By Ange Aboa
DIVO, Ivory Coast (Reuters) - Extortion at illegal roadblocks manned by police, soldiers and customs officials has increased in Ivory Coast's main cocoa regions in recent months and threatens to undermine reforms aimed at improving farmer incomes, officials said on Thursday.
Main crop harvesting in the world's top cocoa grower opened earlier this month with an overhaul of the sector that saw the government fix a guaranteed farmgate price of 725 CFA francs ($1.43) per kg for the 2012/13 season.
The reform measures are intended to encourage farmers to reinvest in their ageing plantations and improve cocoa quality, but bribe payments not factored into an already tight reimbursable cost scale could derail the scheme.
"The cocoa sector is losing 10 billion (CFA francs) each year, and if we do nothing about it our farmers won't be able to receive the guaranteed price," Mohamed Kouyate, the head of Ivory Coast's Transport Flow Observatory, told Reuters.
The number of roadblocks ballooned during Ivory Coast's decade-long political crisis, which ended last year in a brief civil war. Most are located along the principal arteries used to transport cocoa to the two ports of Abidjan and San Pedro.
A senior military official, who was not authorized to speak to the press, told Reuters that the army was working to clamp down on illegal roadblocks through its participation in a new anti-extortion unit comprised of soldiers, police and gendarmes.
And while the government promised to fight the phenomenon after the conflict ended, a raft of armed raids since early August blamed on supporters of former president Laurent Gbagbo has further increased the number of checkpoints.
"With the security situation these last weeks, we're counting between 200 and 300 roadblocks, most of which are illegal," Kouyate said.
The government-funded watchdog recognizes just 33 authorized checkpoints for the entire country.
Ivory Coast's marketing board, the Coffee and Cocoa Council (CCC), has set up a hotline to allow middle men to report illegal roadblocks and plans to distribute vehicles to the anti-extortion unit.
But the CCC's director, Massandje Toure, acknowledged during a visit to Divo, among the country's most productive cocoa regions, that the program had struggled to make headway.
"I learned that transporters who refused to pay bribes on the road to Abengourou were beaten by (the army) because they called the hotline to complain," Toure said.
"It's the security forces who are involved in this racket, and everyone knows it. We are going to do everything possible to ensure that there is no impact on the farmgate price," she said.
Under the new scheme, the middle men responsible for collecting from plantations and delivering to the ports the bulk of Ivorian cocoa production can no longer pass along the cost of bribes to farmers in the form of lower prices for beans.
The merchants initially threatened to block the start of the season over reimbursable transport costs proposed by the CCC, but agreed to participate after the body raised its cost estimate.
However, they now say they that poor road conditions and extortion risk leaving them with losses. And authorities have already arrested three middle men for cocoa price violations since the season began on October 3.
"The current system is such that if you have to pay extra costs, you can't earn any money. You lose out and you risk having problems with the exporters," said Ehui Besson, director of the CAFCO buying center in Divo.
"We're going to try two more trips into the bush, and if the bribes wipe out our profits, we're going to stop working," he said.
(Writing By Joe Bavier; editing by Richard Valdmanis and Keiron Henderson)