By Ana Ionova and Josiane Kouagheu
LONDON/DOUALA, Cameroon (Reuters) – Cocoa firms operating in Cameroon have moved staff out of the Anglophone region of the country and farmers are abandoning their crops in the area, as violence between separatists and security forces intensifies, exporters and farmers told Reuters.
Sources say the deepening conflict has started denting cocoa output and flow from the southwest, stripping the region of its mantle as Cameroon’s top cocoa-growing area.
Telcar Cocoa, Olam and Theobroma are among the firms that have moved the majority of their staff out of southwest Cameroon due to safety concerns, according to several sources with knowledge of the matter.
Some cocoa farmers have also abandoned their plantations and fled, driven out by a rise in kidnappings, extortion and fighting between insurgents and security forces.
“Producers have fled into the bush and elsewhere, and can no longer take care of their plantations,” said James Mosima, president of the union of southwest cocoa farmers. “The situation is really very difficult.”
Cameroon has been gripped by violence since November 2016, when government forces crushed a movement of Anglophone teachers and lawyers protesting against their perceived marginalisation by the country’s French-speaking majority.
The protests morphed into an insurgency of separatists seeking independence for the Anglophone southwest and northwest regions, which were controlled by Britain during colonialism.
The crisis has intensified ahead of elections in October, with the increasingly bloody clashes hitting cocoa trade in what was once the key cocoa region of Cameroon, the world’s fifth-largest producer.
In recent months, insurgents have abducted and killed soldiers while security forces responded by burning villages and opening fire on fleeing residents, according to witnesses. The army denies such accusations.
Sources say deteriorating security has made it increasingly difficult for cocoa buyers and exporters to operate in the area. At least one warehouse belonging to Telcar, the largest buyer in the region, was burned, according to several sources with knowledge of the matter.
The crisis has led major cocoa firms – including Telcar Cocoa, Theobroma and Olam – to relocate most of their staff from the region, according to sources.
Telcar Cocoa is a joint venture between Cargill and Cameroonian businesswoman Kate Kanyi Fotso Tometi. Theobroma is part of ECOM Group.
The sources said Theobroma has relocated its staff some 150 km (95 miles) south, from the Mamfe region to Kumba. Olam, meanwhile, has moved staff out of Mamfe and Kumba to the economic capital, Douala, the sources said.
Most international companies had small teams stationed in the region, they said, with one of the sources estimating 15-20 people were moved altogether.
Cargill declined to comment. Olam and ECOM did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Cameroon’s trade minister and Fotso also declined to answer questions about the crisis in the Anglophone regions.
Most international export firms now use local buying agents as intermediaries to source cocoa from the affected areas, exporters said.
“At one point, if the effort or the risk is too much … you leave it to the buying agents,” one source at an international firm said.
Some farmers also said they had fled, fearing violence and threats from separatists demanding payments to allow cocoa to move out of the southwest.
Several cocoa farmers who had left that region told Reuters armed groups had been targeting “rich men” and demanding money to allow the flow of goods out of the area.
In June, Peter, 59, abandoned his cocoa farm and sought refuge in Douala with his wife and four children.
“Since (the) beginning of this year … not a week has passed without an exchange of fire between army and separatist fighters,” said Peter, who declined to give his last name for security reasons.
“I had three hectares of cocoa and I gave up everything. I could not stay because, apart from bullets, the separatists extorted money from us.”
As many as 200,000 people have fled the English-speaking regions since late last year, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
As farmers flee the southwest, sources say the conflict has started to hit cocoa output and flow.
The southwest accounted for 45 percent of Cameroon’s production in 2016/17, but its share dropped to 32 percent last season, according to CICC, the country’s cocoa regulator.
Cameroon produced 253,510 tonnes of beans in the 2017-2018 season.
The conflict has made it more difficult to move beans out of the Anglophone region and into the main port in Douala, the sources said.
Cameroon’s cocoa stocks built up to 21,159 tonnes in 2017-2018, from 7,212 tonnes in the prior season, according to the National Office of Cocoa and Coffee (ONCC).
“The vast majority of this stock is in the English-speaking region because the fighting paralyses everything,” a source at the ONCC said.
However, trade sources said cocoa was still finding its way out of the southwest, as more beans were being smuggled into Nigeria instead.
One trade source estimated that volumes flowing across the border rose to 30,000-40,000 tonnes last season, from about 10,000 in previous years.
“At the end of the day, cocoa is money for the locals,” the source said. “It’s like water – it always finds its way out.”
(Additional reporting by Ange Aboa in Abidjan; Editing by Dale Hudson)