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Ivory Coast Cocoa Producers Plead for Help - 2004-08-26

Several thousand Ivory Coast cocoa producers have marched in Yamoussoukro, the administrative capital of Ivory Coast, demanding government help to deal with a sharp slump in revenue.

Representatives of cocoa planters rallied in the central city of Yamoussoukro Thursday, calling for dialogue with President Laurent Gbagbo.

They came in buses from throughout the western cocoa heartland. One was planter Raymond Opou.

"We have come here to manifest our disappointment. We are angry because we are the farmers, the cocoa farmers," he says.

Mr. Opou says liberalization was supposed to put mechanisms in place to ensure producers are compensated if prices they receive fall as they have since last year, but he says they have seen no compensation so far.

Mr. Opou also called on Henri Amouzou, the head of the main planters cooperative and union, to reconsider a decision announced last week to resign. Mr. Amouzou says he doesn't want to be responsible for the demise of producers.

Thursday, the planters made speeches and held up placards accusing the Gbagbo government of treason. When he took power following disputed elections in 2000, Mr. Gbagbo promised to "give the cocoa sector back to producers."

Liberalization of cocoa meant that state purchasing offices were replaced by semi-private agencies. Fixed prices cocoa farmers once received were abandoned. One newly created agency was supposed to compensate farmers if the prices went down, but instead unions say this agency used its funds for unwarranted overseas investments.

Another farmer, Jacques Konare, who came to the protest from a village near the hometown of Mr. Gbagbo, says he is disappointed he was not able to meet with the Ivorian leader Thursday, as he had hoped.

"The crisis is deep and we came here to resolve it with the president. But they tell us this morning that the president turned back to Abidjan so we are waiting for him to discuss with him. I'm very disappointed and all the producers are disappointed," Mr. Konare says.

Mr. Gbagbo had been vacationing in Yamoussoukro but unexpectedly went back to Abidjan Thursday to attend government functions. A farmer representative normally based in Abidjan, Robert Kadie, says the planters will wait for him to return.

The planters say they gave Mr. Gbagbo $17 million to support the war effort and that now that they need help, they are getting none in return.

World cocoa prices have actually gone up since before Ivory Coast's civil war, but the planters say it is the profit margins of exporters that have increased as well as taxes and duties collected by the government.

Mr. Gbagbo has said he is closely monitoring the situation of the troubled cocoa sector and will soon find a solution.

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