Saturday, January 26, 2008

Agriculture: Getting cocoa farms back on track in Liberia

In some areas of Liberia cocoa trees are being cut and burned for charcoal even as the government and aid groups are working to revive the crop that once provided a living for tens of thousands of people.

“Some of us [farmers] are now back in our towns and we desperately want to start our cocoa farming as it is the only means of us gaining income to sustain ourselves,” said Kolubah Gayflor, a cocoa farmer in the town of Zorzor, northern Lofa County, and one of some 22,000 people who the Agriculture Ministry says produced cocoa before the 1989-2003 war.

Another former cocoa farmer, Mulbah Akoi, told IRIN, “If we were working on those plantations, replanting trees and cultivating cocoa, [people] would not be cutting and burning cocoa trees."

Liberia’s 14-year civil war, which ended in 2003, displaced hundreds of thousands of people and left Liberia’s agriculture sector and basic infrastructure in ruins. Today according to the UN some 80 percent of Liberians are jobless.

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) says getting cocoa farms back on track could go a long way to helping. It is already supporting cocoa projects in Liberia, where industry experts estimate cocoa production could provide incomes for some 30,000 families, or 150,000 of Liberia’s 3.1 million people.

“Before the war, the cocoa contribution to the GDP was around 10 percent and in 2000 it was 0.5 percent,” according to MacArthur Pay-Bayee of the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA), which is running cocoa revitalisation projects in Liberia. “The latest figure we have is from 2005, when cocoa was at 5.1 percent [of GDP].”

In a project backed by USAID, the IITA has trained and provided seeds to more than 300 farmers who in turn train others. “The idea is rehabilitation but with sustainability built in,” Pay-Bayee said.

Building a profitable cocoa industry will require more than providing tools and refurbishing plantations. Liberia's road system is in tatters and this severely hampers farmers’ efforts to bring any product to market, experts say. A vast UN-World Bank road rehabilitation project, launched last year, will be crucial for success of cocoa and all crops.

A 2006 crop and food security assessment by the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Programme said: “Producers have to pay for transport to buyers’ substations or sell to middle-men at lower prices at the farm gate. Poor infrastructure thus dampens production, limits the marketing network, and constrains people’s access to goods and cash.”

“You cannot do agriculture without road networks,” said IITA’s Pay-Bayee.

Published with the permission of IRIN
Disclaimer: This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations
Photo: Copyright IRIN