Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Industrial Relations: Cocoa producers in Cote d'Ivoire threaten strike over non-payment of dues

As harvesting begins, cocoa producers have threatened a wildcat strike and blockade in war-divided Cote d'Ivoire, the world's largest cocoa producing nation, unless the government coughs up millions of dollars entitled to them from a special state-run bank.

In November a UN team of investigators said that Cote d'Ivoire's natural resources revenues, of which cocoa is the most important, are being diverted by President Laurent Gbagbo's aid-starved government to maintain the day-to-day functions of the state, including re-supplying the military and paying civil servant wages.

A failed coup in September 2002 left Cote d'Ivoire divided between a rebel-held north and government-controlled south transforming the country from a regional economic miracle to a conflict hot-spot.

Now, the National Coffee and Cocoa Producers Association (Anaproci), is demanding 3.4 billion CFA, or US $6.3 million, from the state-run National Investment Bank (BNI), which holds taxes paid from cocoa and coffee exports, so it can buy pesticides and insecticides ahead of the harvesting season.

Cocoa analysts in the economic capital Abidjan are unsure whether the government can provide the Association with the millions it has demanded."There should be 300 billion CFA in the bank, but that's not there for sure," said a foreign commodities analyst who asked not to be named. "We’re afraid that all the money is gone."

Cocoa producers are confident the threatened strike, which could see millions of dollars worth of freshly harvested cocoa rot in trucks and containers before reaching ports for export, will yield results.

"The ministry has refused to sign the transfer order for our funds, but we will get our money because the one who does not have the cocoa [in Cote d'Ivoire] does not have the power," Henri Amouzou, president of Anaproci told IRIN.

Anaproci has warned its strike could affect up to 200,000 tons of Ivorian cocoa – or two thirds of the season's harvest - costing the country over US $100 million in lost export revenue.

Cocoa provided the foundation for Cote d'Ivoire's post-independence economic boom that made the country a rare success in an impoverished region. The bean, that is a central ingredient in chocolate, generated export revenue of $2.3 billion for Cote d'Ivoire in 2003, according to government and International Monetary Fund figures.

Since the IMF suspended aid to Cote d'Ivoire over allegations of corruption and mismanagement in 1999 and the World Bank suspended assistance in 2004 over non-servicing of loans, cocoa earnings have became even more vital to the former French colony.

Previous strikes by Cote d'Ivoire's cocoa producers have seen trucking companies threatened, port entrances in Abidjan and San Pedro in the southwest blocked, and export registration offices shut down.

In February 2006 cocoa producers brought central Abidjan to a halt with a non-violent sit-in protest outside the Ministry of Agriculture.

Strikes and blockades would impact harshly on Cote d'Ivoire's already declining cocoa industry. Rising global cocoa prices - caused in part by instability in Cote d'Ivoire - have masked drastic cuts in Cote d'Ivoire's output in recent years. Annual cocoa production fell by 10 percent in 2004/5 alone, according to the International Cocoa Organisation (ICCO).

Nonetheless, Cote d'Ivoire produces 40 percent of the global cocoa harvest.

An estimated seven million Ivorians from a total population of 17 million depend directly on cocoa for a living, either as farmers, farm hands, jute bag makers, or truck drivers.

Reproduced with the kind permission of IRIN Copyright IRIN 2006

Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies