Rubber for Cocoa?

According to a report in Agence France Press, an increasing number of farmers in the Côte d’Ivoire are abandoning cocoa farming in favor or growing rubber trees. If that trend is indeed as widespread as the article claims–hundreds of hectares every year–then this important news.

At the core of this trend is, of course, the question of price. Farmers know what they need and when they say that “Cocoa does not allow you to live well,” as Enoch Youlepadante of Cantondougou is quoted, it spells trouble for cocoa.

According to the numbers cited in the article, natural rubber sells for €0.45 ($0.60) per kilogram while cocoa fetches €1.05 ($1.40). But the difference lies in the nature of the harvest. Rubber can be harvested year round while the cocoa harvest is limited to two harvest periods. The rubber tree is also much less fickle than the cocoa tree. It can withstand weather and insect predations much better.

Bi Gosse, a farmer who made the switch from cocoa to rubber expects a produce about 600 kilograms of rubber per month once the trees have matured. That should yield about €275 ($366), an income level he has not enjoyed as a cocoa farmer.

For the time being, these expectations may well come true. Natural rubber continues to be in short supply and high prices will continue. At the moment the Côte d’Ivoire produces about 188,000 tons of rubber a year, but production is set to increase rapidly in the future.

Whenever a new cash crop grabs the imagination of farmers, there’s always the danger that the rush into the new crop will reduce or eliminate the hectares devoted to food crop production. Proper planning and extension services could forestall such developments.

In the end, though, this development is a further indictment of the low prices farmers get for cocoa. Apologists for the rule of market forces will point out that this is exactly what should happen. If prices are low, farmers will leave the crop and production will decline. Prices will then increase and that will encourage farmers to get back into the game.

However, that will simply replicate the boom and bust cycle that has characterized tropical commodities for centuries. Sustainable procuction means first and foremost stability–for prices, the environment and society.

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