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Ebola Orphans Flee Sierra Leone Farms as Cocoa and Rice Rot

Cocoa Pods
Total production of cocoa will be about 10,000 metric tons in the 12 months that end in September, according to the The International Cocoa Organization. Photographer: Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg

By Silas Gbandia

July 25 (Bloomberg) – The deadliest outbreak of Ebola on record is forcing farmers and their families to flee cocoa, rice and peanut plantations in northeastern Sierra Leone, where agriculture makes up more than half of the nation’s economy.

Output of the chocolate-making ingredient will drop this year and peanuts and rice, a staple, will be left unharvested, Edmond Saidu, district agriculture officer in Kailahun District, said in an interview last week. The area borders Guinea, where the disease was first reported in March, and Liberia, which has confirmed cases of the hemorrhagic fever that has no cure or treatment.

“Ebola has left with us with a high number of orphans who cannot take care of themselves and family plantations,” Brima Kendor, a plantation owner and spokesman for the local chief in Kissi Tongi, Kailahun district, said in an interview. “This is the time to rehabilitate the cocoa farms but we can’t do that now.”

Abandoned farms threaten to curb economic growth in a country struggling to rebuild after a 10-year civil war that ended in 2002 and left the nation’s infrastructure in ruins. Agriculture makes up about 57 percent of the $4.9 billion economy, according 2011 World Bank data, the most recent figures available. The virus will probably spread for four more months in West Africa, where more than 600 people have died since the fever was reported in March in Guinea, according to the World Health Organization.

Growth Threatened

Before the outbreak, the central bank had cut borrowing costs in half since 2012, inflation had slowed to below 10 percent and the economy was poised to expand 14 percent this year. Sierra Leone started exporting iron ore, the raw material for steel, in 2011.

Ritual burial practices, poor hygiene and lack of adequate medical care has made controlling the spread of the disease difficult in the border region of dense forest between Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, according to WHO. Sierra Leone has recorded 146 deaths from Ebola and 435 confirmed cases, the Ministry of Health said today in an e-mailed statement.

More than 600 people have died in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, according to the WHO. Nigeria said today a Liberian man died of the virus, the first case in Africa’s largest economy.

Farmers harvest cocoa and coffee in the districts of Kailahun, Kenema and Kono. Kailahun, where most of the Ebola cases have been confirmed, is the largest producer of cocoa in Sierra Leone and agriculture is the major economic activity.

Total production of cocoa will be about 10,000 metric tons in the 12 months that end in September, according to the The International Cocoa Organization. Ivory Coast, the largest producer in the world, has output of 1.6 million tons.

“This is the plowing season especially for swamp rice cultivation, and this is also the time for the first harvesting of cocoa in the rains,” Saidu, the agriculture officer in Kailahun, said. “But much is not happening.”

Some international companies have refused to visit the area to buy the seed, Henry Yamba Kamara, managing director of the state-owned producer and buyer Sierra Leone Produce Marketing Company, said by phone.

“The buyers have refused to go in,” Kamara said. “The outcome will be either the cocoa will rot or nobody will be there to buy, which will lead to a drop in exports.”

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