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Ivory Coast Cocoa Farmers Begin Nationwide Strike

Cocoa growers in Ivory Coast, the world's top exporter of the bean used to make chocolate, have begun a nationwide strike. Farmers are calling for higher prices for their crops and lower export taxes, as the country's main harvest season begins.

Dozens of cocoa farmers and union representatives attempting to enter the headquarters of Ivory Coast's main cocoa regulatory body, known as the BCC, were blocked by riot police in the commercial capital Abijdan, as the first day of a nationwide cocoa strike got under way.

Elsewhere, farmers blocked roads, keeping cocoa trucks from reaching the ports of San Pedro and Abidjan just two weeks after the opening of the 2006-2007 season.

Cocoa is Ivory Coast's main export. The West African nation produces about 40 percent of all cocoa on the world market.

But farmers like Germain Koffi Yao say despite government promises to improve their conditions, life keeps getting tougher for them.

"It has been five years now that farmers have suffered," he said. "We are poorly paid for our cocoa, we want higher prices for our crops."

When Ivory Coast's coffee and cocoa sectors were privatized in 2000, a government mandated cocoa price disappeared. It was replaced by an indicative price, which serves to advise buyers what they should pay farmers for their cocoa. But in reality, most cocoa growers do not receive that much for their product.

When that indicative price was not raised, as farmers had demanded, when it came up for renewal last week union leaders began organizing a work stoppage.

It has been nearly two years since the farmers last went on strike. And though strike threats are common in Ivory Coast's cocoa sector, production is rarely interrupted.

Yao says, this time, the farmers will not back down until their demands are met, and it will not only be cocoa that is subject to blockade.

"All over Ivory Coast, in all the cocoa producing areas, the movement is supported," he said. "These same farmers are ones who produce fruits and vegetables. And we are blocking everything, he said. This strike is unlimited. A solution must be found."

Among the farmers' demands is the fixing of a new indicative price of around $1.15 per kilogram of beans. The current price of around 75 cents per kilogram falls well short of the government-mandated price in neighboring Ghana, a fact that has fueled rampant cross border smuggling by Ivorian farmers.

Farmers also want export taxes reduced, as well as immediate investment in farmers' cooperatives.

Ivory Coast has been divided into a government-controlled south and rebel-held north since civil war broke out more than four years ago. Government officials, citing the financial effects of the country's situation, have already said taxes will not be lowered this season.