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January 12, 2011

Cocoa keeps flowing in Ivory Coast despite political uncertainty

On the docks of the port of San Pedro, where workers spend long days in the sun loading bag after bag of cocoa onto outgoing ships, it seems hard to believe Ivory Coast is in crisis at all.

While in the economic capital Abidjan the stand-off between incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo and challenger Alassane Ouattara raises fears of civil war, here in the world's leading export hub for the much-prized cocoa bean, life goes on much as normal.

"Work has never stopped" despite the crisis and unrest, said Guy Manouan, the San Pedro port's commercial and marketing director.

In fact, the current harvest is on track to surpass the previous one, according to Ivory Coast's cocoa regulator, the Coffee and Cocoa Bourse (BCC).

Ivory Coast is the world's top cocoa producer and the bean - the basis for chocolate - accounts along with coffee for 20% of the country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and 40% of its export revenues.

From the start of the current harvest in October to mid-December, about 600 000 tons of cocoa had been gathered, up from 400 000 in the same period last year, according to the BCC. By that point harvesters had already brought in half of the total previous crop of 1.2 million tons, with months to go before the end of the harvest in March.

"If there had been no crisis, we would be living through one of Ivory Coast's record harvests" thanks to exceptional rains, said one exporter in the commercial capital Abidjan.

Cocoa prices on global markets have meanwhile relaxed after hitting peak levels at the start of the crisis.

On January 4, a ton of cocoa for delivery in March was worth £1 929 pounds against £2 081 a month earlier in London and $2 867 against $3 140 a month earlier in New York.

There are, however, some signs that the crisis is starting to have an effect, especially on local growers. A manager with one export company in San Pedro said that his business, like many others in the region, had "come to a stop" in recent weeks for lack of financing.

"Investors are afraid of violence in the country," he said.

Some producers are also grumbling about exporters trying to use the crisis to take advantage of growers.

Sylvestre Kouame, who runs an agricultural cooperative in Menegbe about 40km north of San Pedro, is sitting on 32 tons of cocoa in his warehouse that he has not been able to sell. He said he was refusing to sell to local exporters who were using the crisis to try to squeeze lower prices out of growers than the official price of 1 100 CFA francs per kilogram.

Others, anxious to feed their families, said they would be willing to sell their crops at less than official prices, but cannot find any buyers.

Sitting on the side of the road north of San Pedro, 56-year-old harvester Boukary Ouedraogo said cocoa was already on offer in the area for 800 CFA francs per kilogram but few were willing to buy.

"The buyers aren't coming to us, they say they have no cash," he said.


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