I like the stiff public scrutiny that the Free SHS policy has been subjected to. I think it is what we failed to do for cocoa farmers when former president Mahama’s administration, under the leadership of embattled Dr. Steven Kwabena Opuni, decided to ask cocoa farmers to cut down their swollen shoot infested cocoa trees other than the “norm” in 2013.
Maybe Civil Society Organizations, the media, think tanks and other systems to have probed the directive didn’t care that much about farmers, like we are doing for education. Because, if we did, we could have anticipated the consequences of asking Cocoa Health and Extension Officers; people trained to ensure the health of cocoa trees, not to cut down infested cocoa trees as had been the norm, other than handing this crucial and sensitive work to cocoa farmers who “love” their cocoa trees.
The result today is that millions of cocoa trees across the country are infested and it keeps spreading fast. The sad part is how our loud silence successfully brought poverty to the doorsteps of these farmers, and the cut in expectation of COCOBOD’s annual tonnage. The picture is a sad one!
We all know that the Western Region has been producing 50 percent of all cocoa beans exported from this country since the 1980s. The mention of cocoa in the Western Region brings to mind the nine districts of the Sefwi Areas.
But cocoa trees in the region are sick and are going to be cut down. A large number of them!
COCOBOD has divided the Western Region into two. Western North, comprising the 9 districts in the Sefwi Areas, and Western South also comprising the three Wassa Amenfi Districts and other cocoa growing districts down south.
Over the years, even though the Western Region has been the leading producer of cocoa, [compared to the Ashanti, Eastern, Central, Brong Ahafo and the rest], the Western North produces the most cocoa beans.
However, explanations from COCOBOD’s Health and Extension Service manager in charge of the nine Sefwi Districts [Western North] Samuel Amposah, are depressing.
He told me last week that “17 percent of the country’s entire cocoa trees have been infected by the virus. When you run the 17 percent into hundred, you realize that 68 percent of that are trees in the Western Region, making Western Region the most affected area by the virus. And when you do a further run of the 68 percent to hundred, you get to see that, 42 percent are trees in Western North Region, [the Sefwi Areas]. What this means is that, almost half of all cocoa trees in the Sefwi Areas are infected with the virus and we have to cut them down.”
So I inquired how the situation is with Western South. The man in charge is Camil Attipoe. He said a “similar percentage is for us in the Western South Region and they are all supposed to be [treated] cut down”.
The 17 percent national swollen shoot virus infection rate involves huge number of cocoa trees on several thousands of acres. In this year alone, the number of trees earmarked to be taken down is 10,000 acres in the Western and Eastern Regions. Just imagine half of all cocoa trees in the Sefwi areas are going to be taken down. It’s scarier right? Think of its effect on the livelihood of the affected farmers! There is more to even follow later. It’s the reason the current government has had to secure funds to compensate them whilst they wait for new trees to be replanted. But how did we arrive here?
Genesis of the problem
In 2013, contrary to the norm where COCOBOD’s Health and Extension Officers were cutting down individual infested trees spotted in individual cocoa farms, former president Mahama’s administration took the decision that the officers should leave the infested tree cutting to the farmers whilst the officers provide assistance. This was followed by the distribution of free fertilizers and other farming inputs.
The story of how the free distribution of fertilizer panned out was something former president Mahama was made aware of. My investigations revealed two key issues:
Fertilizers were shared to only farmers with uninfected farms, leaving infected untreated.
It was only farmers whose farms had no virus throughout the free distribution period that qualified to be supplied the free fertilizers, leaving farms with fewer or many virus infected the more. Further infestations meant further spread to farms even without the virus that has qualified for the fertilizers. There were other criteria to be met apart from having an uninfected farm which basically wanted just healthy farms.
Distribution by favoritism and one’s political extraction.
The other point is how politics and favoritism dominated the distribution. “It was based on one’s political extraction. At the end of the day, it was which political side [NDC or NPP] you are known to be associated with that dominated the sharing. One cocoa farmer at Manso Amenfi said. Other stories were just not in favor of the health of cocoa trees which know not any political color.
“When the fertilizers were brought, they had to give out the share of the chief, the linguist, his elders and the queen mothers first. It was followed by the party [NDC] constituency executives, before the party supporters… In fact, we had people who had no cocoa trees receiving hundreds of bags and reselling them at higher prices to those who couldn’t get it”. Benjamin Amoh, Chief Farmer of Nsabrekwa in the Amenfi West Municipal Area said.
