Cocoa pods are swelling on the trees as Ivory Coast nears the start of another lucrative crop, but farmer Drissa Zoungrana feels only despair.

He is among 7,000 people, mainly farmers and their families, who have been living in a camp for displaced people in the west of the country since they were chased from their land after a brief 2002/03 civil war that inflamed ethnic tensions.

Three years later, and despite a United Nations-backed peace process, the rich cocoa-growing west is still a land of violence and an ethnic tinderbox. The instability and uncertainty pose a threat to future cocoa development.

Zoungrana's story illustrates the tensions.

Born in neighboring Burkina Faso, he and millions of other immigrants were welcomed in the 1960s and 70s and helped turn the former French colony into the world's No. 1 grower of cocoa.

Since 1966 when I started my farm I had no problem, but when the war started (local people) told the farmers they should leave, said Zoungrana, 62, who has three wives and 16 children.

There was no argument between us before, he said as he sat, dressed in a blue robe, at the displaced center in Guiglo.

But since we left they have seen there is money in cocoa and they don't want us back. I would like to go back today but they (the locals) say no.


Cracks first appeared in Ivory Coast's melting pot society - one quarter of the population are immigrants from nearby states - when a 1980s economic downturn drove some unemployed Ivorian city dwellers back to their villages to make a living - sparking tensions with outsiders now working the land.

In 2002, rebels tried unsuccessfully to topple President Laurent Gbagbo. After a short war, they held onto the north of the country, where members of the mainly Muslim population had long complained of marginalization by the mostly Christian south, where political power has long been centered.

The war exacerbated ethnic tensions, which trigger periodic cycles of tit-for-tat killings between locals seeking to reclaim what they regard as ancestral lands and outsiders - be they from neighboring countries or other parts of Ivory Coast.

Zoungrana has been to visit his farm in Zeaglo village, with help from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) which runs the camp, but says for now all he can do is wait.

We would like to get back before the harvest, but there's no way, he said.

In the West African country's lush forest belt, cocoa trees tend to produce pods throughout the year, but the main crop is concentrated between October and March.

Harvests since the war have averaged around 1.3 million tonnes a year and the western area produces about 200,000 tonnes a year.

Zoungrana said local people were harvesting his cocoa, but did not have the skill nor the will to manage the farm.

He invoked the oft-cited stereotype of western Ivorians used to easily gathering food from the fertile, rain-drenched land, unlike northern tribes used to toiling over arid soil.

They just take the cocoa without looking after the field. Since we left they haven't even taken a machete to tidy it up.

Left untended, cocoa groves are rapidly overgrown with weeds which choke the trees and reduce their ability to bear fruit.


Some of those who have carried on farming in the west live with the daily fear of violence. In June last year, around 100 people were killed in a massacre in the town of Duekoue about 40 km (25 miles) north of Guiglo. Sporadic attacks over the last few months have claimed more lives.

French troops, who police a ceasefire between government and rebel sides alongside U.N. peacekeepers, say the risk of attacks rises at harvest times as buyers' cash flows into the bush.

Some analysts fear a spiral of attacks and reprisals could trigger a more widespread civil conflict in the west.

I'm scared to go back, said Mamadou Yameogo, another Burkinabe farmer who moved into the Guiglo camp in January 2003.

I don't know if they will accept us ... It hurts because I have worked and sweated in those fields, he said.

Yameogo hopes the struggling peace process will reunite the country and calm ethnic hatreds. The peace plan has seen timid progress this year, although diplomats say there is little hope of organizing elections by the end of October as planned.

This week, rebels said they would not accept Gbagbo remaining in power after the October 31 deadline for polls - just the latest flare-up in ever-simmering political tensions.

Meanwhile, farmers' children grow up in the camp's extended family, playing and chasing chickens among the stacks of wooden logs and fires. Some farmers grow corn and rice in small fields around the camp to supplement their World Food Program rations and earn money selling any surplus.

But Zoungrana's 25-year-old son Ibrahim, clad in a torn T-shirt and ripped trousers, said he was itching to leave.

My only wish is to get back to the farm. Life is hard because we can't work and we have nothing to do, he said. We are just sitting here.