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The Ivory Coast's cocoa war

Small-scale fighting over land in the cocoa-rich southwest is at the heart of the larger civil war.

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When neighbors came to take away their decades-old cocoa farmland at peak harvest time this fall, the people of this small settlement of mud huts decided to resist.

In the brawl that ensued, the flimsy walls of huts were smashed down. Worse was avoided when a village elder from neighboring BriƩhoua, who claims ownership of the land, called his men back from the farms.

But the affair is not over yet - not for the two ethnically divided communities at loggerheads here, nor for thousands of villages dotted throughout war-divided Ivory Coast's south, where 40 percent of the world's cocoa is grown.

While this area is far from the frontlines of the 2002-03 civil war in which rebels took control of the northern half of the country, land disputes in this southern region could reignite the ethnically based conflict.

In May and June this year, an estimated 123 people were killed in attacks in three villages in the government-controlled southwest - the most serious cases yet of increasingly frequent fighting over cocoa-rich land. A UN report said the violence raised the "risk of widespread conflict" in a country where 10,000 peacekeepers are helping maintain a shaky cease-fire.

Ivory Coast is home to 65 different ethnic groups. When the country won independence from France in 1960, a migration churned the ethnic composition of the country's southwest. Millions of foreigners and Ivorians from other parts of the country moved to the lush region, setting up the hundreds of thousands of small cocoa farms which form the backbone of the economy.

With cocoa money, Ivory Coast built itself up into what was for decades the success story of West Africa. But now, the migration responsible for the cocoa boom is fueling unrest.

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