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Letter from Ivory Coast: Cocoa 'Pops' Kouadio welcomes the boys back.

The King of Diangobo, Kouadio Boffouo, is a happy man as he sits on the foldaway throne on his terrace, watching a soccer match being played in front of the royal palace.

These days his tiny kingdom near the border with Ghana has enough soccer teams to organise a competition.

Young men are no longer as rare as they were in the 1970s and 1980s when many moved to the cities as cocoa trees aged and production collapsed.

Now there is an influx of hundreds of returnees, mainly school drop-outs and the jobless.

With the help of migrant workers from neighbouring Burkina Faso, they are cleaning and replanting abandoned cocoa and coffee plantations left behind by their parents.

Diangobo is located about 25 miles southeast of Abengourou, the main town in Ivory Coast's 'old' eastern cocoa belt, the country's main cocoa producing zone in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Abengourou region produces around 100,000 tons of cocoa compared with an output of some 510,000 tons in western areas.

Ivory Coast is the world's biggest cocoa producer and its total annual cocoa crop of 1.1-1.2 million tons is more than 40 per cent of world production.

It remains to be seen whether the efforts of these new farmers in the old belt will boost the region's production, which also includes 25,000 tons of coffee, around 10 perent of Ivory Coast's total crop.

Although Kouadio looks happy enough watching the soccer, all is not well in his small kingdom, which has a population of around 20,000.

Rainfall is decreasing alarmingly, commodity prices are slumping and the soil is impoverished.

'In the past we had lots of rain, now it is becoming a desert here because we have cut all the trees down,' said the king after the match, his frown exaggerated by his snow white eyebrows.

Describing the lush, green slopes and valleys of his kingdom as a desert is an overstatement but farmers agree that rainfall has been less abundant since the mid-1980s.

'These days it does not rain as it did in the past, that is why I have planted both cocoa and coffee trees.

'Coffee trees are more drought-resistant,' Maurice Afikan said from his farm, about six miles out of Diangobo.

Afikan returned from Ivory Coast's main city of Abidjan, where he worked as a mechanic, to his native village in 1994, after the death of his grandfather.

Cocoa trees have a productive life of about 25 years.

Most of those on his grandfather's farm were known locally as 'French cocoa', meaning that they were planted before the country gained independence from France in 1960.

Afikan had to get rid of most of the 'French cocoa'.

He replanted not only cocoa and coffee but also cassava and banana trees, providing welcome shade for the cocoa trees and food for his family.

The 23-year-old farmer blames the lack of rain for his farm's poor production of 26 kilos of coffee and two bags of cocoa.

But French cocoa specialist Francois Ruf, who is researching the replanting of cocoa and coffee in the region, says the impoverished soil is the main factor.

The first cocoa trees planted after Afikan's grandfather cleared the forest used up vital ingredients of the rich soil, Ruf said.

'Maurice needs to use fertiliser. But if he does that, he will also have to buy a herbicide to stop weeds from overgrowing his plantation,' he told Reuters at the farm.

Another abandoned farm brought back to life by returnee Djame Kouanou is doing slightly better but also lacks rain and is in need of fertiliser -- which the farmers can't afford.

'Last season (1998/99) I harvested my first two bags of cocoa (120 kg) and 22 bags (1,320 kg) of coffee,' said Kouanou.

Kouanou, 25, returned to Diangobo in 1996, after four years' work as a bus conductor in Ivory Coast's second city of Bouake.

From the city he brought a second source of revenue - a television set and a video recorder. He built a large hut in 'downtown' Diangobo which resounds six nights out of seven to the cries of Bruce Lee or Sylvester Stallone films.

On the other night, he shows pornographic movies.

Many farmers are trying to make some money on the side as cocoa and coffee prices fall dramatically.

Vincent T'Sas
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Mar 14, 2000
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