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February 21, 2011

Ivorian cocoa producers protest against export ban

by Ange Aboa

Around 1,000 Ivorian cocoa farmers and cooperative managers gathered inside the regulatory body in Abidjan on February 16 to protest against a cocoa export ban many fear will ruin the industry.

The ban imposed by presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara aims to starve his rival Laurent Gbagbo of funds, and is backed by Western powers and African leaders who see Ouattara as president-elect, despite Gbagbo's refusal to step down after a disputed November 28 poll.

"Politics is not our concern, but we do not agree with this embargo," said Joseph Kouame, the head of the cocoa growers union of the southwestern Sassandra region, at the event at the cocoa regulating body. "We ask the farmers to rise up and say 'no'."

Ivory Coast cocoa exporters said they feared for their future following reports Ouattara would extend a one-month cocoa export ban if his rival refused to leave power.

Farmgate prices are around half what they were before the crisis, despite one-year highs in London prices, as farmers with inadequate stocking capacity are desperate to sell but can't.

"The exporters are profiting from the situation by proposing very low prices," said cooperative manager Francis Atse Osei. "We have to stop this. We need a solution that will permit growers to save the 2011 harvest."

The pro-Gbagbo cocoa administration has threatened exporters with sanctions if they do not export and has said they must pay taxes by the end of March for cocoa already registered. But even if they wanted to export, European Union sanctions on Gbagbo's administration, including port administrators, means there is a shortage of ships docking at Abidjan or San Pedro.

"The EU has forbidden ships to come to Ivory Coast as part of sanctions, but this will hurt the planters the most. How does that go with the EU's strategy to fight poverty it champions?" said Vincent Sea, president of the Coffee and Cocoa Observatory.

The EU and Ouattara have said the embargo is necessary to financially squeeze out Gbagbo's "illegitimate government."

Adding to the problems, the country is also in a liquidity squeeze after Gbagbo sent soldiers to seize the Abidjan office of West Africa's central bank in retaliation for its cutting off his access to state funds.

Two international banks -- BNP Paribas and Citibank -- involved in cocoa finance have already shut.


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