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Ivory Coast's Cocoa Allegedly Associated with Abusive Child Labor, Corruption and Civil War

Cocoa has long been a cornerstone of Ivory Coast's economy, driving what was once one of Africa's most prosperous countries. Ivorian cocoa still accounts for about 40 percent of the world's production. But today, it is often associated with such negative issues as abusive child labor, corruption and the country's divisive civil war. Lisa Bryant was recently in the Western Ivorian village of Fangolo. She takes a look at the cocoa story.

Issa Wattara is a lucky man. In this poor farming village abutting the main north-south artery in western Ivory Coast, he is among the few to have tasted chocolate. And yet many of Fangolo's inhabitants, like Wattara, cultivate cocoa beans - the raw material for chocolate bars and confections.

Wattara shows a visitor some of the plants growing at the edge of the village. The cocoa beans hang down like fat, green cucumbers.

Ivory Coast remains the world's leading cocoa producer, thanks to beans harvested and shipped from Fangolo and other parts of the country's cocoa belt. The majority of the country's cocoa exports head to the European Union and the United States.

But Ivorian cocoa is not just associated with the sweet taste of chocolate. It is also linked to the country's 2002 civil war that divided the country into the rebel-held north and the government-controlled south.

A June report by the London-based anti-corruption watchdog group Global Witness accused both the government of President Laurent Gbagbo and the rebels of fattening their war chests with millions of Ivorian cocoa dollars, obtained through embezzlement and extortion.

Global Witness campaigner Maria Lopez:

"We calculated that over $118 million of the cocoa trade benefitted both sides of the armed conflict in Cote d'Ivoire [Ivory Coast]," Lopez said. "About $60 million was diverted by the government's war effort within a relatively short period of time - from the beginning of the war, in September 2002 to December 2003. And we calculated that about $60 million was made out of the cocoa trade in the Forces Nouvelles [rebel] area within a couple of years.

Lopez says both sides continue to profit from cocoa - despite a March peace agreement between the rebels and the government. Both sides have denied these allegations.

But Robert Rensi, an Ivory Coast specialist at the European Union, says the story of cocoa sums up the stakes in the country's fitful conflict.

"The whole Ivorian crisis can be translated into a struggle among different forces and the exclusion of part of the population in accessing these resources," Rensi said. "Cocoa has created a land tenure problem, has created a false identity problem. But at the bottom of all this, there's a struggle for control of resources that traditionally have been managed in a non-transparent way.

Meanwhile, the London-based International Cocoa Organization says Ivory Coast's $1.4-billion cocoa industry is coasting on a booming world demand for chocolate. It says that demand is growing at about four percent a year.

But little of the windfall has trickled back to Fangolo. Farmer Wattara says cocoa producers here earn a fraction of the government-set cocoa price.

Wattara said that before the war, farmers could afford to take their cocoa beans to the Ivorian economic hub of Abidjan where they could negotiate a better price. But now they can not afford the transportation costs. Instead, they wait for buyers to come to the village - and they take the price that is offered.

Fangolo has suffered from the war in other ways. When rebels took over the village in 2002, many villagers fled. It took years for some to return.

That is the case of 58-year-old William Bilo, who returned to Fangolo last year - only to find his cocoa, coffee and orange fields farmed by a rival ethnic group.

A father of 10, Bilo says he lost his means to earn a livelihood. He has planted some rice, beans and maize on a patch of land to get by. But he dreams of the day he will get his fields back.

Controversy swirls around the question of who profits from Ivorian cocoa. The World Bank and the United Nations - with about 8,000 peacekeeping troops in the country - have both criticized the lack of transparency in the sector.

But charges by the European Union are particularly pointed, suggesting fraud in the cocoa sector. In a report released last May, the EU recommend shutting down two key cocoa institutions, including the Ivorian Cocoa and Coffee Marketing Board.

In Abidjan, the board's director, Lucien Tape Doh, dismisses the allegations.

"Ivory Coast has been a country at war," Tape Doh said. And there is a certain way of managing during war times." But, he said, that does not mean the cocoa sector is corrupt.

President Laurent Gbagbo has called for an inquiry into allegations of fraud in the cocoa sector. Still, some critics doubt it will be exhaustive or make much difference.

Investigating the cocoa sector can also be dangerous business. Global Witness claims Ivorian journalists and human rights activists investigating the sector have been beaten and intimidated. In 2004, French-Canadian journalist Guy-Andre Kieffer disappeared in Abidjan, where he was also investigating cocoa corruption allegations. He has not been heard of since.

EU diplomat Rensi echoes the assessment of many.

"It's obvious that the Franco-Canadian journalist Kieffer was kidnapped and most likely murdered because of his investigation in the sector. So it's obviously a very dangerous sector because it fuels the crisis," Rensi said.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has vowed to pursue Kieffer's case. In the meantime, Ivorian cocoa production remains a very controversial business.