The boom in the number of plantations in the West African country is based on the benefits that migrants, largely Burkinabe, derive from exploitation.
In 2018, the Liberian president, former footballer George Weah, and his then Burkinabé counterpart, Roch Marc Christian Kabore, made an agreement aimed at facilitating the movement of Burkinabés in Liberia for agriculture. This meeting notably resulted in accelerating the boom in cacao, started in 2016, in this country of five million inhabitants located in West Africa.
However, if the Liberia follows the trajectory historically observed for four centuries, this boom, which is the subject of our recent research, could well become unstoppable and lead to a systematic deforestation still little recognized today in the east of the country, near the border with Ivory Coast.
Several indices today show that this is indeed the case: indeed, the cocoa economy is based on mass migrations and almost all migrants are young men with little or no schooling. 88% of them come from Burkina Faso, for only 7% of Ivorian nationality, and 5% of Malians, Guineans and others.
Liberia has experienced two civil wars, in 1989-1996 and 1999-2003. These wars triggered the emigration of Liberians to Côte d'Ivoire. This episode helped to forge links between the refugees and certain communities, in particular the Burkinabés. During their stay in Côte d'Ivoire, they were also able to familiarize themselves with the French language, facilitating contact with workers in the agricultural world.
In 2002, as the Liberian crisis was being resolved, the Ivorian rebellion broke out, which led Burkinabés and Ivorians to flee to Liberia. The refugees then planted fields of rice and maize to survive, but they also discovered the richness of Liberia's forest soils, which are very little exploited.
The first requests for land will be sent to Liberian villagers because land is increasingly scarce in Côte d'Ivoire. These requests are easily accepted by the indigenous Liberians who have seen in Côte d'Ivoire the work force of the Burkinabés and their success. This Liberian boom therefore also benefits from the great experience of migrants, accumulated in particular in Côte d'Ivoire. In the sample of our last research work, 66% of migrants already have a small plantation in Côte d'Ivoire (3 ha in median value) and 25% are sons or brothers of planters.
Access without capital
In Liberia, most of these migrants obtain 10 hectares (ha) of forest, mainly through a “plant-share” contract: the native Liberian concedes 10 ha of forest to the migrant who undertakes to plant all of it in cocoa. When the plantation goes into production, it is shared, 6 ha for the lessee and 4 ha for the transferor.
In other words, apart from a modest gift and a possible commission to an intermediary, the migrant gains access to the forest without capital. Some of them will take the opportunity to acquire larger areas and sell them under a new planting-sharing contract. In any case, this easy access to the forest is one of the universal factors explaining the power of the cocoa booms over the past four centuries.
The source of information cited by growers is just as typical of cocoa booms: family networks that quickly transfer information are thus a driving force behind the development of the sector.
In a small novel, the Ivorian writer Venance Konan has magnificently illustrated the unstoppable dynamism of Burkinabe migrants in front of a forest, seen as a future cocoa plantation. With the local accent, they are assimilated by the natives to real "catapila" ("caterpillar", or caterpillar in French). To access this economic resource, they settle in Liberia, sometimes risking their lives. For example, they cross the Cavally in a canoe, the river that marks the border between Côte d'Ivoire and Liberia, even though they cannot swim.
On balance, the conflicts in West Africa have generated pre-cocoa migrations and mixing of populations. All the ingredients for a powerful cocoa boom have thus been brought together in Liberia. It could now accelerate by imitation effect through migration networks, without forgetting the impact of the lack of land and the aging of orchards in Côte d'Ivoire.
Any action to control the deforestation in Côte d'Ivoire will also act as an accelerator of migration and deforestation in Liberia. Especially since it now seems difficult to convince a sovereign country that it cannot opt for a scenario that has been widely applied by other cocoa-producing countries...
Abelle Galo Kla, president of the NGO Initiative for the Development of Cocoa (ID-Cocoa), contributed to the writing of this article.