I arrived in Abidjan, Cote D’Ivoire, land of cacao and coffee, almost a week ago now. It’s not my first time in West Africa. I had last been to Cote D’Ivoire in 2004, and during that time experienced the violence between pro-government militias and the French peacekeeping troops. At that time, military roadblocks were common along all roadways and made travel throughout the country incredibly difficult. Power and water outages were so frequent that we kept water bottles next to the sinks for collection for when the water was available if we wanted to later wash and spent much of the time in the dark.
Times have changed, but the country is still not entirely free from the grips of war. Roadblocks, from what I can tell so far, are much more infrequent, and run mostly by the police (to catch speeding and unlicensed drivers) now instead of the military. The power has only gone out one evening for a few hours during a scheduled outage (the government’s attempt to save electricity) –and the water, thankfully, has so far been steady. Almost all stores still employ Security guards in bright yellow shirts and have thick fences, bars and gates that lock after entry or exit. The scheduled 2005 governmental elections have been delayed and rescheduled numerous times and have still yet to occur. Voter identification processes and security concerns continue to plague the elections process. A process of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) of some of the rebel groups began in December of 2007, but was upset in June of 2008 after former rebels were delayed in receiving payments for their alternative “micro-projects”. Many took to the streets in protest, attacking civilians, seizing vehicles, setting up barricades and looting shops. While this violence has now settled, the continuing delays in elections and DDR processes leave a fragile peace.
Of course, resources play their part in Cote D’Ivoire’s conflict, as they do in any conflict. I watch everyday as trucks heavily loaded with timber (mostly mahogany, but also teak, frake, framire, pine, samba, cedar, gmelina, niangon, and bete) make their way along the highway to the coastal port in Abidjan, destined for Italy, Spain, Germany, France, the Netherlands, the UK, India, Ireland, Senegal and Morocco, among other places. I see one pass the highway in front of my apartment every couple of minutes or so during the day. I often wonder whether these are legally or illegally traded, where the profits from these logging activities go and whether or not they are supporting violence along the way.
Conflict resources encompass far more than just minerals and metals that receive the bulk of media attention. Logging supports violent activities all over the globe, as do resources such as cocoa and coffee. Child slavery and child labour is a major problem of the cocoa trade in Cote D’Ivoire. An estimated 130,000 (some say as high as 200,000) children work in cocoa production in the country (6% under the age of 10, 40% between the ages 10 and 14 and 54% between the ages of 15 and 17), often handling pesticides without protective equipment, using machetes and transporting excessively heavy loads. Approximately 12,000 of these children are thought to be trafficked and essentially enslaved. A voluntary certification process was created to help alleviate this problem, but lost its funding and was discontinued in 2006. As Cote D’Ivoire supplies almost 50% of the world’s supply of cocoa, this means that slavery has quite possibly touched much of the chocolate that sits in our North American stores.
I am hoping that during my time here in West Africa, I will get the chance to look into these trades in more depth, and interview some of the affected populations. For now, I sit in Abidjan, watching the trucks roll by, while I enjoy a bit of a vacation over the next few weeks.