COTE D'IVOIRE: Black pod hits cocoa harvest in southwest
Fresh cocoa drying in Cote d'Ivoire
ABIDJAN, 22 July 2010 (IRIN) - An outbreak of black pod disease in the southwestern cocoa-producing area of Côte d’Ivoire, is slashing harvests for thousands of local farmers.
The disease broke out in the coastal towns of San Pedro, Tabou and Sassandra, 380-500km west of the commercial capital, Abidjan.
Each town recorded 10 days of rain in 20 days in late June and early July, according to the National Meteorological Office, and black pod disease - also known as black pod rot - flourishes in damp conditions, turning cocoa pods black and slimy, and rendering the beans inedible and un-sellable.
In recent days financial speculators have voiced concern that international cocoa prices could rise as a result of the heavy rains. World cocoa prices are at a 33-year high but in Côte d'Ivoire these prices have profited middle-men and exporters, over farmers.
Six million Ivoirians rely on cocoa-production to survive. There are about 900,000 cocoa farmers in Côte d’Ivoire, which produced 1.22 million tons of cocoa, accounting for 36 percent of the world’s supply, according to the International Cocoa Organization. Cocoa is one of the country’s biggest foreign exchange earners bringing in US$1 billion in 2006 versus $1.3 billion from oil and other refined products, according to the International Monetary Fund.
This year’s harvest is expected to be equal to, or lower than, that of 2009, which was the worst harvest in five years, says The Fairtrade Foundation.
While the current black pod disease outbreak is affecting a relatively small percentage of farmers, many are concerned it could spread with devastating consequences.
Cocoa-farmer Anais Koffi, near the small, bustling port town of San Pedro, said he has cut down one in 10 of his trees to try to control the spread of the disease.
"This time of the year I'd normally be able to fill four jute bags with beans, but at the moment I'm only managing one - that’s how bad things are. Right now black pod is devouring the region of San Pedro."
Numerous setbacks have hit Ivoirian cocoa farmers over the past decade, including an outbreak of swollen shoot disease, a viral disease transmitted by mealybugs, which devastated orchards in central Côte d’Ivoire, as well as the forced displacement of thousands of farmers from their plantations in the west during the 2002-2004 civil war.
Fighting black pod
State agencies in Côte d'Ivoire must do more to help farmers fight black pod says Bile Bile, vice-president of the country’s biggest farmers’ union, Anoproci.
"The state agencies that should be playing their roles aren’t doing so. They are like doctors reacting after the patient is already dead," Bile Bile told IRIN.
Treating black pod involves spraying cocoa trees with both insecticide and fungicide once a month but just a fraction of farmers’ orchards have been sprayed thus far.
The state-controlled Fund for Developing and Promoting Coffee and Cocoa Activities (FDPCC) plans to distribute chemicals to treat 550 hectares with insecticide and 225 with fungicide during this cocoa year, which starts on 1 October, FDPCC spokesperson Patrice Rox told IRIN.
"This isn’t enough to treat the country's three million hectares… This treatment is so expensive that producers are resorting to precarious, old-fashioned methods - removing rotten pods or cutting down trees to let in air," he said.
Individual farmers cannot afford to spray their orchards, San Pedro-based farmer Anais told IRIN, gesturing at his crop of blackened cocoa pods trailing sticky slime: "Treatment is difficult and expensive… You have to think about the cost of renting a spray machine each month, plus the cost of fuel to get into town for the machine, and more fuel to actually fill up the machine. It's not easy."
Where do taxes go?
Exporters pay exorbitant taxes on the cocoa they export, which has a knock-on effect on farmers, eating into their earnings and leaving them with low profits to reinvest in their farms, says Bile.
A specific tax - roughly 2 US cents per kg - is charged to cover annual pesticide spraying of cocoa trees.
"The charges for pesticides are collected throughout the whole year, so why can't the products be distributed properly throughout the year? We don’t understand how charges worth billions of francs can be levied each time, but there's not enough to treat even one million hectares," Anoproci’s Bile said.
Farmgate prices - the amount middlemen pay farmers for their beans - averaged US$1.99 per kg as of 18 July, according to the international stock exchange. In neighbouring Ghana, where farmers receive double the earnings from middlemen, annual output has grown to around 700,000 tons from 500,000 tons three years ago, according to Ghana's cocoa body, Cocobod.
The World Bank is pushing for a reduction in Ivorian tax rates so that "the revenue from cocoa goes first and foremost to the farmer," a report from the country representative said earlier this year.
This is not the first time the government has struggled to combat disease in the cocoa industry. In 2000 farmers in the south-central region of Sinfra were hit by swollen shoot virus - sometimes referred to as the AIDS of cocoa - destroying 40 percent of the region’s orchards.
The cvil war was still in full swing, “so nobody paid it [the outbreak of swollen shoot virus] any attention,” said Adou Ebotie, head of the Sinfra branch of the National Rural Development Agency, known as Anader.
"Once swollen shoot is in an area, three years later that place is devastated," Ebotie told IRIN.
A US$1.67 million government research project into swollen shoot has been stalled since June 2008 when 23 members of cocoa agency bodies, which helped draw up the research plans, were arrested for corruption. Meanwhile, a commission set up to review practices in Côte d’Ivoire’s cocoa industry has stalled, partly because farmers are unhappy with many of its recommendations.
Kouassi N'Guessan, a grower in the nearby town of Bouaflé, this year abandoned the cocoa orchard his father planted after 16 of his 17 hectares of cocoa were destroyed. "I'm planting rubber instead, but that takes two years before it is mature and we can make money from it. It's hard to have hope. We are miserable because we've lost our livelihood."