Page last updated at 13:35 GMT, Thursday, 12 February 2009

Ivory Coast's sweet cocoa success

Travelling to cocoa-growing villages in the Ivory Coast, John James learns how rising prices are benefiting local people.

Villagers dancing at the welcoming cermemony
Money from the cocoa harvest is helping to improve life in the village
When offered a cup by an African village chief, I usually feel it is polite to drink, even if the liquid looks a little dubious.

Yet the fact that our sips were tentative did not seem to trouble the villagers.

In any case, by the end of the welcoming ceremony, the jovial chief and his respectful assistants had considerably lowered the level of the palm wine, and finished off the newly opened bottle of gin - albeit with the help of the village ancestors who were somehow able to partake, by way of a libation poured out onto the bare red earth.

It was still morning, but Chief Narcisse Globeo Gnepa, ruler of the 12 villages of the Yapo tribe, was just getting warmed up.

In a distant land and a city they have vaguely heard of called London, the world's cocoa price is confounding the credit crunch

He is a tall, middle-aged man with a well-fed stomach, a wide-brimmed hat and a towel around his neck like a boxer.

He was in the mood to celebrate.

On the edge of the village, the three new school classrooms we had come to look at were taking shape.

But more importantly, in a distant land and a city they have vaguely heard of called London, the world's cocoa price is confounding the credit crunch to hit its highest levels for nearly 25 years.

Cocoa harvest

That is great news for the hundreds of thousands of smallholder farmers in this, the country that produces more cocoa than any other.

Here hours from tarmacked roads and just beyond the wooden and mud huts, the first steps are taken that finish in the neatly packaged chocolate bar in your supermarket.

Farmers from across Ivory Coast and neighbouring countries have been in this ancient western rainforest, cutting down the tropical trees and replacing them with cocoa bushes.

At the moment, the main season is just nearing its end.

Coca beans growing
About 40% of cocoa comes from the Ivory Coast
In the shade of the cocoa trees, I watched workers sitting in a circle on a thick carpet of leaves.

While chatting they take a yellow cocoa pod, which fits in an adult hand like a mini rugby ball, and then swing a machete at it with the other hand.

I did not spot anyone in the village with any fingers missing, though I suspect my violin-playing days would be over if I gave it a go myself.

The shell breaks open and the cocoa beans, covered by a sweet creamy layer, are scooped out, dried for several days, and then loaded into sacks to begin their weeks of travel to the port of San Pedro.

Community spirit

We are invited to the chief's house to eat.

The meal turns out to be a raucous affair in which plates and bowls are constantly being passed over our heads to the poor women scooping food from giant plastic basins on the floor.

Here people just seemed to be getting on with their lives
There is rice, a doughy substance called foufou - made with banana plantains, and a mutton sauce in which almost no part of the sheep - bar the wool - has been spared.

Everyone was shouting for their food, and no sooner was a bowl finished, than it was filled and passed to another, sometimes with your own leftovers being left as new to someone else, under a fresh layer of rice.

The village seemed to be peaceful.

A mix of ethnic groups and religions, poverty and a lot of young people with big knives - OK, machetes - may be a recipe for trouble in other parts of the world, but here people just seemed to be getting on with their lives.

Sure, we returned to our 4x4 to find it had been graffitied by some local youths, but it was only someone doing their maths homework: "3+3=6" written in the dust.

Security checkpoints

A second village we visited was even more remote. Three hours off the main road down a rutted forest track.

Village chief Aladji Mohamed Saradogo listening to the radio
Chief Aladji Mohamed Saradogo came from Burkina Faso to find work
Here the community was made up entirely of men and women from the neighbouring country of Burkina Faso.

Such people were often targeted in the xenophobic violence of the civil war here a few years ago, and many had not left the safety of the village for years.

The security checkpoints that once plagued Ivory Coast are largely gone from the main roads, but from the village to the tarmacked road lie seven checkpoints, all of which will take a slice of the cocoa money from the farmers, and make your chocolate bar that little bit more expensive.

The chief of this village, Aladji Mohamed Saradogo, has a long wispy grey beard, a skull cap and a scarf to protect him from the harmattan - the cold snap - that had taken temperatures down into the 20s.

He told me he listens to the BBC morning, noon and night, though he confessed he did not understand the language.

Disappearing forests

Life in the cocoa forests is hard, but when the harvest is good and fresh tropical fruit grows in abundance, there is a peace and a pleasure about such places where even the mobile phone networks cannot reach.

As we bumped back along the road for hours, I lay out on some sacks in the back of our pickup truck and watched the night sky.

Every now and again we passed the statuesque trees that in their younger days had had to stretch towards those very stars to break through the high forest canopy.

Now many years later, they have been exposed and stand as a last lonely testament to a fallen forest.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 12 February, 2009 at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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