DUEKOUE, Ivory Coast (Reuters) - Thousands of cocoa farmers who fled their fields during five months of conflict in Ivory Coast are too afraid of ethnic reprisals to go home, and many fear their plantations are either looted or rotting.
Villages around Duekoue, a town encircled by rolling hills and tropical forest in western Ivory Coast, normally produce around 250,000 tonnes of cocoa a year -- more than a fifth of total output from the world’s top grower.
But many now lie in ruins after a violent power struggle between former president Laurent Gbagbo and his rival in an election, Alassane Ouattara, who now as president must contend with a deeply divided nation and a ruined economy.
Torched houses, demolished warehouses and piles of bricks litter the forested landscape.
Most of the farmers who cannot return to their crops belong to the Guere ethnic group. Traders estimate they produce a quarter of the cocoa grown around Duekoue, so up to 5 percent of total output may be lost if they remain in hiding.
Alexandra Ba, 51, fled his 12 hectare cocoa field with his wife and nine children when militimen claiming allegiance to Ouattara advanced on his village on April 17.
“They killed a lot of people. I saw my neighbor shot dead with a Kalashnikov in front of me, but I ran away,” he told Reuters at a refugee camp in Duekoue that still houses 27,000 Ivorians, among whom the majority of the working age males are employed in the local cocoa sector.
“I can’t go back to my field. I think someone has occupied it. The cocoa’s just sitting there. I need to start harvesting soon, before rains come and spread diseases on the pods.”
Now is a crucial part of the season, when farmers as well as harvesting should also be preparing for the next season by applying fertilizers and weedkillers.
Ivory Coast’s cocoa industry, which feeds some 40 percent of global demand, was badly hit by the crisis, which only eased when forces loyal to Ouattara captured Gbagbo from his home last month, with the help of the French military.
EU and U.S. sanctions on Gbagbo and his aides, plus a call for a cocoa ban by Ouattara, effectively shut down exports for three months. The banking system collapsed, leaving cocoa traders with no cash to pay farmers.
The crisis also reignited ethnic and land tensions in the western region, where longstanding feuds erupted between migrants mostly from Ouattara’s Dioula tribe and the indigenous Guere, seen as allied to Gbagbo, over rich cocoa-growing land.
Investors and cocoa traders are watching out for signs the crisis may have damaged the mid-crop, which runs from September to April, if some farmers failed to receive enough cash to treat their plantations or were too afraid to tend them.
In most parts of the country, cocoa harvesting has resumed -- or it never stopped -- farmers say. Cocoa arrivals to port are currently put around 13 percent higher than at this time last year.
At a plantation deep in the jungle, farmers sit by a pile of harvested pods and hack into them with machetes, collecting the beans in plastic containers. These Dioula say they feel safer since Ouattara’s forces chased out Gbagbo’s militias.
But Guere farmers in the region are mostly in hiding, many in refugee camps, from those same pro-Ouattara forces.
“The Allochene (migrant tribes) make up the bigger part of production, around 80 percent, so the impact of the loss of Guere supply isn’t huge, but it’s still not good,” said Ima Moussa, treasurer of a cooperative handing 3,000 tonnes a year, as workers piled up and sieved dried beans behind him.
In the longer term, many Ivorians hope Ouattara will try to resolve Ivory Coast’s festering ethnic and land disputes to prevent recurring conflicts that threaten cocoa production.
“I can’t go back to my field: it’s occupied by militias,” said Guere Gilbert Tehe, 52, who fled his 4 hectare cocoa farm.
“I fear I will never sell my cocoa this year.”
Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Mark John and Jane Baird