* Reform aimed to boost farm incomes, investment
* Growers say enforcement poor and merchants undercut price
* Say reform neglects training, product distribution
By Ange Aboa
SAN PEDRO, Ivory Coast, Oct 1 (Reuters) - One year into a sweeping reform in the world’s largest cocoa grower, Ivory Coast’s farmers say the government has failed in its main goal of guaranteeing them a minimum price and has neglected training and maintenance support.
The West African nation last year abandoned a decade of liberalisation in the cocoa market and sold forward the bulk of its 2012/13 crop in order to fix a minimum price that would boost farmer incomes and encourage investment in plantations.
But farmers said a lack of enforcement on the ground allowed merchants persistently to undercut the price this season.
“It’s all well and good to introduce a reform, but you must check if it’s going well and the farmers are happy. That hasn’t happened,” said David Kacoutie who farms in Gabiadji, 30 km (19 miles) north of San Pedro.
Ivory Coast’s cocoa marketing board, the CCC, set a price of 725 CFA francs ($1.50) per kilogramme for the October-to-March main crop, a moderate increase on the average price under the previous spot buying system.
Merchants largely ignored a price of 700 CFA/kg set for the smaller mid-crop. And while the CCC has said it deployed around 800 agents in the field and warned that price violations would be prosecuted, only a handful of arrests have been made.
The government is due to announce a new price this week on officially opening the 2013/14 season and has promised to increase the number of monitoring agents. But growers said that, without greatly improved oversight, it will have little impact.
“We are powerless against the merchants. We can’t stand up to them. They come together and all pay nearly the same price. We’re alone,” said El Hadj Adam Bamba, who farms 12 hectares near the western town of Duekoue.
Merchants say the government’s scale of reimbursable costs underestimates the real cost of transporting cocoa from plantations to the ports.
“We can’t respect the guaranteed price; we’d earn nothing if we did,” Mamadou Kante, a merchant based in the town of Bangolo, said.
Under Ivory Coast’s previous price stabilisation regime overseen by the CAISTAB - a marketing board abolished in 1999 - government agents enforced prices in the bush, carried out quality controls and ran training programmes.
Even after the sector was liberalised in 2000, subsidised distribution of fertilisers and other inputs to maintain plantations continued into the 2010/11 season. Many farmers had expected such initiatives to increase under the new reform.
But growers said they received no support from the government this season, leaving plantations vulnerable to insect infestations and outbreaks of disease including fungal black pod.
“I thought the reform was going to be like before, when we had people come explain how to do the upkeep on our fields to have good cocoa and who gave us products,” 59-year-old farmer Felix Konan said. “But it’s the opposite. We have nothing. We’ve been abandoned,” he said. ($1 = 484.5840 CFA francs) (Writing by Joe Bavier; editing by Jane Baird)