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Ivory Coast Cocoa Allegedly Being Smuggled to Neighbors

Hundreds of thousands of tons of cocoa are allegedly being smuggled out of war-divided Ivory Coast to surrounding West African countries. A cocoa expert says that the beans are smuggled from both rebel-held areas and government-controlled zones.

Ivorian Minister of Economics and Finance Paul Bohoun Bouabre says that for several years at least 300,000 tons of cocoa per year have been smuggled out of Ivory Coast into neighboring West African countries.

Ivory Coast is the world's largest cocoa producer, and has been divided into a government-held south and a rebel-held north since 2002. Cocoa analyst Edouard NGuessan says this has created two distinct zones from which cocoa is smuggled.

Mr. NGuessan, of the FIDEC company in Abidjan, says that cocoa in the government-held south is generally smuggled to Ghana, which offers higher cocoa prices. Ghana has stabilized prices for cocoa beans, unlike Ivory Coast where cocoa prices fluctuate according to the market.

The Ivorian government is losing a substantial amount of money from the cocoa smuggling. By trying to take advantage of higher prices in Ghana, smugglers also avoid paying taxes, which are about 30 percent of the price of cocoa beans. Most of the richest cocoa plantations are in the government-held part of the country.

Mr. NGuessan says 20,000 to 40,000 tons of cocoa are smuggled annually from the rebel-held north to neighboring Burkina Faso, where it is sent to ports in Togo for export.

The rebels were not available for an interview for this report, and have not commented on the cocoa situation.

The main cocoa harvest is due to start at the beginning of October, and some experts expect a good crop. But producers have not received the usual advance financing, pesticides, and fertilizer from cash-strapped cooperatives. Some angry farmers have complained that some of this money has been diverted to the government's war effort.

In recent years, the average cocoa harvest has been about 1,300,000 tons.

The commander of about 4,000 French troops helping a U.N. peacekeeping mission in the divided country, told reporters this week that more money circulating in the country could lead to trouble.

General Elrick Irastorza says he is worried about money from the cocoa harvest causing greed among local communities, which could degenerate into violence. He said this could be exploited for political ends.

General Irastorza said farmers do not have a safe place to put their money and there have been many reports of robberies and banditry. Civil conflict in Ivory Coast has also exacerbated ethnic tensions between villagers in the cocoa-rich west of the country, where there has also been fighting about land.