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TRADE-WEST AFRICA: Swollen Shoot Disease Devastating Cocoa Trees

Francis Kokutse

ACCRA, Nov 27 2008 (IPS) - On a hot November afternoon, Opanin Owusu Adu showed me around his farm on the outskirts of Suhum, a town in the Eastern Region in Ghana.

Cocoa leaves discoloured by swollen shoot disease. Credit:  Francis Kokutse/IPS

Cocoa leaves discoloured by swollen shoot disease. Credit: Francis Kokutse/IPS

He pointed out what has happened to the cocoa trees that he had hoped to make a living from. With a sad voice he said, ‘‘my son, that is what the people say swollen shoot disease does to the cocoa trees’’.

What should have been golden pods, have become blackened, dried up and withered. ‘‘You cannot cultivate these ones. It means no money.’’

Swollen shoot disease is a problem across the West African region. Farmers in Ghana, Ivory Coast, Togo and Nigeria have not been spared the devastation.

Worried by its long-term effect, Ghana’s President John Kufuor early this year called on the regional grouping the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to take steps to fight the disease.

Ghanaians are worried because the cocoa bean is the country’s main export. The country stands to benefit from this year’s high commodity prices. Issac Osei, chief executive of the country’s cocoa regulator known as Cocobod, has said the country is keen to increase its production to one million metric tons a year.

The Nigeria-based Cocoa Producers Alliance (COPAL), a grouping of global cocoa producers, has taken the lead to find ways to fight the disease.

The executive director of Ghana’s Cocoa Swollen Shoot Virus Control Unit, Francis Nsiah, told IPS in an interview, ‘‘COPAL is assisting the cocoa-producing countries in the region to combat the disease.

‘‘Ghana, Togo, Nigeria and Ivory Coast have signed an agreement to tackle the disease and this has been going on for the past two years with support from COPAL.’’

He said the disease has devastated cocoa farms all across Ghana's main cocoa-producing areas. ‘‘It used to be the Eastern Region alone but it is now affecting farms in the Western Region, which is the country's cocoa basket.’’

According to Nsiah, about 32 million trees affected by the disease have been cut down throughout the country in the past 10 years or so. ‘‘However only about 60 percent of the replanting has been done so far,’’ he added.

The replanting effort proved difficult because of the attitude of some farmers, Nsiah complained. His unit not only cuts down the affected trees but pays grants to farmers and provides seedlings at subsidised rates for replanting.

He said the disease would not in any way affect Ghana's plan to achieve a production target of one million metric tons by 2010 because most of the newly planted trees will mature early.

Michael Owusu-Manu, COPAL’s head of economics, told IPS that, ‘‘the swollen shoot disease has been around West Africa for the last 70 years. It was this disease that led to the creation of the West Africa Cocoa Research Institute (WACRI) at Tafo in the eastern region in Ghana.’’ It provided an opportunity for scientists to find ways to contain the disease.

After independence, WACRI became the Cocoa Research Institute of Ghana and ‘‘has all these years been working on the disease. To take this more seriously, the Ghana Cocoa Board set up a special unit, the Cocoa Swollen Shoot Virus Disease Unit, to carry out control programmes,’’ Owusu-Manu added.

Swollen shoot disease is found mainly in the western African sub-region in the countries of Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana and Togo and, to some extent, Nigeria. No reports have been received from Cameroon, but ‘‘this is under investigation’’, according to Owusu-Manu.

The disease accounts for about 15 percent of the total global loss of the crop. Taking this in terms of the 2007/08 crop output of about 3.7 million tons, the disease would account for the loss of approximately 555,000 tons throughout West Africa.

‘‘The only way to combat the disease is to cut out infected trees,’’ he added.

Some farmers, like Opanin Owusu Adu, do not see the sense in this. ‘‘Until the new tree produces crops, we need to take care of our families. You don’t tell your children that some disease has affected your wealth so there is nothing to take care of them.’’ This is the problem that the attempt to control the disease is facing in Ghana.

For Owusu-Manu the answers lies in more research and better coordination of actions. ‘‘We have developed a regional project in coordination with Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria and Togo. This is being done under our Scientific Research Committee to bring together researchers, policy makers and other stakeholders in the sub-region.’’

Hopefully this initiative will provide some answers. Otherwise cocoa farmers across West Africa face a bleak future.

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