Ivory Coast cocoa sector hit by certification fraud

A worker empties bags with cocoa beans in a chocolate factory in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. [Legnan Koula/EPA]

In the Ivory Coast a large proportion of cocoa comes from its protected forests. This illegally grown cocoa is then marketed by major chocolate manufacturers, with certification procedures having little impact on this illicit trade. EURACTIV.fr reports

In the village of Taobly in the Ivory Coast, no one seems to know where the Mont Tia forest reserve really starts. The reserve of 24,000 hectares barely contains any forest cover now.

All around, cocoa plantations have taken the place of the original vegetation. “People came during the war and settled down in the forest to plant cocoa trees. However, the forest rangers are now telling them to ‘get out’”, says Denis Djea Gba, the head of the Taoly village.

In this village of 12,000 inhabitants, cocoa farming is the main source of income, and most of the villagers own plantations, in some cases no more than a few hectares.

Just outside the village, a plantation owner patiently gathers cocoa pods from his four hectares of land. Zango Draman maintains that he is not on the forest reserve: “This is the village forest, so no one tells us to leave.” But the boundaries between the protected and unprotected areas are unclear.

Blurred lines

To protect their illegal plantations and sell their beans to the cocoa cooperatives, plantation owners have taken up the habit of moving the signs that mark the boundaries of the forest, and sometimes even simply destroy them. The forest reserve seems to shrink the further you go towards Mont Tia.

Illegal cocoa farming seems to be well established. “During the 2002 crisis, people moved into the forest, and the plantations have been there ever since”, says Moussa Koama, the head of the Burkinabé village.

The cocoa is sold through the normal distribution channel, despite the government’s claims that it wants to stop illegal cultivation and the resulting deforestation.

Consequently, around 40% of cocoa from the Ivory Coast – the world’s leading producer — comes from protected areas, as the head of the national state forest development agency SODEFOR himself admits, quoted in the report “Chocolate’s Dark Secret”, written by the NGO Mighty Earth.

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“As long as there are plantations, people will come to harvest them”, says the head of a plantation owners’ cooperative based in the city of Man, where a large share of the region’s cocoa is transported.

Officially, the city’s warehouses act as a central holding facility from which the cocoa is sold to corporations such as Cargill, Olam or Touton, which then transport it to Abidjan and San Pedro. Once the cargo has been dispatched to the country’s main ports, it is then sold on to international chocolate manufacturers such as Nestlé or Ferrero.

Middlemen shortcomings

In reality, cooperatives do not always represent plantation owners, and are often little more than buyers sourcing beans from middlemen working as fixers. This stage of proceedings makes it possible to integrate cocoa produced in the national parks and protected forest land into the official distribution channel for cocoa beans. “These fake cooperatives will buy from anywhere, without checking on the origin of the cocoa”, the head of a cooperative in Man acknowledged.

In the middle of Tia Forest, the harvest of cocoa pods has not ceased, despite the evictions and destructions of villages carried out by the forest guards playing at cops and robbers with the farmers.

Hidden within the forest, two young Ivorians keep a close watch on the bags filled with cocoa beans, which they plan to transport by motorbike. Spotted by forest guards, they abandon the bags before taking off.

Further along, a fixer on a bike carrying cocoa beans abandons his bike at the sight of the guards, before running off into the plantations. On his luggage rack there is a bag filled to the brim with beans held together by straps. There is no stamp on the bag from the Coffee and Cocoa Council (CCC), the body in charge of the sector.

With only a handful of officials and suffering from a high level of corruption, SODEFOR, in charge of protecting the site, has great difficulty in fulfilling its mission of protection and reforestation.

While the destruction of illegal camps is “almost complete” in the Mont Tia forest, the destruction of plantations seems to be taking its time. By way of example, in the space of a week SODEFOR managed to “destroy 7.5 hectares of cultivations by mobilising all of its officials” according to a local supervisor from water and forest resources department.

Another problem is the lack of public funding for the resettlement of cocoa cultivators deprived of their livelihood.

“SODEFOR should destroy the fields, but at the same time the government should also offer an alternative for these people as this what how they make their living”, says the head of a cooperative. “Cocoa farmers need to reap the fruit of their labour now” asserts Moussa Koama, whose Burkinabé community has suffered more than others from the SODEFOR crackdown.

Certification bonus

Of greater concern, is that fact that the certification procedures established in the Ivory Coast to develop a more responsible cocoa sector also seem to be affected by the black market.

Independent labelling bodies, such as Rainforest or UTZ, that are meant to ensure a certain number of fair trade principles such as sustainable farming, have also been affected by illegal cocoa.

Favoured by a number of major chocolate manufacturers like Mars and Lindt, which have committed themselves to buy only certified cocoa by 2020, these bodies are supposed to ensure an additional guarantee of responsible cocoa production.

To obtain such certification cooperatives have to fulfil a number of conditions, such as reasonable use of pesticides and the conservation of ecosystems. In reality, however, few plantation owners and cooperatives are aware of these obligations and inspections are rare and seldom unpredictable.

The much sought after certification enables cocoa farmers and cooperatives to sell cocoa at a higher price than that set by the Coffee and Cocoa Council (92 CFA francs extra per kilo). A not insignificant advantage especially when the price of cocoa has dropped drastically to 700 CFA francs.

Cases of fraud are common, “For the 2014-2015 harvest, we had the certification but during an inspection we realised that some certified cultivators were set up in the protected forest, so we lost it” says Bema Kamaté the manager of the Sivaco cooperative based in Man.

In a village in the Marahoué National Park, Narcisse Kouadio N’Guessan along with his wife own a cocoa plantation of a few hectares.  The cocoa pods dry in the sun, before being transported to Bouaflé the neighbouring village with several cooperatives. “My wife has the cocoa certification” the owner claims, maintaining that he received 56 000 CFA francs (€85) as a bonus at the last harvest. Still, the couple’s plantation is located within the boundaries of the Marahoué National Park.

“We have no interest in having plantations in protected forests. To ensure this we use GPS and we don’t accept farmers located within less than two kilometres from the start of the forest. We have also asked the forest guards to mark the limits of the forests”, says Mahmoud Traoré, the president of a cooperative in Man.

“Nowadays, we have observed a drop in rainfall in the region. Maybe ten years from now this will affect production and our business. If there’s no forest, there is no more cocoa” says the head of a cooperative.

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