Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa
By Órla Ryan
Zed Books Ltd Copyright © 2011 Órla Ryan
All rights reserved.
GHANA IS COCOA
On the shoulders of peasant farmers
The smell of cocoa, rich and sweet, is in the air in Larwehkrom, a village in western Ghana. Small brown beans dry on reed trays. Nearby trees are overgrown and heavy with green pods, large and small. In the weeks and months to come, these oval husks will ripen into yellow. Farmers will crack their hard shells and empty them of their white pulpy seeds, which they will sift, sort and dry. But now it is July, a low point in the season. The settlement is quiet. Skies are overcast. Children play with old bicycle tyres. Goats scrabble in the dirt near a stack of silvery tin basins. A kettle rumbles on a charcoal stove and a battery radio rattles out the news. Rain patters on the tin roof of his mud-brick house as Samuel Tei Larweh, 63, a village leader and an elder in the Church of Pentecost, sits on a wooden bench.
Larweh first came to this part of the country, then called the Gold Coast, at the age of 11. He left his home in the east to join his father, a timber contractor, in the west. Here, temperatures are high, rain falls in abundance and crops flourish in the rich and fertile soil. At that time, demand was growing for cocoa, the key ingredient in what was becoming the world's favourite sweet, chocolate. In 1959, with few trees left to fell, his father, Stephen Tetteh Larweh, decided to become a farmer.
Samuel's father was part of a long tradition of restless, pioneering cocoa farmers. These producers began growing the crop in the country's east in the late nineteenth century. They planted locally and then moved in search of new land to expand their farms. They paid in cash or shared the harvest with the local chief and labourers. With the money they made, they built new houses in their home towns and educated their children. As they expanded, cocoa swept from east to west. Eventually, it arrived in the district of Sefwi Wiawso, the westernmost part of Ghana, which its inhabitants now call the country's cocoa capital. Hundreds of people settled at the bottom of the hill in a village named Larwehkrom, after Stephen, its first farmer. Cocoa became known as the profitable tree. As the lyrics of one song popular in the 1950 s put it:
If you want to send your children to school, it is cocoa
If you want to build your house, it is cocoa
If you want to marry, it is cocoa
If you want to buy cloth, it is cocoa
If you want to buy lorry, it is cocoa
Whatever you want to do in this world
It is with cocoa money that you do it.
These small producers contributed to an explosion in global output. In 1895, world exports totalled 77,000 metric tonnes, with most of this cocoa coming from South America and the Caribbean. By 1925, exports reached more than 500,000 tonnes and the Gold Coast had become a leading exporter of cocoa, feeding chocolate factories all around the world. This increase was extraordinary, not least because this was not and has never been a plantation crop. Right from the start, these beans came mainly from small farms, most not more than a couple of acres in size.
The cocoa boom, wrote William Nowell, a senior British civil servant, was 'spontaneous and irresistible, almost unregulated'. In a government report in 1938, he wrote:
We found in the Gold Coast an agricultural industry that perhaps has no parallel in the world. Within about forty years, cocoa farming has developed from nothing until it now occupies a dominant position in the country's economy – cocoa being virtually the only commercial crop – and provides two fifths of the world's requirements. Yet the industry began and remains in the hands of small, independent native farmers.
The output of these smallholders has shaped not only the chocolate business but also the country itself. In those early heady days of the boom, new roads were constructed to help people get the beans out of the village and to the port. Buyers opened depots and wealthier producers built double-storeyed houses. Farmers frequently owned multiple plantations and absentee landlords were common. Politicians joke that it was a mistake for the colonialists to call the country the Gold Coast because, although it has gold, this is a nation, everyone agrees, built from cocoa money. As the saying goes, 'Cocoa is Ghana and Ghana is Cocoa'.
These beans have helped Larweh to feed and educate his children and enabled him to build a new house in his home town. Larweh seemed to me hardworking and resourceful. He grew other crops as well as cocoa, and people in the village spoke highly of him. But when I looked around the settlement in which he lived, he seemed to have little to show for his hard work. Larweh, his hair speckled with grey, has torch and lamplight, not electricity. A new borehole means the villagers now have clean water, but the village still lacks a school. A closer look at their relationships with buyers and government since independence offers an insight into why smallholders have remained so poor. Over the past fifty years, farmers have been at the mercy of the price the government has decided to pay them.
