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January 31, 2009

Ivory Coast eyes Liberian worms, fears for cocoa

by Loucoumane Coulibaly

Army worms ravaging crops in Liberia are a risk for cocoa in neighbouring Ivory Coast, though no trees have been hit yet and experts are being dispatched to assess the threat, an agricultural researcher said on January 30.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) warned that a plague of caterpillars, known as army worms, had eaten crops and plants across Liberia and might spread throughout West Africa if left unchecked.

Farmers in the top grower's western cocoa belt say they have not yet seen any worms but experts will set up systems to fight them should they arrive, said Amoncho Adiko, head of research at the Ivorian National Centre for Agricultural Research (CNRA).

Ivory Coast has experienced a turbulent 2008/09 cocoa season so far, with administrative chaos, poor weather and disease contributing to a poor crop. Cocoa deliveries to ports are picking up but the total is still some 200,000 tonnes below volumes by the same time last year.

This, as well as fears of a shortfall in nearby number two grower, Ghana, has supported high world prices and helped boost the benchmark London contract to a 24-year high.

"For now, the (agricultural) ministry has not had any reports on the presence of the worms. (But) there is a risk as these caterpillars lay eggs and spread. They destroy everything in their path," Adiko said. "For the moment, we have been told they are heading to Guinea," he added. Guinea is north of Liberia and also shares Ivory Coast's western border. The FAO said six communities in Guinea had already been hit.

Liberia declared a state of emergency this week due to the plague of caterpillars, which grow to 5 cm (2 inches) and can swarm to destroy large swathes of vegetation.

"We are taking this problem seriously," Adiko said, adding that a CNRA team would survey farms all along the border. "We are going to work out extent of the risk and see what steps we need to take if the caterpillars arrive in the region. We want to know what species they are and what crops they attack," he said.

Farmers in the west said they were aware of the plague but had not seen any of the caterpillars.

"We've heard on the radio that the caterpillars are ravaging Liberia. For now, there aren't any here," said Adama Bamba, who farms cocoa and coffee near the western town of Bangolo.

"It worries us because it is not far. We're praying that the caterpillars don't come here because if they attack the coffee and the cocoa, we will lose lots," he added.

The Guardian

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