FEATURE-Ivory Coast cocoa crop survives crisis - for now
* Cocoa mid-crop unscathed, rains bring disease concerns
* Farmers lack money to treat crops, insecurity persists
By Tim Cocks
EMILEKRO, Ivory Coast, May 26 (Reuters) - At a clearing in an Ivory Coast forest, eight men sit round a pile of yellow pods several feet high, slicing them open with machetes and tipping the white resin-covered cocoa beans into plastic containers.
This lush, fertile region in the "Great West" of the world's top cocoa grower saw some of the worst fighting during a five-month power struggle between President Alassane Ouattara and former incumbent Laurent Gbagbo over a disputed election.
It grows 250,000 tonnes a year, a fifth of national output, but many farmers abandoned their plantations for months because of daily attacks from ethnic militias allied to one side or another. Villages were razed, and thousands of people displaced.
Despite all this, Ivory Coast's cocoa mid-crop looks like it survived with minimal damage, thanks to better weather than last season -- but lingering cash-flow problems and insecurity could still weigh on volumes and quality as the rainy season begins and trees urgently need to be treated against disease.
Data from the official marketing body, the Coffee and Cocoa Bourse, and estimates from exporters show arrivals running 13 percent ahead of the same period last season, with some 1,093,000 tonnes in total by Sunday. [ID:nLDE74N0ZF] <^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
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CROP GOOD, BUT PESTS A RISK
Yet lingering cash liquidity problems mean many crops are not being adequately treated as the rains come, with evidence of black pod disease and insects damaging pods, farmers say.
That could also damage the next season's main crop quality.
"The harvest this year is a bit sad for us because the cocoa trees were very productive, but since there's been so much rain, many pods are rotting," said cocoa farmer Kassoum Kone, as his workers continued to hack into pods from the pile, about a third of them showing signs of black pod disease.
"For the time being, the black pod isn't so bad, but there are too many insects," Kone added, after opening a pod whose beans were partly decayed because of an insect attack. He tipped them into his container with the good beans.
During the crisis, the banking system collapsed, leaving buyers unable to pay farmers. Western sanctions and a ban imposed by Ouattara shut down cocoa exports for three months.
Many farmers were left unpaid and unable to treat crops.
"Now is the treatment period but we just don't have enough money to treat the plantations," Kone said. "We need to sell some (cocoa) before we can start the treatment."
The cocoa business is picking up quickly, but there is a backlog of 470,000 beans in warehouses at ports to be cleared.
An unknown quantity has also been kept by farmers in the bush, and the arrival of the rains means they could go mouldy.
"We kept a lot of cocoa back ... (so that) after the crisis we can sell. We're starting to put it out bit by bit," said Baba Kone, president of the A.H.K. farmers' cooperative in the western town of Duekoue, which handles about 3,000 tonnes a year, as workers sieved a pile of dried beans behind him.
Lingering insecurity has taken its toll. In the region around Duekoue, thousands of cocoa farmers from the Guere tribe, seen as Gbagbo loyalists, are afraid to go back to their fields. [ID:nLDE74J0U3]
Meanwhile, buyers and sellers are afraid to move with money.
"This crisis has worn us out, all of us: the cooperatives, the buyers, everyone who has to work with money," Baba Kone said, adding that ethnic violence and banditry have been a problem since a 2002-3 war first divided the country in two.
"It's true that on the farms, you don't hear much shooting anymore, but everyone is afraid. The government needs to act."
In other, less volatile parts of the cocoa belt, such as Daloa, in the centre-west, buyers and farmers remain optimistic.
"This year there's been a lot of cocoa," said Abbas Balbaki, a Lebanese trader based in Daloa, although he said lower rains in his region meant beans were small, another threat to quality.
"Due to the crisis, it was a bit hard to get it to Abidjan, but we've managed to do some anyway. The cocoa (stored) isn't rotting, so there's no problem," he said, adding: "If it's well dried you can keep it for six months or more ... We kept it dry." (Additional reporting by Ange Aboa; Editing by Dale Hudson)
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