three-million dollars promised by President Gbagbo, but never delivered. The union also held protests last week and vowed to intensify them.

Government officials, interviewed for this report, refused to comment, saying they were involved in negotiations with the unions to sort out the problems.

About six million people rely directly or indirectly on cocoa revenues in Ivory Coast, which accounts for about 40 percent of world cocoa exports.