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.

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 Briéhoua, 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.

Village official Stefan Kouassi talks of a "persistent tension" between his settler community of Yaokro and the indigenous villagers from Briéhoua.

Yaokro was established in 1967 by 30 families from the Baoulé ethnic group who had migrated from central Ivory Coast. But Briéhoua's people are from the Bete tribe and see themselves as the ultimate owners of the land, on the basis of centuries-old ancestral tradition.

Celine Koukou Ahou, an ethnic Baoulé from Yaokro, says she can no longer sell food in the main local market because of harassment. "They [the Betes] say the land is theirs - that we should go back to where we came from."

Unemployment spurring return to land

Pressure on the land has grown since war broke out, as rising unemployment has pushed many people to return to their home villages.

"In the sixties, the Baoulés came and set themselves up here, so there is no more place for us to set up farms," says Briéhoua resident Bruno Gnaore Mennessou.

Changes in Ivory Coast's land laws have contributed to the tension here. Independence leader Felix Houphouët-Boigny, who ruled Ivory Coast from 1960 until his death in 1993, issued a 1967 decree saying that "land belongs to the person who cultivates it." He encouraged millions of migrants to head for the west and southwest, burning down swathes of virgin forest to set up cocoa farms.

The two major groups of migrants were from Burkina Faso, to the north of Ivory Coast, and Mr. Houphouët-Boigny's own Baoulé group - the country's largest ethnic group, from the central region.

New law erodes migrants' land claims

But Laurent Gbagbo, the current president and a Bete, has given his backing to a law on land ownership which gives priority to traditional, ancestral land rights - a reversal of Houphouët-Boigny's policy. Although the law was passed in 1998, it had languished unimplemented until Mr. Gbagbo came to power in 2000.

Under a January 2003 peace deal, some of the law's perceived anti-immigrant provisions were softened. However, the formal recognition of ancestral land rights remains in the law and has hardened the positions of indigenous groups such as the Betes who are now seeking to grab land from settlers, either through the courts or by force.

Mr. Mennessou is upset that the Baoulés of Yaokro, on his ancestral land, are refusing to give up part of their farmland. "The guy took 20 hectares of cocoa-land, and I said I want five, so that I can get by.... They said 'no, that's too difficult.' "

In August, Briéhoua began confiscating some land from Yaokro, but the process stopped, at least temporarily, with the fight in October.

Betes throughout their southwestern home region echo the anti-settler sentiment.

"The foreigners didn't even ask permission from anyone" to take farmland, says Oubon Andre Okrou, the chief of nearby Gra-Zie village. "Now there are youths here who don't have anywhere to farm."

In the southwest, the term "foreigner" is used for anyone outside of the region - whether Ivorian or not.

Okrou's deputy, Prignon Michel Zie, praises the 1998 land law. "Now, the land has an owner - it's the indigenous people," he says. "Now, I control my land. That's good."

The sentiment is not shared by the people of Yaokro. "Ever since Gbagbo came, there is trouble," resident Kouakou Kouakou told journalists at a village gathering. "We are not going anywhere. We will stay here to fight, even if we die here."

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