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October 15, 2009

Ivory Coast political candidates pledge to revamp cocoa sector

by Loucoumane Coulibaly

Ivory Coast opposition leader and presidential hopeful Alassane Ouattara said on October 14 he plans to reverse the country's sliding cocoa output with a five-year $2.5 billion revamp programme.

Declining production in the world's No. 1 cocoa supplier has helped push world prices for the commodity near a 25-year high, with Ivorian farmers blaming high taxes and limited government support for their deteriorating plantations.

The country, scarred by a 2002-03 civil war that split the nation in two, has scheduled long-delayed elections for later this year. Analysts say the poll could restore the West African nation's stability if successful.

"We are going to make agriculture the nation's priority," Ouatarra told a group of farmers in Abengourou, north of the main commercial city Abidjan. Ouattara said he believed farmers should get "at least half" the world market price for their output as a means of encouraging increased production.

Ivory Coast's government, under President Laurent Gbagbo who will also run in the upcoming poll, has slashed taxes on cocoa exports for the 2009/10 season in the hopes of boosting output that slumped last season to its lowest in at least five years.

Ouattara said he would launch a 1.1 trillion CFA franc programme aimed at streamlining the government's agricultural bureaucracy, improving farmer access to credit for plantation improvements, and modernising farming methods.

"We must invest in the renewal of the field," he said. "I will support scientific research to support the development of agriculture in our country."

He added that he would seek to address perennial land disputes that have disrupted farming activity in the country in recent years. "We must define the land, and issue land certificates," he said.

One of the farmers in Ouattara's audience expressed frustration over the handling of the cocoa industry.

"We are tired of people who have eyes only for the growers' money," said Boa Bonzou, who runs a 60-hectare cocoa plantation. "We farmers need a man capable of providing solutions to problems that undermine our industry."

Ivory Coast's presidential elections have been delayed for some four years in a tortuous post-civil war peace process.

A senior U.N. official said this week that the election preparations appeared to be behind schedule, casting doubt on the government's ability to organise a poll this year.


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