Fight for independence
Not far from the sea in Accra, a massive grey stone monument rises like the base of a tree hacked off in its prime. This is a tribute to Kwame Nkrumah, the country's first president. This neatly kept park provides a brief respite from the hawkers and traffic jams of the nearby high street. The thunder of the sea is faintly audible and the gardens are usually empty. I went to the memorial with a visitor from London in 2007. She knew little about Ghana until I moved there. This is not that surprising. Ghana is peaceful and quiet and rarely makes headlines in British newspapers. But a generation earlier, the Gold Coast was one of Britain's best-known colonies. More than fifty years ago, the events in this quiet park, once the old British polo grounds, made front-page news the world over. On 6 March 1957, Nkrumah declared it free of colonial control and named it Ghana. This was the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to gain independence. What happened in this part of West Africa made news editors sit up.
Ghana's independence heralded change, not just in Accra but across the continent. Inside the park on that day in March 1957 were the Duchess of Kent, representing the British Queen; Richard Nixon, then vice president of the USA; Martin Luther King; and Wilbur de Paris, the American jazz musician. A lot rested on Ghana's success, a leader in The Times of London noted.
Dr Nkrumah's life speaks for the fact that it is his mission to win independence, not only for Ghana, but for the rest of Africa as well ... The surest way of fulfilling it is by making Ghana a prosperous, reliable and democratic state. That will destroy at one blow both the hesitation of honest doubters and the arguments of those who seek to prolong domination for their own selfish motives.
Hopes were high. Thanks to the hard work of its peasant producers, the new country had money in the bank. 'The world's passion for chocolate in the last decade brought a windfall which ... has given the country solid assets with very little indebtedness', a leader in the Guardian said. The country owed a lot to its cocoa farmers, everyone seemed to agree. 'The man whose independence we are principally celebrating is the Ghana cocoa farmer', wrote Polly Hill, an academic, in the same newspaper.
In the years that followed, Nkrumah was to become one of the best-known leaders in the world. Many in Ghana still voice pride in him. He secured the nation independence and a leading voice in politics across the continent. But this pride coexists with another reality. Ghana's first leader set the country on a road which impoverished its people, including its cocoa farmers.
Born in the country's west, Nkrumah had studied in the USA and Britain, where he attended Communist Party meetings. He returned home in late 1947, determined to campaign for independence. His fiery rhetoric quickly attracted followers. Many of his admirers were 'verandah boys', youths who slept on the porches of rich men's houses because they had no homes of their own. His movement quickly gained momentum. Arrested and jailed for sedition after organising a general strike, he was released when the Convention People's Party (CPP), his political party, swept to victory in a 1951 election. Within twenty-four hours of his release from prison, Nkrumah was brought into government.
But cocoa farmers were suspicious of Nkrumah. From the start, they had got a raw deal from buyers. In the early start of the twentieth century, they sold their beans to large exporters such as Cadbury or the United Africa Company, the biggest shipper. Producers felt they were being cheated. They believed scales were fixed to register a much lighter weight. When, in 1937, the biggest purchasers decided to fix the farm-gate prices, planters refused to sell their beans or buy imported goods. After an eight-month boycott, the government, fearing unrest, decided to set up a marketing board. From 1947, the Ghana Cocoa Board, or Cocobod, the country's marketing board, fixed the farm-gate price and dealt with multinational buyers on behalf of smallholders. Organisations similar to this already existed in Australia and New Zealand. They were seen as a way to increase producer bargaining power on the world market. But the creation of the Board also meant that their political leaders had easy access to cocoa funds. Farmers, burnt by their dealings with buyers, were wary.
Nkrumah made clear that cocoa revenues were central to his plans. 'Cocoa was and still is the mainstay of our economy. It accounted for 68 per cent of our exports in 1955', he wrote later in his autobiography. 'It belongs to the country and it affects everyone so we had to think of the general public as well as the cocoa farmers.' He added: 'By using cocoa funds for development and for providing amenities, it would be possible to improve the general standard of living in the country as a whole at an early date.' As prime minister, Nkrumah asked the marketing board to fix farmer prices for four years from 1954, even though international prices were rising. Cocoa farmers' worst fears about the new president appeared to be confirmed.
Battles over cocoa money almost derailed the path to independence. At that time, roughly half of the country's beans were produced in the Ashanti region. Farmers feared that Ashanti interests were being overlooked by a nationalist movement whose leaders were from other parts of the country. The National Liberation Movement wanted a federal government, one that gave a greater share of cocoa wealth to the regions that produced it. In elections in 1956, the NLM used a cocoa tree as its party symbol. It highlighted the widespread allegations of corruption at the marketing board. 'What you need is an honest government,' one of its leaders said; 'one whose hand is not always in the public pocket.' Its manifesto outlined why farmers 'should vote for cocoa' and told farmers 'it is your money they want'. Nkrumah argued that those 'madmen who talk to you of cocoa and corruption' simply hide the fact 'that they do not want independence for our country'.
