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Cocoa Farmers in Northern Ivory Coast Struggle During Harvest

The world's top cocoa grower, war-divided Ivory Coast, is in the middle of its main harvest season. But, in the rebel-held north, cocoa farmers, who are forced to sell their cocoa through other countries, suffer from a lack of laborers and poor prices.

In the crumbling city center of rebel occupied Man, a team of laborers loads the trailer of a truck with burlap sacks full of cocoa. Each one of these sacks weighs 65 kilograms. The truck, when loaded, will haul 35 metric tons of cocoa destined for the chocolate factories of Europe and America.

It is the height of the harvest season in Ivory Coast, which exports around 40 percent of the world's cocoa. And, in Man, things are busy. A few blocks from the central cocoa exchange, another dozen trucks wait to be loaded. The drivers nearly all from Ivory Coast's northern neighbor, Burkina Faso lounge around chatting or napping on hammocks.

Oumar Coulibaly has been waiting to have his truck loaded for nearly a week.

He says he has been shipping cocoa from here for the past two years. He says the operation has gone well, sometimes transporting cotton, as well.

When Ivory Coast's civil war broke out more than three years ago, the rebel New Forces seized the northern half of the country. A French-brokered peace deal established a cease-fire line that now divides Ivory Coast in two. Although the majority of the valuable western cocoa region remained under government control, part of it now lies in territory held by the rebels. And, with ports in the government-controlled south unavailable, cocoa harvested in the north now is smuggled by road into Burkina Faso, Ghana and eventually, to Togo's port capital, Lome.

Although the rebels say they have a legitimate right to resources produced in zones they control, it is local farmers who are suffering from a lack of access to the south's export market. That market has grown during the war and profits have increased for exporters.

But in the rebel-held village, Bloleu, around 50 kilometers to the west of Man, cocoa grower Lazere Tonga says he is still struggling to overcome the effects of the war.

He says, when things heated up here, he deserted the village and headed into the bush. The plantations were abandoned. He says he could not go out into the fields when there was gunfire all around.

Some of the worst of the early fighting took place in the region in and around Man. Two separate rebel groups fought with government troops. Both rebel armies and the government enlisted Liberian mercenaries.

Mr. Tonga says it was impossible to tell who was who, and villages full of civilians seemed to be targeted by both sides. When the residents of Bloleu finally returned, they had missed one harvest. The plantations were overgrown. And, as they would learn over the next two years, the migrant workers who once served as the main labor force during the harvest, were not coming back.

Mr. Tonga says the result has been a disastrous season, this year. Whereas before the war, Bloleu could count on selling around 50 tons of cocoa during the main season, this year it struggled to harvest 20 tons. And, to make matters worse, with the disappearance of local farming cooperatives, cocoa growers have lost their ability to negotiate prices. The increased cost of shipping overland has lowered profit even more.

Mr. Tonga says the northern growers are over a barrel. He says the prices are set and growers have to accept them.