FEATURE-Ivory Coast cocoa crop survives crisis - for now

Thu May 26, 2011 6:00am GMT
 

 * 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.
 INSECURITY PERSISTS
 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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