Abidjan - A delay in government distribution of agricultural chemicals in Ivory Coast has hampered cocoa farmers' ability to fight off an outbreak of disease ahead of the new crop season.
The 2012/13 season gets under way in the world's top grower with the marketing of the main crop harvest from October 1. Abundant showers since the rainy season began in April have raised farmers' hopes of a robust start to the season.
But unseasonably cool and overcast conditions during the critical months of July and August have led to an outbreak of the fungal black pod disease on plantations, left particularly vulnerable by a lack of chemical treatments.
"If the farmers had been able to apply phytosanitary products, we wouldn't have the cases of black pod that we're seeing now," said Joseph Amani, who farms in the eastern Abengourou region.
Farmers in Ivory Coast typically apply pesticides and anti-fungal treatments twice a year, in July or August and then again in December or January, in order to boost yields and ensure bean quality.
The Coffee and Cocoa Council, the country's marketing board, organises distribution of chemicals in selected areas, but farmers said that has not happened this year.
"There's a delay this year. We still haven't received any products from the CCC. We don't know why," said Marcel Aka, a farmer and cooperative member from the western region of Daloa, which accounts for around a quarter of national output.
"It is late, and if the climate is very humid and very overcast in September, there will be lots of rot and very little cocoa in October," he said.
A CCC official, who asked not to be named, said a distribution was planned but gave no further details on when it would take place.
Exporters, who often pre-finance chemical treatments for farmer cooperatives with whom they've established relationships, say they too were reluctant to invest in distribution of chemicals this year.
Ivory Coast is currently implementing a sweeping reform of its cocoa sector aimed at guaranteeing minimum prices for farmers from the start of the 2012/13 season.
Buyers and exporters, however, have complained that disputes over a number of issues remain unresolved. Without changes ahead of the start of the season, they fear they could face losses.
"Because of the uncertainty surrounding the reform ... I don't think any exporters are distributing (pesticides and anti-fungal products)," one Abidjan-based purchasing manager told Reuters.
Compounding the problem have been this season's poor harvests, which left most farmers with little cash on hand to finance chemical treatments themselves.
This season has been plagued by poor weather and is expected to fall short of the record harvests in 2010/11, when Ivory Coast produced over 1.5 million tonnes.
"You need about 25 000 CFA francs including labour costs and equipment to properly treat one hectare of cocoa," said Emile Konan, who manages a cooperative in Soubre.
"The farmers don't have the means due to the bad mid-crop ... We are going to lose a lot of pods because of this," he said.
As part of the reform process, Ivory Coast is forward-selling its 2012/13 cocoa, with auction prices to be used to calculate a benchmark price for the season. Farmers will then receive at least 50 to 60 percent of that price.
The CCC used an average of annual production figures for the past 10 years, excluding last year's record harvest, to calculate a 2012/13 projection of 1.3 million tonnes.
Last month it said it had already sold 910,000 tonnes, or nearly 70 percent of that projection, and would make available a total of 1 040 000 tonnes.
"We will have an impact on yield. And so there will be a drop in volume. We were already fearing a drop in production mainly from El Nino, which could cause dry weather in production zones," said a second exporter, who asked not to be named.
"Without the help of phytosanitary products, I'm wondering if we can reach a million tonnes in the main crop," he said.