This tropical West African nation, once the most prosperous in the region, is sliding even deeper into civil war. At press time, after a weeklong street battle for Abidjan, the commercial capital of 5 million, there were reports of a fragile settlement. But the vicious violence could break out again at any time. Mainstream Western press accounts included depressingly familiar explanations: the stolen presidential election in November, rising ethnic conflict. The explanations were accurate, as far as they went.
Right now, Côte d’Ivoire’s 21.5 million people are living in a terrible human rights crisis, a catastrophe that is being downplayed partly because the uprisings in the Arab world are distracting attention. But several thousand people have already died here, and up to 1 million are refugees. The small United Nations peacekeeping force should be strengthened, and the world pressure to force the election’s loser, Laurent Gbagbo, to give way to Alassane Ouattara must continue. (Right now Gbagbo is still hanging on to power.) But a change in presidents will not end the danger—and the crisis in Côte d’Ivoire is representative of deeply rooted structural problems in many other African nations.
You have to come here, to one of the forest regions where Côte d’Ivoire’s million-plus cocoa farmers live, to find the fundamental reason that fighting is breaking out again: a profoundly unjust international economic order that pays the people who supply our primary products a pittance and leaves their nations chronically ill with unemployment and poverty, and with people who will fight one another over scarce resources. Here, too, you will learn that the giant American agribusiness corporations Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) are one part of the problem, even though their names do not appear in the grim dispatches about widespread killings and mass graves.
At first glance, this humid eastern zone, thick with tropical forest, may seem like a frontier, on the fringes of the modern world. In fact, Côte d’Ivoire is the world’s largest producer of cocoa beans. Giant global industries are based on cocoa; any chocolate bar sold in the United States is likely to include products from here. What looks like forest turns out to be mixed plantations carved out by hard-working small growers using axes and hand tools, who have to wait patiently, living off their other subsistence crops like bananas and manioc, for three to five years until the cocoa trees bear their first golden pods.
At the moment, the world cocoa price in London is high, roughly 1,600 West African francs per kilo. But the small farmers here laugh bitterly at that figure; they are lucky if they get half of it for their sacks of beans. Cargill, ADM and a big Swiss concern, Barry Callebaut, are some of the biggest buyers; during the harvest season that ended last fall their Ivorian agents fanned out across the southern part of the country, offering much less than the world price. Then Gbagbo’s corrupt government took a big bite in “official” taxes. Finally, the small farmers paid bribes at the police roadblocks that regularly cut the highway down to the port at Abidjan.
Ivorian cocoa farmers are self-confident men and women, pioneers who take all the risks themselves. They are not like the frightened and deferential rural poor people you might find on some big landlord’s estate in Central America or Pakistan. Even though many of them have never actually eaten a bar of chocolate, they know roughly how much one costs in America and Europe, and they are indignant that they are paid so little for their years of hard work.