The Cocoa Farmers' Bitter Harvest


War in Iraq is looming, and many members of the international community question the need for U.S. action, but one nation is pleading for Washington to intervene in a foreign crisis. On Jan. 26, more than 10,000 people took to the streets in Abidjan, Ivory Coast's capital, many waving posters that declared, "French out, Americans in!" Ever since a full-fledged civil war erupted after years of simmering tensions and a failed coup on September 19, 2002, this West African nation has been seeking U.S. help to defeat the rebels. France, Ivory Coast's colonial parent until 1960, has fallen out of favor after failing to broker a peace deal.

That's a quick about-face for a country that, until recently, was considered the model economy of a continent so often beset by political and economic crises. The West African nation, which benefited from an International Monetary Fund jump-start in the early 1990s, set out to become the world's largest cocoa producer and achieved an annual growth rate of 6%.

"CRY FOR HELP." The past five months of civil war have seen the destruction of one-third of this year's cocoa crop and dashed Ivory Coast's reputation for economic stability. Agricultural groups are scrambling to limit crop damage as the threat of bankruptcy grows. "We are asking all our farmers to cry for help -- not for pity, but for financial aid," declared Mathias Aka N'Goan, president of the National Association of Professional Farmers (ANOPACI), on a recent trip to Paris.

Ivory Coast's woes are more than an academic interest to chocolate lovers, since the country produces 40% of the world cocoa crop, and the ongoing crisis has already prompted price increases. In November, Kraft Foods announced a 3% price hike on most of its Nabisco cookies. Nestlé followed suit with a 10% increase in chocolate prices, and Lindt's prices have risen by 6%.

Cocoa is the backbone of the Ivorian economy, representing 45% of gross domestic product. But one-third of production is now in the rebel-controlled northern zone. Cocoa prices on the New York and

London commodities exchanges fluctuate with every news report, having soared to what was then a 17-year high of $2,400 per metric ton after the September coup attempt.

ABANDONED FARMS. Since then, prices have approached $2,700, with little hope of relief. March cocoa futures continue to hover above $2,300, nearly 3 times the $674-per-ton price of December, 2000. Ivory Coast doesn't profit from the higher prices the best beans are bringing, since the increases are being driven by scarcity.

Cocoa traders are particularly spooked because the fighting has stalled the export of 2002's crop, which was ready for harvest when the violence began. Many farmers simply abandoned their crops, which were then torched by fighters intent on crippling the national economy.

Others who stayed on their land are little better off. They have had to pay rebels protection money, leaving them with little cash to invest in the upkeep of their crops. Since most cocoa pickers are Liberian refugees who have sided with the overwhelmingly Muslim rebels, farmers have not been able to find field hands.

QUALITY SUFFERS. Nor is damage limited to the fields. Rebels have been blockading roads to the port of San Pedro, where 50% of exports are normally loaded. Now, instead of making it to the coast, the beans rot on trucks going nowhere. Meanwhile, farmers with no firsthand experience of the violence are finding that the insurrection is imposing an indirect cost. In the rush to get their crops to the overloaded docks of Abidjan, many growers are reducing drying time, and quality has suffered. Says Aka N'Goan: "We are in the process of counting the losses."

Aka N'Goan is fighting to keep the Ivorian cocoa market alive, even if the civil war rages on, and he has been pleading for financial aid from governments and the International Federation of Agriculture Producers. Farmers groups estimate that the past two profitable seasons generated enough cash to see the industry through this year's losses. In the meantime, ANOPACI is trying to persuade demoralized farmers to till their land in preparation for next year's harvest.

With the failure of January's peace talks, though, the civil war continues. As the fighting goes on, damage to Ivorian agriculture is spreading to coffee, the nation's No. 2 crop. Coffee harvests began in mid-January, and farmers fear trouble similar to what befell the cocoa crop. At this point, it's almost impossible to estimate the total cost to the Ivorian economy. Says Aka N'Goan: "It's after a war that you count the dead, not during." By Nassim Majidi and Christina Passariello in Paris


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