* Farmers say cocoa piling up, being smuggled out
* Cocoa ban, liquitity crunch hurts supply lines * Farmgate prices half January’s in some areas
By Loucoumane Coulibaly
ABIDJAN, Feb 2 (Reuters) - A cocoa export ban in Ivory Coast and a liquidity shortage since incumbent Laurent Gbagbo seized the central bank’s local branch has left the top grower’s cocoa industry in chaos, with beans piling up on farms or being smuggled out, farmers said on Wednesday.
“The farmers are in disarray. Everything’s stopped, the beans are just pilling up in the bush,” said farmer Marcel Aka, who farms near Daloa, which produces about a quarter of the country’s cocoa. “Our families won’t survive this very long.”
Alassane Ouattara, who beat Gbagbo in a Nov. 28 poll, according to U.N.-certified electoral commission results that Gbagbo has refused to concede, last week called for a one-month ban on cocoa registrations to starve his rival of tax revenues.
Gbagbo has shown no sign of caving in to international pressure to step down and is backed by the military, which seized the Abidjan offices of West Africa’s central bank after the monetary union shut off his access to state accounts there.
That forced the central bank to close its Ivory Coast operations completely and bankers say this has led to cash liquidity problems and long delays in clearing cheques, which now have to be done manually.
Cocoa exporters, which run huge accounts with banks, have had restrictions placed on their daily withdrawals.
“It’s been six days since I deposited a cheque with the cooperative bank. Farmers are waiting for their cash and we aren’t able to pay, which is very discouraging,” said Serges M’bra, a cooperative manager in the mid-west region of Bouafle.
The director of a cocoa exporter in San Pedro port told Reuters suppliers were refusing cheques because they take too long to clear. His four bank accounts had placed 30 million CFA limits on his daily withdrawals because of liquidity problems, but he needs up to a billion a day to fund his operations.
None of the roughly 40,000 tonnes that arrived at Ivory Coast’s two main ports last week was registered for export [ID:nLDE70U0U3], most of it having been delivered based on prior committments from cash already advanced.
“We have plenty of cocoa but we can’t sell it. We won’t be able to keep up our plantation at this rate,” said farmer Koffi Kouame, who farms near Soubre, in the heart of the cocoa belt.
Amadou Diallo, who farms in the southern region of Divo, added that a black market was thriving in which middlemen were coming in and buying cocoa on the cheap — around 400 CFA francs ($0.84) per kg or half what it was in January — to store it for later, when exports resume, or to smuggle it.
Ouattara’s ban was called a week after the European Union imposed restrictions on EU-registered vessels doing business in Ivory Coast that exporters said was making it hard for them to ship beans that had already been registered.
The European Union on Wednesday added six people and two banks to a list of people and entities subject to visa bans and asset freezes for supporting Gbagbo [ID:nLDE7111RV].
In areas near borders with neighbours Liberia, Ghana or Guinea, locals say smuggling of cocoa has surged.
“Trafficking to Ghana has increased massively. There are many vehicles filled with cocoa heading in the direction of the Ghana border,” said Joseph Amani farms near The Eastern region of Abengourou, on the Ghana border. (Additional reporting by Ange Aboa and Tim Cocks in Abidjan and David Brunnstrom in Brussels; Writing by Tim Cocks)