Daale, a farmer at Samreboi also said that “We heard the fertilizers were to be distributed free of charge. But after we and about 60 farmers were made to pay Gh 100 each, we were not even supplied what we paid for”.
Woeful quantities of insecticides supplied
The other shocking factor was the quantity of insecticide that was being shared to farmers alongside the fertilizers. Bear in mind the farmers were now to cut down infested trees, not extension officers anymore.
“I am the chief farmer at Nsabrekwa community. My name is Benjamin Amoh. I was given 12 bottles of Akate Master [Insecticide] that I had to share with my 450 farmers in my village. Just imagine how we were going to share that”.
Another community leader at Kwaman, near Akyekyere [Tortoise] explained that “after we paid that Gh 1,600 to him [name withheld], he brought the bags of fertilizer below the number we had paid for”.
“Besides, what was even shocking, which we even considered a court action, was the number of insecticides he brought to all the farmers who paid the money. He brought just 12 bottles for all the farmers in this [Kwaman] community to share to fight the virus. How were we going to share that, and for what purpose in the farms”?
That decision by former president Mahama and Dr. Steven Kwabena Opuni as CEO of COCOBOD didn’t help the fight against the spread of the swollen shoot virus. But I also wanted to inquire from the farmers why they failed to do the needful.
Livelihood and fear of the unknown
A farmer, Sanford Adu at Brozekrom in Amenfi West Municipality explained that, “I was afraid that if I cut down my trees because they are infected, the owner of the land on which I am farming will take his land back. Besides, there was no compensation for me to live on it till the new trees I had to replanted are matured. What was I and my family going to eat?”
Eric Afful, a cocoa farmer at Sureso, also in the Wassa Amenfi West District explained that “Some of us also felt that, if a tree is infected and the tree doesn’t die instantly, why cut it down immediately when you could still harvest the pods until the last pod drops? I was not going to do that when it borders on livelihood”.
Auntie Monica, also at Sureso revealed that “the free seedlings that we were to replant after cutting infected trees landed in farms that didn’t need them. Whenever I am going to my farm, I pass by a group of seedlings at one side all growing at the very place they were sent. I know the man, but how do I confront him?”
A dwindling production despite free distribution
The various reasons for not cutting down infected cocoa trees meant that the virus had all the time between 2013 and 2017 to spread from one farm to another. The effect is enormous.
12 out of every 100 bags of cocoa beans bought by purchasing clerks are bad.
At Sureso is a Trans Royal Asankragua Buying Depot. In fact there are other individual “home” purchasing depots. It is here I spotted some five persons picking and choosing from several bags of already bought cocoa beans. It was shocking to hear that, for every 100 bags of beans bought from farmers, 12 will turn out to be bad beans which have to be handpicked and thrown away.
“When the trees are infected by the virus, the pods and its content are infected too. At the moment, you are unable to determine which beans you are buying are from bad pods. So after you also dry them, you then get to see the problem. For the past four years, for every hundred bags of cocoa beans that we buy, 12 bags will be thrown away. Picking the bad beans from them will leave you 88 bags of every 100 bags you can transport to the main depot. It’s a cost we have had to bear”. Purchasing clerk in charge of Trans Royal Asankragua Depot Charles said.
Competition over beans
The effect of this wrong policy direction is that “these days, the beans are so scarce that farmers who have them do not allow them to properly dry in the sun before sending them for purchases”. Grace Andoh, a purchasing clerk at Brodzekrom said on March 22nd this year.
“The beans are scarce my brother. And so if you insist the farmers allow them the time to dry well before they bring it, your competitor will buy them in that state and you will lose. I used to buy close to 2,000 bags, but in the past four years, the maximum I could buy is 900 bags. There is serious competition for the beans among purchasing clerks here in Wassa Amenfi”. She added.
Truly, the chickens have come home to roast! On this note, the ‘new’ government would have to act fast to restore the dwindling fortunes of our national pride before it gets too late! It also dawns on us to scrutinize policies of state institutions for farmers in particular, for there are more weighing them down than we think!
By: Obrempong Yaw Ampofo/citinewsroom.com/Ghana