Nkrumah won the election and Ghana its independence. His plans to industrialise the country hinged on revenues from bean sales. The government-controlled marketing board set the price and it was easy for it to increase taxes. By 1965, farmers were paying £ 59 tax per tonne, 50 per cent more than they had paid in 1956. These extra taxes financed Nkrumah's erratic spending and pet projects. He ordered an $ 18 million frigate from a British shipyard as a private command ship, spent about $ 8 million on cocoa silos, ignoring advice that they were unsuitable, and frittered nearly $ 50 million on a meeting for African leaders in Accra. More than sixty embassies were opened abroad. As farmer incomes fell, party members and government officials were increasingly well rewarded. In 1961, the president sought to stem party corruption. The imposed restrictions hinted at party members' wealth, noted Dennis Austin. They were not allowed to own more than two houses with a combined value of £20,000 or possess more than two cars.
Nkrumah became increasingly reclusive and paranoid. He passed laws allowing him to jail people without trial and declared Ghana a one-party state. He became president for life. Statues of the Messiah, as he was called, were put up around the country. His face adorned stamps and coins. Schoolchildren started their day, praising their leader. Outside of Ghana, the international media, once excited about his regime, called him a spendthrift dictator. At the same time, Nkrumah forged relationships with left-wing leaders around the world. The early 1960 s were the height of the Cold War. President John F. Kennedy was president of the USA and Nikita Khruschchev was president of the Soviet Union. In 1959, Fidel Castro had assumed power in Cuba, aligning it with the Soviet Union. In this context, Nkrumah's friendship with Russia and China and his talk of an African socialism rattled the US and British governments.
The dollars earned from cocoa exports held the country together. In 1965, oversupply sent prices tumbling on the world market. Nkrumah blamed imperialists and neocolonialists for forcing prices lower. Factories in Accra closed for lack of raw materials. Queues of shoppers formed in the streets for butter, milk, rice, sugar, salt and drugs. In February 1966, when Nkrumah was on an official trip to China, he was overthrown in a coup, widely believed to have been backed by the USA and UK. On national radio, the coup-makers declared that the 'myth surrounding Kwame Nkrumah has been broken'. At independence, the country had reserves of $ 560 million. By 1966, they had long evaporated. Ghana had once been debt-free. By the time of Nkrumah's departure, its foreign debt totalled $1 billion, much of it in short-term loans. On news of the coup, Ghanaians danced in the street.
A lifeline under revolutionary rule
Hawkers dart between cars on Accra's dual carriageways. They offer drivers everything from inflatable toilet seats to matches, their job made marginally less dangerous by the slow movement of traffic. Some sell posters, snaps of the latest Nigerian movie star, a map of Africa or a picture of Michael Essien, the Chelsea midfielder. Frequently, the picture they unroll is of an unsmiling man with sharp cheekbones in military uniform and dark sunglasses. This is Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings, who led Ghana for nearly twenty years. When he first took power in a coup in 1979, farmers were earning a pittance. But by the end of his rule, their lives and earnings had begun to improve.
The first Ghanaians heard of Jerry Rawlings was on 15 May 1979. Life in the capital was close to breaking point. Shortages were rampant. Operations had been suspended at Korle-bu, Accra's main hospital, as supplies had run out. That day, office workers stayed at home after reports of gunshots at the military headquarters. They feared the army was about to take to the streets. By midday, news had filtered out that an uprising by a gangly 25-year-old airman had been quelled.
At a general court martial later that month, Rawlings complained of corruption. He called for bloodshed to 'clean the country'. His supporters feared that the charismatic airman would be executed, but Rawlings acted quickly. On the morning of 4 June, those who tuned into the six o clock broadcast on Radio Ghana heard Rawlings's distinctive voice for the first time. The government had been overthrown, he said. The Armed Forces Revolutionary Council had taken control of Ghana.
The new regime proved to be brutal. Three former presidents were executed and several military commanders were killed. Harsh treatment was meted out to those guilty of 'economic crimes'. These were broadly defined. A person who hoarded goods or charged high prices could be found guilty. So could someone who owned a second car, had a professional job or owned two houses. Soldiers were quick to pass judgement on anyone who appeared to have money. 'You could not even explain to some of the young soldiers that you borrowed money from a bank; for them borrowing money from a bank meant someone was doing you a favour', Kwame Pianim, head of the Cocoa marketing board at the time of the coup, told me. In August that year, officers dynamited Makola market, reducing it to rubble as punishment to the market women. The so-called 'Makola mummies' had refused to lower their prices, one of the most serious economic crimes. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Chocolate Nations by Órla Ryan. Copyright © 2011 Órla Ryan. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
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