ABIDJAN- An attack in western Ivory Coast that killed 18 people last week, including seven United Nations peacekeepers, has driven hundreds of farmers off some of the country’s richest cocoa farmland, growers and local officials said.
The U.N. said 10 civilians and an Ivorian soldier also died when gunmen ambushed a joint U.N.-Ivorian security patrol near the town of Para, not far from the top cocoa grower’s western border with Liberia.
“People are tired of living in permanent insecurity and are ready to leave the region. They aren’t ready to die for nothing, even if they are attached to their cocoa and rubber plantations,” said Yaya Ouattara, a local member of parliament.
“This is going to disturb cocoa production, because Para is the biggest zone for production in the region,” he said.
The strip of borderland from the town of Tai down to Tabou on the coast contains some of Ivory Coast’s newest plantations. Situated around the Tai forest, one of West Africa’s last remaining rainforests, the area enjoys year-round rainfall.
Exporters based in nearby San Pedro estimate production in the zone at around 80,000 tonnes of high quality beans.
A U.N. humanitarian official said that aid workers had already counted about 1,500 displaced villagers. The figure may be higher but insecurity made access tricky, they said.
Ivory Coast claimed the attack was carried out by Liberian mercenaries and Ivorian militia who crossed over from Liberia. Monrovia has not confirmed the claim but said it officially closed its porous eastern border as a security precaution.
The border zone has also been among the areas worst-hit by long-running, and often violent, land disputes between the native Guere ethnic group and farmers from elsewhere in Ivory Coast, Mali and Burkina Faso, who were initially migrant workers but now own most of the plantation land.
A decade of simmering violence in the cocoa belt flared during a brief civil war that broke out last year after then President Laurent Gbagbo refused to recognise the late 2010 election victory of his rival, Alassane Ouattara.
Both sides are accused of using the conflict to commit massacres and settle scores related to land issues.
“My friends and I were able to see for ourselves five Burkinabes who had been chopped to pieces with machetes. We saw that,” said Yaya Coulibaly, a member of parliament and cocoa grower who visited the site of last week’s attack on Monday.
“This isn’t political. This is a problem linked to land.”
Thousands of pro-Gbagbo militia and their Liberian mercenary allies crossed into Liberia following Gbagbo’s arrest last year.
Before the attack, Human Rights Watch warned that those same fighters had carried out at least four cross-border raids, killing 40 in attacks on non-Guere believed to support Ouattara.
Ivory Coast is in its April-to-September mid-crop, and production is expected to peak in July and August.
However, local residents say some cocoa growers are leaving the camps on their plantations for the safety of larger towns, while others are abandoning the area entirely.
“The farmers are not in safety on the plantations, because there are regular, violent attacks, and no one seems to be taking care of us,” said Christian Kassarate, a farmer and deputy village chief in Karie, six kilometres from Para.
“We don’t know when they will attack, where they will attack …and because of that, the non-native Baoules and Burkinabes prefer to leave,” he said.