* EU sanctions aim to squeeze Laurent Gbagbo from power
* Ivorians suffering from deepening political crisis
ABIDJAN, Feb 17 (Reuters) - Several hundred cocoa growers chanting anti-European slogans marched on the EU offices in Ivory Coast on Thursday and burned a pile of cocoa sacks to protest against sanctions crippling the industry.
A pile of several 60-kg sacks of beans were set alight as planters carried banners reading “Shame on the EU” and “No to economic slavery” and gathered outside the European Union’s Abidjan headquarters in the late morning.
There were no reports of violence.
The cocoa industry in the world’s top grower is grinding to a halt, partly as EU sanctions imposed on incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo and his supporters to try and force him from power after a contested election kick in.
“We reject EU sanctions on our cocoa because we are not involved in politics,” Blehoue Aka, president of the planters’ association, wearing a traditional farmers straw, said at the protest.
“We are growers and without cocoa, we and our families risk dying,” he added. He delivered a letter of protest as the bags of cocoa smouldered and beans spilled out onto the street.
Although it is not an official embargo, the EU has barred all EU companies from doing business with Ivorian institutions seen backing Gbagbo, who is resisting international calls to step down.
These include the cocoa regulators, which means exporters have stopped registering new beans for export and stopped buying beans up-country, and the two main ports that ship them out. This has led to a collapse of farmgate prices.
Combined with a collapse in the banking system this week [ID:nLDE71G0V0], the ban is likely to make life tougher for Ivorians already suffering from decades of crisis and instability since a 2002-3 civil war divided the country.
Alassane Ouattara, Gbagbo’s rival, who is internationally recognised as president even though he remains holed up in a U.N.-protected hotel, has also called for an export ban.
Millions of people, including 700,000 or so small farmers, rely on Ivory Coast’s cocoa industry and analysts expect the smuggling of beans through neighbouring countries will rise. (Reporting by Ange Aboa, writing by David Lewis, Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)